Tag Archives: Mishneh Torah

Ascending the Temple Mount

In this week’s parasha, Re’eh, we are told that a time would come when God would choose to rest His Divine Presence in one particular city in the Holy Land (Deuteronomy 12:5). This city is, of course, Jerusalem. The Torah says that it is only there that sacrifices could be brought, and this is the place to which Jews should pilgrimage thrice a year on the holidays. The pilgrimage mitzvah is referred to as re’iyah (רְאִיָּיה), “appearing” or “being seen” before God in Jerusalem. This name has a deep connection, and shares a linguistic root, with the name of this week’s parasha.

The re’iyah is the subject of the first Mishnah in the tractate Chagigah. It begins by stating that all Jews are obligated to appear in Jerusalem on the festivals, with twelve exceptions. One of these exceptions is a minor. The Mishnah then asks who is considered a “minor”? Beit Shammai held that a minor is any child who is unable to make the trip riding on his father’s shoulders as he ascends up to the Temple Mount. Beit Hillel held a more lenient opinion that a minor is any child who cannot make the trip up to the Temple Mount while holding his father’s hand. Beit Hillel reason that since the pilgrimage holidays are called regalim, literally “legs”, a person must be able to use their own legs to ascend to the Temple Mount.

Today, we have yet to rebuild the Temple, but we do have the Temple Mount, and many Jews wish to ascend it. This has generated much controversy in recent decades, with many rabbis in opposition, and others strongly in favour of Jews making their presence felt on the Temple Mount. It is worth carefully exploring the issues at hand and come to a clear conclusion regarding whether or not ascending the Temple Mount is permissible and advisable.

Where Was the Temple?

In ancient times, entering the Temple itself required one to be on the highest level of spiritual purity. Among other things, anyone who had come in contact with a corpse had to first be purified using the special mixture that contains the ashes of the red heifer. However, a person did not have to be pure to enter the Temple Mount, only the Temple proper. The Rambam rules clearly in his Mishneh Torah that “a corpse may be brought into the Temple Mount, and one who has contracted ritual impurity from a corpse may definitely enter there.” (Sefer Avodah, Hilkhot Beit haBechirah 7:15)

For the past two millennia, we have not had the red heifer mixture, so everyone is considered to carry the impurity of death by default. This means that while we cannot enter the Temple, we are still allowed to enter the Temple Mount. Now, since we do not have a Temple, there shouldn’t be any issue here at all. Nonetheless, many rabbis affirm that even though there is no Temple, a person who is impure cannot walk where the Temple once stood, since the Divine Presence has not left the area. A few big questions emerge here: Where exactly was the Temple located? And is the Divine Presence still in that area?

The Dome of the Rock overlooking the Western Wall plaza

The majority of opinions hold that the Temple stood directly where the Dome of the Rock stands today, though a minority holds otherwise. We know that the Temple was built over the Even haShetiya, the “Foundation Stone”, and our Sages state that in the Second Temple, the kohen gadol would rest the incense in the Holy of Holies atop this large rock, which protruded out of the ground (Yoma 53b). There is only one such large stone on the Temple Mount, and it currently lies beneath the Dome of the Rock.

The Muslims built the Dome of the Rock in the 7th century specifically over the site of what they believed to be Solomon’s Temple. In fact, an ancient Midrash prophesied that this would happen. Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (dating back to the 1st century Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, teacher of Rabbi Akiva) predicted that the Ishmaelites would one day conquer the Holy Land, and would do 15 major things there. One of these things is building a shrine atop the site of the Temple (see ch. 30). This is further supported by Nistarot d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (an ancient text we explored in depth here), which clearly states that Ishmael “will build for himself there a place for prayer upon the site of the Foundation Stone, as Scripture says: ‘And set your nest on the rock…’” (Numbers 24:21) All of this makes it pretty much certain that the Beit HaMikdash really did sit where the Dome of the Rock is today, and not elsewhere on the Temple Mount.

