No Jew had been permitted to enter the holy city which has become a Christian bastion since the Crusaders conquered it in 1096

            October/November 2012    
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Photo Credit: © Meir Loewenberg


Did Maimonides really pray on the Temple Mount?

By Meir Loewenberg

During the fall days of 1165, which is the year 4926 according to the Jewish calendar, a small group of travelers approached Jerusalem. Their dress reveals that they are Jews. But what are these Jews doing on the road to Jerusalem when everyone knows that no Jew has been permitted to enter the holy city which has become a Christian bastion since the Crusaders conquered it in 1096?

One of the travelers is Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), the most prominent Torah scholar and Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages, who has left his native Spain in order to settle in Egypt. On the way he visited the Holy Land. After his boat docks in Acre, he spends almost six months with that Jewish community. Though he visitsd many of the Jewish holy sites in the Galilee, he really wants to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On Tuesday, the 4th of Heshvan 4926 (19 October 1165), he finally left Acre in order to ascend to Jerusalem. This, as he well, knew was a very dangerous journey. But he succeeded in entering the city and two days later, on Thursday, he prayed at a place that he described in a letter as "the Great and Holy House" (letter cited by R. Elazar Ezkari. Sefer Haredim (Mitzvah 83).

Where was this "Great and Holy House?" Many believe that this place was the synagogue on the Temple Mount, a house of worship that had remained empty and deserted ever since the Crusaders occupied the mountain sixty-six years earlier. Others suggest that he did not pray in the synagogue on the Temple Mount because it had been destroyed by the Crusaders; instead, he prayed on the Temple Mount at a place that was near where the Holy Temple once stood. A third group of scholars have serious doubts whether Maimonides really ascended the Temple Mount. Their reservations are based on one or more of the following issues:

  • Jewish law nowadays forbids Jews from entering the entire area of the Temple Mount.

  • In rabbinic writings the phrase "The Great and Holy House" does not (necessarily) refer to the Temple Mount.

  • The Crusader prohibited Jews from visiting Jerusalem; they certainly did not allow them to ascend the Temple Mount.

  • There are questions about the provenance of the letter since the only text of Maimonides's letter is found in a book written more than four hundred years after the event.

We shall briefly examine each of these issues.

Halakha forbids Jews from entering the Temple Mount

There is a general rule that Jews are not allowed to enter any part of the Temple Mount because of its great holiness. Many hold that Maimonides followed this rule in his legal code. However, a careful reading of his major halakhic work does not support this view. He wrote,

Even though nowadays the Temple is destroyed because of our sins, nevertheless even today everyone is required to show it respect [fear] as was practiced in the days when it stood. No one may enter it except the places that one is permitted to enter ." (Maimonides, H. Beit Ha-bechira 7.7; italics added)

This statement indicates that Maimonides taught that there are areas on the Mount that Jews are not allowed to enter because of their great holiness, but that other areas may be entered by those who have made the necessary ritual preparations. When Maimonides prayed on the Temple Mount, he was careful to do so only in areas that a Jew may enter nowadays.

The meaning of "The Great and Holy House" in rabbinic writings

"And he burnt the house of the Lord, and the king's house; and all the houses of Jerusalem, even every great house he burnt with fire" (2 Kings 25.9) is a description of how the Babylonian army sacked Jerusalem in 587 BCE, in the final days of the First Temple. When the Talmudic sages discussed the meaning of the various terms of this Biblical verse in Megilah 27a, they offered the following interpretations:

'The house of the Lord': this is the Temple.

'The king's house': this is the royal palace.

'All the houses of Jerusalem': literally [that is, all other houses in Jerusalem].

'Even every great man's house .': R. Johanan and R. Joshua b. Levi gave different interpretations. One said, it means the place where the Torah is magnified [i.e. the study hall]; the other, the place where prayer is magnified [i.e. the synagogue].

Both of these two sages thought that "The Great and Holy House" refers to a building other than the Temple Mount - and there is no doubt that Maimonides, the great Talmudist, was aware of their interpretation. It is therefore reasonable to suggest that Maimonides merely wrote in this letter that he prayed in a synagogue in Jerusalem.

