JERUSALEM, Dec. 31 (JTA) — A new phenomenon is catching on in the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City: walking to the gates of the Temple Mount to recite from the Book of Psalms. Just before every Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the Hebrew month, thousands of men and women gather in the courtyard next to the Western Wall to go on a holy parade. Before embarking on their march, organizers confer with police to assure them that they understand the ground rules for this curious ritual: no incitement, a show of respect to Arabs and Christians and an orderly exit. Hoisting flags reading “Guardians of the Temple” and dancing to the tune of a song with the words “The Temple will be built,” the throng enters the narrow alleyways of the Old City’s Muslim and Christian quarters. As they pass the “cotton gate” in the Muslim Quarter, leaders point out the ancient stone wall that is the closest point outside the Temple Mount to where the Temple’s Holy of Holies once stood. The crowd is led in a chant of Psalm 24, the words reverberating off the ancient walls. “Lift up your heads, ye gates, and the King of Glory will come in,” they read. This ritual actually is a revival of an ancient tradition that dates back to the days of the Temple. It has begun attracting not only hundreds of yeshiva students and yarmulke-wearing youngsters, but secular Jews, too. For one recent march, three busloads of people from Haifa came to participate. Curious tourists also sometimes join in. “We were drafted,” says George Schwartz of Baltimore, who on a recent visit to Israel joined a march along with his wife and two sons. “I saw a lot of people gathering. Someone came over and told us to come along. It’s beautiful. It’s a remembrance and not an act of defiance.” Rabbi Yossi Peli was among those to restart the traditional processional after the government barred all non-Muslims from the Temple Mount when the Palestinian intifada began three years ago. At first, about 200 people came every month. But word has spread and, by this summer, about 7,000 people turned out for the march marking the first day of the month of Av, when the both the First and Second Temples were destroyed. Arab residents watch from their windows as the procession makes a U-turn and marches to other gates within the Old City that surrounded the Temple, singing a different psalm at each one. Sometimes, the crowd breaks into dance. “This is not a political act or demonstration,” Peli says. “Our only interest is to be as close as possible to the Temple Mount. We didn’t believe it would grow like this. Suddenly, we saw people who felt a connection to something special and they joined.” Peli says that the Western Wall, for all its symbolism, actually is not holy. “The outside of the wall” — the Western Wall, or Kotel — “simply separated the Temple courtyard from the street. People do not realize that when they are standing at the wall, they are praying on the ancient streets. Did we wait 2,000 years to pray on the streets next to the wall while giving up being even closer to the Temple Mount?” A few months ago, the Israeli government quietly lifted visiting restrictions at the Temple Mount, but Jews are not allowed to pray or even take a prayer book with them to the site. Peli cites the Mishnah in recounting the tradition of Jews visiting all the gates around the Temple Mount before entering the Temple to offer sacrifices. The processional would visit the gates in a counter-clockwise order, and those in mourning or misfortune would proceed in the opposite direction to allow the majority to comfort and encourage them when they met. The Second Temple was destroyed in the first century, and the pilgrimage to the gates resumed only in the eighth or ninth century, when Jews from Egypt and Babylonia would come to Israel for the festivals. The Crusaders and, later, the Muslims prohibited Jews from praying near the Temple Mount. Ottoman rulers occasionally allowed Jews to pray at the gates in modern times, but regular processionals started up again only after the 1967 Six-Day War. “We are not talking about the Jaffa and Dung Gates,” explains Shai Gross, a Haifa resident who works for Magen David Adom, Israel’s emergency relief agency. “Those were gates to the Old City. The gates we visit are the ones that surrounded the Temple Mount, some of them having been added by the Romans, Christians and Arabs.” “Most of the participants are observant,” Gross says, “but the group has ceased to become a group you can identify. They come on their own. We don’t organize them as others do for demonstrations.” Leaders of the monthly tours disassociate themselves from the Temple Mount Faithful, a group that tries to pray on the Temple Mount. Instead, some members of the Temple Mount Guardians spend their mornings warning Jewish visitors to the mount that they must be ritually pure and bathe in a mikvah, or ritual bath, before entering the site. Many rabbis forbid visits to the site, since Jews may inadvertently enter areas of the ruined Temple designated exclusively for the priestly class. After Israel regained control of the Temple Mount in 1967, the late Zev Vilnai, an Israeli researcher and historian, revived the custom of visiting the gates, Gross says. “He had groups of almost 50 people come on a regular basis until he died in 1988,” Gross says. “About five years ago, a small group started again. People’s interest mushroomed three years ago when we were not allowed to enter at all.” There have been relatively few hostile incidents between the marchers and local Arabs. Aside from one or two stoning incidents, the procession has proceeded peacefully despite the often tumultuous chanting of psalms and dancing under the windows of Christian monasteries and Arab homes. Israeli police stand every few yards to ensure order. As the thousands pass by the Notre Dame convent, several curious nuns stare silently. Police meet with the blue-uniformed Temple Guards before each tour, usually around 6 p.m., to assure calm. “I request that by 8:15 everyone leave as they came — quietly,” a police captain says. “We respect their rights,” Peli says. “If some fanatic starts cursing or knocks on the Arabs’ doors, we stop them immediately. We do not intend to bother anyone. We do this only for ourselves to pray and feel closer spiritually. There are secular kibbutzniks and women in pants who come because it is internal energy.” Rabbi Moshe Keminsky of Jerusalem says that, during one procession, eight surly Palestinians stood to block the group’s view of the Temple Mount. The group simply persisted in reciting psalms, and within minutes the Palestinians relented, with three of them sitting down on the ground. One of the more unusual Temple gates tours came about a week before Rosh Hashanah, when a new Torah scroll led the march. The man carrying it, Rafi Fisher, was a resident of Shiloh, a Jewish town in the West Bank. He dedicated the Torah in memory of his sister, who was killed in a terrorist attack two years ago. Fisher designated the Torah for use for the day that Jews again are permitted to pray on the Temple Mount. Until then, it is stored in a synagogue in a small Jewish community started a few years ago on the Mount of Olives.
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Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu is a contributing writer to JTA.
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