Based on this, the argument of some poskim that we should not ascend the entire Temple Mount since we do not know where exactly the Temple stood doesn’t hold much water. Even if it did, we have to answer the other big question: does the Divine Presence remain where the Temple once stood? Such a position would strongly contradict a fundamental Midrash, and much more.

It is taught that when the Temple was destroyed, the Shekhinah moved on and took rest in the Kotel, the Western Wall. The Midrash prophesies that, therefore, the Western Wall would never be destroyed (see Eichah Rabbah 1:31, as well as Shemot Rabbah 2:2). This is another incredible prophecy that has come true: Jerusalem has been conquered and reconquered more than any other city in the world over the past two thousand years, and despite all the wars and changing regimes, the Western Wall remains. In fact, this is why Jews are so attached to the Western Wall, since this is where the Shekhinah currently lies, awaiting the return of the Temple.

As such, the Shekhinah probably does not remain where the Temple once stood. This is further supported by the fact that few would dare argue that the Shekhinah lies within the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine. While there is no doubt that the ground retains its sanctity, it is safe to say there is no greater spiritual presence within the Dome of the Rock area—certainly no more than around the Western Wall, for which we have a clear source saying the Shekhinah rests there! Therefore, one can strongly argue that not only should Jews be allowed to enter the Temple Mount, we should even be allowed to enter the Dome of the Rock. It is worth mentioning here the position of the Raavad (Rabbi Avraham ben David, c. 1125-1198) who held that there is no longer any karet prohibition to go anywhere on the Temple Mount. Which brings us to the last big question:

Why have many gedolim today ruled against ascending the Temple Mount when the sources are quite clear that it should be permissible?

The Solution to Fear and Politics

In 1967, the Israeli army liberated Jerusalem during the Six-Day War. The commander of the Golani Brigade, Motta Gur, is the person who led the way. Gur believed that it was his life’s purpose and mission to liberate Jerusalem. In fact, he predicted he would do so all the way back in 1961, in a conversation with Rabbi Shlomo Goren. Gur thought that the reason God put him on this planet was to return the Temple Mount to the Jewish people. His vision was realized in 1967, and it was Gur who loudly declared “Har HaBayit beYadeinu!” The recording of his voice was broadcast to jubilant Jews around the world. And that’s not all.

Rabbi Shlomo Goren blows the shofar by the Western Wall during the 1967 liberation of Jerusalem.

When the Temple Mount was secured, Gur immediately ordered one of his soldiers to put an Israeli flag atop the Dome of the Rock. He wanted to make clear that Jews have regained complete sovereignty over their holiest site. Unfortunately, as soon as General Moshe Dayan saw the Israeli flag atop the Dome with his binoculars, he ordered it removed immediately. “Do you want to set the Middle East on fire?!” Dayan shouted into his radio. Dayan, like most of the Israeli government at the time, feared taking control of the Temple Mount. The fear was both of the Muslim reaction, as well as of the religious Jewish reaction. Rabbi Shlomo Goren, IDF chief rabbi, was also on-hand during the capture, and immediately began working on establishing a synagogue on the Temple Mount. (In fact, we know from historical sources that there used to be synagogues on the Temple Mount at various times during the Arab and Ottoman periods.) In response to this, Dayan instituted a ban on Jews establishing synagogues, or even just praying, on the Temple Mount.

Nonetheless, with the Temple Mount in our hands, countless Jews would undoubtedly want to ascend. Not only that, but religious Jews may want to start fulfilling other major laws. For instance, the korban pesach can be fulfilled on the Temple Mount, and does not require a Temple (and is permitted to be done even with tumat met, under certain conditions). On that note, it is vital to point out that the korban pesach is one of two positive mitzvot that results in karet if not fulfilled (the other is circumcision, see Keritot 1:3). So, while many rabbis are quick to point out that ascending the Temple Mount may result in a karet due to impurity, few mention that we are already in a de-facto state of karet since we cannot bring a korban pesach!

