On Tisha Be'av our hearts turn to the Temple Mount, the site of the First and Second Temples, whose destruction we mourn every year. Therefore, it behooves us to ask: Does Jewish law permit us to go up to the Temple Mount today? This may seem like an esoteric question, but it has far-reaching political consequences.
Shortly after the Six Day War in June 1967, the Chief Rabbinate posted a large sign at the entrance to the Temple Mount stating that, according to Jewish Law, it is forbidden to enter the Temple Mount. This prohibition was reiterated by chief rabbis Shlomo Amar and Yona Metzger in January 2005. As a result, many Jews, especially the Orthodox, have not entered the Temple Mount area for the past 40 years.
But does Jewish law really forbid Jews to go up to the Temple Mount, our holiest site?
The most important source is found in the Mishna (Kelim 1:6-9): "There are 10 degrees of holiness. The Land of Israel is holier than any other land...The Temple Mount… The Rampart [an area of ten cubits surrounding the Temple itself]… The Court of Women… The Court of Israelites is still more holy…".
Halachic authorities have tried to determine if these 10 degrees of holiness still exist today. The reply, however, is dependent upon a disagreement in the Talmud (Shavuot 16a) and upon a difference of opinion between Maimonides and the Ra'avad of Posquieres (Bet Habehira 6:14-16). According to Maimonides, the original holiness that King Solomon bestowed upon the First Temple "was holy for its time and for the future." But, according to the Ra'avad, the First Temple "was holy for its time and not for the future...".
Many authorities have ruled, on the basis of the Talmud and Maimonides, that it is still forbidden for a Jew to enter the Temple Mount today "lest he wander into the forbidden area in the Rampart or in the Court [of the Israelites] which is punishable by karet [premature death] even today... and today we have all contracted ritual impurity by having been in contact with a corpse."
HOWEVER, IT appears that these halachic authorities have been overly stringent, and that there are many reasons to allow entry into parts of the Temple Mount:
1. There is much doubt in the Talmud over whether the Temple Mount "was holy for its time and for the future," or not. There is also a doubt if Halacha follows Maimonides or the Ra'avad. Furthermore, even if Halacha follows Maimonides, there are a number of reasons to allow entry into parts of the Temple Mount.
2. We know from many sources that Jews continued to enter and even pray on the Temple Mount from the 1st to the 15th centuries. Many important rabbis of the Mishna entered the Temple Mount area in the first and second centuries.
The Christian Pilgrim of Bordeaux, who was in Jerusalem in the year 333 CE, relates that the Jews used to come to the Temple Mount every year on the Ninth of Av in order to recite lamentations over the Temple ruins and rend their garments.
Ben-Zion Dinaburg proved that there was a Jewish "house of prayer and study" on the Temple Mount between the 7th and 11th centuries. Maimonides himself paid a visit to the Temple Mount on the 14th of October, 1165. Rabbi Menahem Hameiri of Provence (1249-1315) testifies: "And the simple custom is to enter [the Temple Mount], according to what we have heard."
3. As Maimonides and others have stressed, those who have contracted ritual impurity from a corpse are not forbidden to enter the entire Temple Mount area. They are forbidden only to enter the Rampart and the Court of Women, and the serious penalty of karet applies only to those who enter the Court of the Israelites and beyond.
IF WE CAN define the sanctified section of the Temple itself on what is today called "the Temple Mount," we will be able to determine where it is permissible to enter. Indeed, Rabbi David ibn Zimra (1479-1573) and at least 10 modern rabbis - including Rabbis Hayyim Hirschenson, Hayyim David Halevi, Shlomo Goren, Yosef Kafah, and Shlomo Riskin - have ruled that it is permissible to enter parts of the Temple Mount today.
The main sources for the boundaries of the Temple during the Second Temple period are the Mishna, tractate Midot and Josephus (Wars 5, 5, 1-6 and Antiquities 15, 11, 3-7).
There are many contradictions between these three sources, but almost unanimous agreement among rabbis and archeologists regarding two basic points:
A. The Temple Mount today is much larger than the Temple Mount described by Josephus or the Mishna. It is clear that the entire southern area south of the Mughrabi Gate, and all of the northern area north of the raised platform around the Dome of the Rock, were added by King Herod and are therefore not included in the sanctified area of the Temple Mount mentioned in the Mishna.
B. The huge rock underneath the Dome of the Rock is the "Foundation Stone" which was located under the Holy of Holies; or it is the foundation of the Altar in the Temple.
WITHOUT entering into detailed measurements, it is permissible to enter the area south of the Mughrabi Gate and near the Aksa Mosque and the area north of the raised platform surrounding the Dome of the Rock.
On the other hand, one should not enter that raised platform at all. On the west, one should stay close to the Western Wall, and on the east, one should stay close to the eastern wall.
Finally, there is an urgent practical reason for Jews to enter the Temple Mount area today. In 1967, the Israeli government gave the Muslim Wakf control of the Temple Mount. Since then the Wakf has made a concerted effort to obliterate the remnants of Jewish antiquities on the Temple Mount.
Furthermore, when the Wakf expanded the Aksa Mosque in 1999, they illegally removed 250 truckloads of dirt containing thousands of years of Jewish and non-Jewish antiquities. Bar-Ilan University's Dr. Gabi Barkai, a member of the Committee Against the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount, and numerous volunteers are now sifting through this dirt and recovering thousands of ancient artifacts. The Wakf was able to get away with this plunder because Jews do not visit the Temple Mount, and they don't visit the Temple Mount because of the strict rabbinic rulings cited above.
Indeed, just last week it was reported that the Wakf has begun new "repairs" on the Temple Mount which will no doubt destroy more archeological treasures.
Thus it is permissible to enter parts of the Temple Mount; and I believe we should make a concerted effort to do so in order to emphasize that the Temple Mount is our holiest site and cannot be plundered.
The writer is the president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.