On the other hand, Maimonides, like every observant Jew, recited the Grace after Meals every day. In the third paragraph of this prayer there appears a plea for God's mercy "on his people Israel, on the city of Jerusalem, on Zion the abode of God's glory, on the royal house of David, and on the great and holy house that bears God's name." Here, according to all commentators, "The Great and Holy House" refers to the Holy Temple on Mount Moriah. The Talmudic sages (Berakhot 48b) indicated that King Solomon who built the First Temple was the person who added this phrase here. It is more than likely that when Maimonides used the phrase "The Great and Holy House" he was referring to the idiom that every Jew recognized as meaning the Holy Temple.

Photo Credit: © Meir Loewenberg

Crusaders prohibit Jews from entering Jerusalem

For centuries Jerusalem was a Muslim city, but it again assumed a Christian character during the Crusader occupation. Christian traditions were renewed and churches and monasteries were rebuilt. As was true in Byzantine times, Jews were again prohibited from entering the city, let alone live there. The Temple Mount, after it became the center of religious and civil life in Crusader Jerusalem, was declared off-limits for all non-Christians.

There are, however, indications that Jews did occasionally ascend the Mount during the eighty-seven years that the Crusaders occupied Jerusalem. One of these Jews who did so may have been Maimonides. In the letter mentioned earlier, he spoke about the "very dangerous journey" to Jerusalem. Given the conditions that prevailed at the time and given the fact the Jews were strictly prohibited from entering Jerusalem, this was indeed a very dangerous journey. But Maimonides did undertake it and most probably did reach his goal, to pray at the holiest site of Judaism.

Another Jew who went up to the Temple Mount to pray during the Crusader rule was the Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela who visited Jerusalem in these years. Benjamin reported in his travelogue that all the Jews come to pray before the Western Wall, that is in front of the Dome of the Rock. He noted that this is one of the walls remaining from what was once the Holy of Holies. The Western Wall that Benjamin described is not the present Western Wall (which is part of the retaining walls of the Temple Mount and which did not become a site for Jewish prayer until the 16th century) but the ruins of the western wall of the Temple building itself, on the Temple Mount. If it was the practice for Jews to come to pray there, it is entirely possible that Maimonides also availed himself of the opportunity to pray on the Temple Mount.

At the beginning of the 12th century Archbishop William of Tyre wrote that no professing Jew remained in Jerusalem. Fifty years later Benjamin of Tudela counted four Jewish families who lived in the city. The order, prohibiting Jews from living in Jerusalem, may have been enforced less strictly in the latter years of the Crusader occupation when there was need for certain skilled trades, such as dyers. Consequently, the order prohibiting Jews from ascending the Temple Mount may also have been relaxed.

The Spanish Jewish leader R. Abraham bar Hiyya Ha-Nassi (1065-1136) wrote a short time after the Crusaders occupied Jerusalem in 1099 that "the wicked Edom [Crusaders] expelled the Ishmaelites from the [Temple] Mountain and prevented the Jews from praying there .." Possibly the synagogue that was on the Temple Mount, though empty and deserted, perhaps even in ruins, was still standing when Maimonides came to Jerusalem a generation after Abraham b. Hiyya Hanasi died. Maimonides managed to receive permission to come to Jerusalem; he may also have obtained a special permit to pray on the Temple Mount.

The authenticity of Maimonides's letter

The only source for the letter in which Maimonides describes his visit to Jerusalem is Sefer Haredim by R. Elazar Ezkari. The author of this book died in 1600. The book was printed for the first time in Venice in 1601. No manuscripts of the letter are available and there is no information how the text of the letter came to Ezkari. Nevertheless, strong support for the authenticity of Maimonides's letter is provided by one of the most outstanding contemporary Maimonides scholars, Rabbi Yitzhak Shilat, who has examined Maimonides letter manuscripts for many years. He has determined that the letter describing his visit is authentic(Tehumin 7, 1986, 492). Additional evidence of Maimonides's praying on the Temple Mount comes from another letter in which he described how he and three other members of his family went to pray "in the House of God." (Yitzhak Shilat, Iggarot Ha-Rambam [Letters of the Rambam], Jerusalem/Maale Adumim, 1995, vol.1, 230.) The reference here also is to the general area of the Temple Mount and not to the specific place where the Temple once stood.


Though the language that Maimonides used in his letter to describe his visit to Jerusalem is ambiguous, he used phrases that in other circumstances clearly refer to the Temple Mount. Admittedly, the Jewish presence in Jerusalem and on the Temple Mount during the Crusader period was limited, but, as we have shown, Maimonides was not the only Jew who prayed on the Mount during the Crusader years. It would appear, therefore, that Maimonides did pray on the Temple Mount when he visited Jerusalem.


from the October/November 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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