In short, the Israeli authorities feared what would happen if Jews were in charge of the Temple Mount: Packed synagogues? Numerous public mikvehs like in ancient times? Sheep sacrifices? Rebuilding the Temple? The ultra-secular government would never allow such a thing. They also didn’t want to stand up to the Muslim threats nor deal with any possible Muslim violence, though there really was no way of knowing how the Muslim world would actually respond. So, the government quickly gave up sovereignty back to the Muslim Waqf.

The ‘Mikveh Trail’ of the Jerusalem Archaeological Park. Over 50 different mikvehs have been uncovered around the Temple Mount, including this one most recently. (Photo Credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Unfortunately, many of the rabbinic authorities at the time agreed with the secular Israeli authorities, and wished to maintain the status quo. I imagine some of them thought it best to just leave it to Mashiach to deal with, whenever he would arrive. Soon, the Chief Rabbinate put up a sign warning Jews not to ascend the Temple Mount. It seems the ban had more to do with fear and politics than it did with genuine halakhah. The result was that the Muslims then (and now) took it as a sign that the Jews do not truly want this holy place, and it only bolstered the Muslim claim to the site. In reality, the Muslims have no legitimate claim to the site whatsoever, and even Muslim scholars agree that Mohammad’s “al-Quds” was nowhere near Jerusalem, and the Dome of the Rock holds no actual sanctity for Muslims. (Here’s one, for example.)

A map of the Temple Mount, and the rough position of the original Temple Mount area (“Har HaBayis”). The Temple would have stood inside of the “Raised Platform”, which pre-dates the Dome of the Rock. Credit: Gedalia Meyer and Henoch Messner. Read their excellent in-depth analysis of the Temple Mount issue here.

As such, Jews have to come together and make it clear that this is our holy site, and no one else’s. We have to take back complete sovereignty; we have to show that this site matters to us, and that we will make use of it to its full extent. Jews have to ascend the Temple Mount as much as possible, and do as many mitzvot there as we can. If you are concerned about Temple sanctity and issues of purity, then ascend and stay on the periphery—but do ascend! (The Mishnah, Middot 2:1, tells us that the original Temple Mount was 500 by 500 amot, which is less than half the size of the current Temple Mount area, so there is little chance of accidentally stepping on holy ground if you stay on the periphery, for those who are concerned.)

If we continue to avoid the Temple Mount, we will never live to see the restoration of the Temple—which we all pray for daily. The words of our prayers are empty without action. Recall that God did not split the Sea until Nachshon dove into it. The people prayed and prayed to no avail. “Then God said to Moses: ‘Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward!’” (Exodus 14:15) It is time to boldly go forward.

Our Sages had a principle, based on Psalms 119:26, et la’asot la’Hashem, heferu Toratecha! “It is a time to act for God, for they have violated your Torah!” The simple meaning of this verse is that since the Torah has been violated, it is a time to act. Our Sages interpreted this verse another way: at certain critical times, a revolutionary action is needed—one that might even violate the Torah! Rashi gives examples in his commentary on this verse. For instance, we see how Eliyahu brought a sacrifice on Mt. Carmel—which is forbidden based on the law given in this week’s parasha that sacrifices could only be brought at the Temple in Jerusalem. He did so because it was a critical time to act, and so a small violation was necessary for the greater good of Israel.

Now is another such time to act. Everyone agrees, including all gedolim, that we are in the Ikvot haMashiach. Everyone also agrees that the world is spiritually at a tremendous low point, and Israel isn’t doing so well either. We are at a moment that is very much like that of Eliyahu’s time, and like that of the Exodus. It is an unmistakable et la’asot la’Hashem, a time to act for God.

‘Going Up To The Third Temple’ by Ofer Yom Tov

Is Playing Sports a Mitzvah?

