Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Temple Mount activism throughout the centuries

Two thousand years ago, around 70 CE, our Temple was destroyed and the Services discontinued.

The Rabbinic authorities of the time quickly moved to help the people transition to a Temple-less reality.  It can be assumed that within a generation of two, the trauma would be forgotten and the people would accept the new reality.

However, that is far from true.   In Israel, Jews have kept the memory of the Temple alive and for generations to come yearned and fought to renew the Temple services: by rebuilding the Temple, preserving the Priestly status, and maintaining the otherwise archaic laws of purity.

The Temple

During the Byzantine Era, Jews were not allowed to live in Jerusalem.  The Pilgrim of Bordeaux wrote in 333 that Jews were allowed onto the Temple Mount once a year, apparently on Tisha B'Av.  "Not far from the statues [of Hadrian] there is perforated stone and the Jews come to it every year and anoint it with oil, and lament with groans and tear their clothing, and then leave".

But the Jews never stopped yearning to rebuild the Temple, and whenever the opportunity arose, took steps towards that end.

John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople in the late 4th century, listed these attempts in several of his homilies against Jews.
The Jews tried many times to rebuild their temple. Not once, not twice, but three times they tried. They tried ill the time of Hadrian, in the time of Constantine, and in the time of Julian. But each time they tried they were stopped. The first two times they were stopped by military force; later it was by the fire which leaped forth from the foundations and restrained them from their untimely obstinacy.

The attempt during Hadrian's time is the Bar Kochba Revolt.

 As for Constantine, Chrysostom might be referring to the revolt against Constantius Gallus in 351, when the Jews managed to reconquer Jerusalem for a short time.  Or he might be referring to an earlier small-scale attempt, as he mentions the rebels were punished by cutting off their ears and being marched around.

In 363 Emperor Julian (Julian the Apostate) ordered the Temple rebuilt.  Jews gladly joined in the efforts, but work stopped following fires caused by an earthquake.

The Christians saw it as an act of G-d, a sign for the Jews that the Temple will never be rebuilt.  As Chrysostom puts it: "Even today, if you go into Jerusalem, you will see the bare foundation [built during Julian's time], if you ask why this is so, you will hear no explanation other than the one I gave (...) So the Jews have no excuse left to them for their impudence."

But the Jews did not stop trying.

In the 5th century, Empress Eudocia, wife of Emperor Theodosius II, influenced her husband to allow the Jews to come back to Jerusalem.  A Christian monk writes that the Jews sent a letter to their brethren: "The time of our Exile is over, and the day of the in-gathering of our tribes has arrived, for the Roman Emperors have commanded that our city of Jerusalem be returned to us.  Hurry and come to Jerusalem on Sukkot, because our Kingdom will be established in Jerusalem."

In 613, the Jews helped the Persians conquer Israel, and were rewarded with a promise that the Temple will be rebuilt and Jews will regain some measure of autonomy.  Apparently the Jews prepared to resume Temple worship.  They purified the city, and according to one Jewish source, restarted offering sacrifices.  But the Byzantines reconquered Israel shortly thereafter, putting an end to that attempt.

A few decades later, the Muslims conquered Israel - the Jews immediately petitioned the new rulers to be allowed to live in Jerusalem, by the Temple Mount.  We know from Jewish and non-Jewish sources that after the Muslim conquest Jews prayed on the Temple Mount.  They were later only allowed to pray at the gates, and later limited to just one gate.


During Temple times, the Priests (Kohanim) were split up into 24 'Divisions' (Mishmarot) or families.  Each division was 'on duty' at the Temple for two weeks during the year.  Following the destruction of the Temple, the Priestly families moved to the Galilee, each family establishing itself in a different town.

Eleazar Ha-Kalir mentions the Priestly Divisions in his lamentation "Eicha Yashva Havatzelet Hasharon", now read on Tisha Be'Av day.

But these Divisions were not just a matter for a once-a-year memorial ceremony.  The Israeli custom was to pray on the Sabbath for the Priestly Division of that week.  Several fragments found in a synagogue in Caesarea dating to the 3rd century list a portion of the Priestly Divisions.  We also have several hymns (Piyyuts), found in the Genizah, listing the Divisions.  These hymns were said as part of the prayer service, every week mentioning the Division that was 'on duty' for that week.  It is possible these hymns were specifically added to the prayers by the people living in the Priestly towns.

One was written by Haduta, a Jewish poet who lived in Israel in the Byzantine era, and was meant to be said throughout the Amidah prayer.  Another anonymous snippet from the Mussaf Prayer was also found, which might have been written by Haduta as well.  Another piyyut was written by Rabbi Pinchas son of Rabbi Yaakov, a Kohen from Kafra, a village next to Tiberias.  Rabbi Pinchas might be the head of the Israeli Yeshivah, and apparently lived quite a few generations after Haduta.  He wrote a short piyyut for each Division, intended to be said during the Priestly Blessing.

One of the Genizah documents is a declaration from 1034, which says as follows:

Today is the Sabbath, a holy day for G-d
What Division is it?  So and so division
May the Merciful One return the divisions to their place quickly in our days, Amen
How many years since the world was created and until now?
Four thousand and seven hundred and ninety four since the world was created and until now
How many years since the Temple was destroyed and until now?
Nine hundred and sixty seven since the Temple was destroyed and until now
May the Merciful One build his house and Temple, and say Amen


Hundreds of years after the destruction of the Temple, the Israeli tradition still stressed the laws of purity, spanning the whole gamut of everyday life.  So much so, that the focus of Israeli Jewish life on ritual immersion in the Mikveh was ridiculed by Christian writers.

Additionally, many Temple traditions were transferred into the Synagogue.  This might actually have had to do with the growing influence of the Priests in those days.  There were opinions barring the entrance of the impure to the synagogue.  Traditions such as taking off one's shoes when entering the synagogue, or washing one's hands and feet existed already in the Byzantine era, long before Islam.

When the Karaites came to Israel, they adopted many of the Israeli traditions, as an antithesis of the Babylonian tradition they disdained.  And so the Israeli tradition itself came under attack from the rabbinic establishment abroad.  Together with the Maimonidean attitude that wished to have a unified Judaism, the Israeli tradition was stomped out.

A prayer for the rebuilding of the Temple
inscribed on the Northern Wall of the Temple Mount

Throughout the generations, various groups believed that Redemption will come, if only we take practical steps to achieve it.  From the Karaite 'Mourners of Zion' (9-11th centuries) who believed that making Aliyah and mourning for Jerusalem would bring Redemption, to the Sephardi Jews in Safed (16th century), who tried to reestablish the Sanhedrin, to the Perushim (early 19th century) who believed in living and working the land.

Today's Temple Mount activists continue the tradition.

See here for an archive of articles about our history in Israel.  

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yaak said...

I very much enjoy Ora's postings. Thank you very much.

Ora said...

@yaak - thank you! I appreciate your comment.

cy said...

Amazing article which rebuts much of what is said about Jews not yearning for the building of the 3rd Beis HaMikdash. Thank you for posting this informative piece.

Ora said...

@cy, obviously a lot has changed in 2000 years, but I think it's important to stress that (a) it took hundreds of years for Jews to accept this reality, and (b) even when most Jews thought they'll have to wait for Mashiach, there were still groups who believed it took more than just waiting and prayer.

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