In this week’s parasha, Va’etchanan, we read the famous words: v’nishmartem me’od l’nafshotechem, “Guard your souls very much…” (Deuteronomy 4:15). The plain meaning of the passage within which these words are found is to be careful not to descend into idolatry, nor to make any sculptures or images of any figures that might be idolatrous. However, since ancient times the phrase to “guard your souls very much” has also been used to mean that it is our obligation to stay healthy and in good physical shape. If the body is not healthy and dies, then the soul will depart it. Having a healthy soul therefore requires maintaining a healthy body, and a pure soul requires a pure bodily vessel.

Interestingly, it was the great Hillel who first pointed out the connection between the prohibition of idolatry and the mitzvah of taking care of one’s body. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 34:3) recounts how Hillel once took leave of his students and they asked him where he was going, to which he replied: “To do a mitzvah!” They asked which mitzvah, and he replied that he was going to the bathhouse. The puzzled students questioned him: is taking a bath a mitzvah? Hillel replied affirmatively, and explained: if all the statues and icons erected in public places needed to be constantly washed, and they are nothing but man-made objects depicting flesh-and-blood kings and nonsensical idols, how much more so must we keep our bodies clean since we were made in the image of God? And this is the deeper meaning behind King Solomon’s words gomel nafsho ish chassed (Proverbs 11:17), that a kindly or pious man makes sure to take care of his soul.

Our Sages had much to say about maintaining good health. For instance, in Gittin 70a, we are taught that there are 8 things that are healthy in small quantities, but harmful in excess. These eight are: travel, sexual intercourse, wealth, labour, wine, sleep, baths, and bloodletting. When it comes to the latter, in those days bloodletting was a popular therapy and it was thought that draining out some “old” blood will stimulate the production of new, healthier blood. There may be something to this, with recent research showing that bloodletting may indeed have been beneficial, and was possibly even effective against bacterial infections. Today, bloodletting is no longer done, but there may be a way to reap the same benefits (and do a double-mitzvah) by going to donate blood. Continue reading

The Little-Known Purpose of Deuteronomy

‘Moses Speaks to Israel’ by Philippoteaux (19th century)

This week we begin reading the fifth and final book of the Torah, Devarim, literally “Words”. This book is distinct from the others, for it is written from the perspective of Moses. It records Moses’ final words to the nation over his last 37 days of leadership. Devarim serves, in many ways, as a summary of the Torah, and is therefore traditionally referred to as Mishneh Torah, a “repetition” of the Torah. In fact, when our ancient Sages first translated the Torah into Greek (at the behest of King Ptolemy), they called the book Deuteronomion, “repeated law”, ie. the Greek translation for Mishneh Torah. Having said that, Deuteronomy introduces a number of new mitzvot previously unmentioned in the Torah, and contains some of the Torah’s most significant passages, including the Shema and Ha’azinu.

The reader will quickly notice that Deuteronomy has a totally different tone from the rest of the Torah. Its language is far more similar, not to the books of Torah that precede it, but to the books of Tanakh that follow it: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. (Secular scholars actually combine these books and label them the “Deuteronomistic history”.) Thus, the fifth book of the Torah plays a critical function: it concludes the Five Books of Moses while simultaneously introducing and segueing into the rest of the Tanakh. One who reads the conclusion of Deuteronomy and immediately starts Joshua will hardly notice that they’ve changed books. For instance, the former ends with Moses telling Joshua to be chazak v’ematz, “strong and brave” (Deuteronomy 31:7, 23), while the latter picks up with the same exact phrase multiple times (Joshua 1:6, 7, 9, 18).

This signifies the fluid, continuous chain of transmission, starting with Moses, passing on directly to Joshua, then the Elders, down through the rest of the Prophets, to the Men of the Great Assembly, and to the Sages that followed (Avot 1:1), up to the rabbis of the present day. Herein lies the true purpose of Deuteronomy: it holds together all of Judaism, including both the “Written” and “Oral” Torah. We may think of Deuteronomy as “Written”, but a careful reading shows that it is quite clearly more “Oral” in nature. One of the most puzzling things about it is that with all of the key narratives that it repeats, it appears to change the details!

For example, in the Ten Commandments recorded in Exodus, Shabbat is to commemorate the world’s Creation in six days, and God’s resting on the seventh (Exodus 20:11). In the Ten Commandments of Deuteronomy, however, Shabbat is to commemorate that God took us out of Egypt and we are no longer slaves who must work around the clock (Deuteronomy 5:15). Which is it? Another example is the Sin of the Spies: in Numbers 13 we read that God commanded to send spies to scout the Holy Land; in Deuteronomy 1:22, it is the people themselves that request it of Moses. What was it? Even more problematic, in Deuteronomy 10:6, Aaron dies in a different place and at a different time than that presented in Numbers 33:38! How do we make sense of these discrepancies?

The classic answer is that Deuteronomy is Moses’ own recollection of past events. After all, the book begins by saying Eleh hadevarim asher diber Moshe—these were specifically the words of Moses himself. The Zohar (III, 261a) says that unlike the rest of the Torah which was dictated to Moses by God, “Mishneh Torah was spoken from Moses’ own mouth” (משנה תורה משה מפי עצמו אמרן). As such, included within it were Moses’ own interpretations of the Torah and the law. And this, therefore, serves as the foundation for the entire Oral Tradition. Moreover, this is why we always refer to Moses as Moshe Rabbeinu, “Moses our rabbi”. He is the first rabbi, the first to analyze and interpret the Torah, extracting its deeper meanings and uncovering the hidden wisdom of God buried in the plain text—in the words of the Zohar, the chokhmah ila’ah (חכמה עלאה) buried inside.

The Zohar concludes that Deuteronomy is the Oral Torah! It is from Deuteronomy that we learn about the need to interpret the Torah and extract the wisdom within it. The Zohar adds that this is why the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy have a seemingly superfluous vav before them (וְלֹ֣֖א תִּֿנְאָ֑͏ף׃ וְלֹ֣֖א תִּֿגְנֹֽ֔ב׃ וְלֹֽא־תַעֲנֶ֥ה) whereas the Ten Commandments in Exodus do not (לֹ֣֖א תִּֿנְאָ֑͏ף׃ לֹ֣֖א תִּֿגְנֹֽ֔ב׃ לֹֽא־תַעֲנֶ֥ה). The extra vav, which means “and”, serves to teach that this is the command and, hidden inside, all the other additional laws one can extract from it! The Zohar gives an example: In Exodus we are told only not to covet a fellow’s wife (לֹֽא־תַחְמֹ֞ד אֵ֣שֶׁת רֵעֶ֗ךָ), but in Deuteronomy we are told not to covet and not to crave (וְלֹ֥א תַחְמֹ֖ד אֵ֣שֶׁת רֵעֶ֑ךָ וְלֹ֨א תִתְאַוֶּ֜ה). Rabbi Yose explains that based on Exodus alone one might think the law is only not to actually abduct a woman, or conspire to do so, but from Deuteronomy we further learn that one is forbidden from even craving another, whether in thought or desire, even without acting on it. The Zohar gives other examples, showing how the purpose of Deuteronomy is actually to extract the true meaning of the previous four books of the Torah.

In that case, Moses the rabbi was the first to reinterpret the Torah and extract new layers of meaning from it. It is in Deuteronomy that he lays out the rabbinic system, and in Deuteronomy that the 613 mitzvot of the Torah are completed. Beautifully, the numerical value of Moshe Rabbeinu (משה רבינו) is 613. It has further been pointed out that the system Moses laid out in Deuteronomy, relayed specifically over his last 37 days, correspond to the 37 tractates of Talmud, solidifying the link. So, we see that Deuteronomy accomplishes two things: first, weaving smoothly into the rest of the Tanakh, and second, bridging to the Oral Torah. It is no coincidence that the first official written work of Oral Torah is called the Mishnah, a direct link to Moses’ Mishneh Torah.

With this in mind, there is truly little room to distinguish between “Written” and “Oral” Torah at all. The two are inseparable and intertwined, like the branches of the Tree of Life (to paraphrase the poetic words of the Zohar). The Oral Torah begins in Deuteronomy, and flows through the rest of the Tanakh, before being fleshed out in fuller form in the Mishnah, then the Talmud. There is a continuous historical, chronological, legal, linguistic chain of development. (If considering the ‘Nakh as “Oral Torah” seems strange and counterintuitive, keep in mind how the Samaritans—who deny an Oral Torah—only hold Moshe’s Torah as holy, and have no ‘Nakh at all! They reject the Prophets basically the same way they reject the Talmud!)

It is worth adding one more point here: the first person to actually codify the entire Torah, both “Written” and “Oral”, was the Rambam, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1138-1204), “Maimonides”. As the famous saying goes, “from Moshe to Moshe there arose no one like Moshe”, ie. since Moshe Rabbeinu there was none as great as Moshe ben Maimon. In some ways, he completed the Torah process that began at Sinai—at least its legal portion. He summarized and codified all of Jewish law, clearly and succinctly, in a 14-volume masterpiece that he called, not coincidentally, the Mishneh Torah. It remains the only complete code of Jewish law, that covers all aspects of Torah and Judaism. In his introduction, the Rambam boldly states that no other code is required and, quite incredibly, that a person who wants to understand all of Judaism need only read the Torah, and his Mishneh Torah!  

For this (among other things), the Rambam was heavily criticized. He sought to set in stone Jewish law, but Jewish law is not meant to be set in stone. Even the Ten Commandments that were literally set in stone in Exodus were already interpreted differently by Moshe Rabbeinu in Deuteronomy! Jewish law must remain alive and breathing, changing, growing, adapting with the times.

One might ask: if that’s the case, why did Moses say not to add or remove anything from his Torah? (Deuteronomy 4:2) At the same time, he said to listen to the future rulings of the Torah leaders that arise in each generation, and not to veer “right or left” from their decrees (Deuteronomy 17:11). Throughout history, many solutions have been presented to this problem. One way to understand it is to remember that, in Deuteronomy, Moses is speaking to the soul of each individual Jew. The other four books of the Torah were God’s Word to the nation as a whole. Deuteronomy is Moses’ word to his people, to each person. Thus, in the same way that he says each person should listen to the consensus of the Torah authorities (17:11), so too should each person not add or remove anything from the Torah of their own accord (4:2). Only a recognized majority body of scholars could ever make critical emendations when necessary. This was indeed the case throughout the era of Prophets and the Talmud, when a Sanhedrin existed (it formally ended in the 5th century, see ‘An Eye-Opening History of the Sanhedrin’).

That brings us back to the Rambam. In his Mishneh Torah introduction, he lamented the fact that, due to our exile, individual rabbis have had to make local rulings that were subsequently adopted by others and, over the centuries, Judaism started to fracture because of it, and there was growing confusion regarding the law. The Rambam therefore sought to clarify and codify the actual, universal Jewish law, based strictly on the Torah and Talmud, the only documents that carried the authority of a Sanhedrin or other recognized majority body of scholars. He explains this all in the latter half of his introduction.

While the Mishneh Torah did not end up being the last word on Jewish law, it did launch a trend where the law needed more widespread consensus and recognition. It led to more in-depth codes of law, with more explanation, and more debate regarding the finer points of law. It led to a “virtual” Sanhedrin of sorts, where legal texts attain primacy over time through majority recognition of rabbis separated by thousands of miles. And so, Jewish law continues to evolve, adapt, and grow, as always intended by the first Moses—and the first rabbi—Moshe Rabbeinu.


Click here to read ‘The Untold Story of Napoleon and the Jews’, an excerpt from Garments of Light on Tisha b’Av.