The Three Weeks is a period of mourning bookended by the fasts of the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av, the national day of Jewish mourning that marks the destruction of the First and Second Temples on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.
What is the significance of the Temple Mount and the Temple? Why do the Jewish people continue to mourn for thousands of years?
In the year 1678 BCE God tells our forefather Abraham to bring his son Isaac as a sacrifice to this place, with the Foundation Stone serving as the altar. The Book of Genesis refers to this place as Mount Moriah.2 Jacob visits the same location when he flees from his brother Esau and has his fateful dream of a ladder ascending to the heavens with angels going up and down.3
Chagall’s Jacob’s Ladder
David requested permission from the Almighty to build the Temple. The prophet Nathan responded that it would not be David, but his son Solomon who would build the Temple.4 God explained: “You shall not build a house for My Name for you have shed much blood on the ground before Me.”5 The Temple could not be built until a time of peace.6
Towards the end of his reign, the Prophet Gad tells David to “erect an altar to God on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.” This was one of the few places in Israel that remained outside of Jewish control. So, King David purchased the mountain from the Jebusites7 and made all the preparations for his son’s great building project. The location: Mount Moriah.8
In 827 BCE, King Solomon dedicated the First Temple, manifesting the holiness of Mount Moriah that had been there throughout the generations. The Temple stood for 406 years as the center of the Jewish world. Its beauty and glory made it one of the wonders of the ancient world.
All of this was lost in 423 BCE when the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar breached the walls and set the Temple ablaze, on the ninth of Av.
Mount Moriah would lay fallow for the next 52 years. In 371 BCE, the Babylonians had been supplanted by the Persians with Cyrus as their king who allowed the Jews to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple.9
The project would be short-lived as building plans were thwarted and sabotaged by the (not-so-good) Samaritans. The Samaritans were the subjects of the forced displacement of Sennacherib who had wiped out the 10 northern tribes of Israel 133 years before the Temple was destroyed. They had inhabited the land for 162 years and were not so quick to give it up. They appealed to King Cyrus of Persia who subsequently rescinded his permission to build, making it law that would remain in the books through the reign of King Cyrus and King Achashverosh.
When King Darius II came to power in Persia, he allowed the building project to continue in the second year of his reign.10
The Second Temple never quite lived up to the First Temple. Those who were old enough to remember the grandeur of the First Temple cried when they saw the Second Temple because it paled in comparison to its predecessor.11 The Second Temple not only lacked physically but spiritually as well. There was no Ark of the Covenant, no Cherubim, no Urim V’Tumim (part of the High Priest’s garments that assisted in prophecy), and the tangible presence of the Almighty was not to be found as it has been in days of yore.12
Even though the wicked Roman puppet King Herod would refurbish the temple on a grandiose scale beginning in 19 BCE, the spiritual level of the First Temple would never return. Part of this project was to greatly expand the platform that the Temple was built upon. This was constructed with arches and a retaining wall. The western part of that retaining wall is all that remains of the Second Temple. We call it the Western Wall.
The Second Temple came under many existential threats, at the hands of the Greeks and Romans as well as through internecine fighting amongst the Jews. The Hanukkah War was not only a regional war but a civil one as well (see The History of Hanukkah They Didn’t Teach You In Hebrew School for more on this). Even though the Maccabees brought temporary sovereignty to Israel, their descendants fought many wars of succession. The Sages of the Talmud identified this hatred and infighting as the underlying reason for their losing divine protection and the destruction of the Second Temple.13
In the year 70 CE, the Romans brought an end to the tumultuous Second Commonwealth. Amongst the quarreling groups were the Zealots who thought that they could actually beat the Romans. They sparked a rebellion that ultimately lead to the loss of the country, the murder of tens of thousands of Jews, and the destruction of the Temple.
The years following the destruction of the temple were very difficult. While there was still a Jewish population in Israel, they came under constant attack and persecution by the Romans. That all seemed to change when Hadrian came to power in 117 CE and adopted a more benevolent policy towards the Jews in Israel. He even promised to rebuild the temple that his predecessors had destroyed.
But Hellenists within the Roman Empire conspired and lobbied the emperor against this as they saw a rekindled Jewish presence in Israel antithetical to the Greek culture that they wanted to permeate throughout Rome. Alas, the relationship with Hadrian began to deteriorate.14 Hadrian even enacted several harsh decrees in an attempt to force Jews to assimilate, banning the observance of Shabbat, Bris Milah, and recitation of the Shema.
In 129 CE on a trip to Jerusalem, Hadrian founded the colony of Aelia Capitolina and had a temple to the Roman god Jupiter built on Mount Moriah on the ruins of the Jewish Temple. The community began to resist the evil decrees. Shimon Bar Kochba led the resistance and this revolt was initially successful. The Roman Governor Turnus Rufus and the Roman 10th Legion were banished from Jerusalem, and for two and a half years, there was Jewish sovereignty in the capital city.
While there is speculation that Bar Kochba might have started to rebuild the temple, there is no evidence to support this. It is possible that he did build an altar on the Temple Mount and that the ritual offerings did take place.15
The success and freedom were short-lived as Bar Kochba proved not to be the leader the people hoped him to be, and the Roman army put down the rebellion with a vengeance. Once again, hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered in the Jewish homeland.
The Romans systematically destroyed the Jewish presence in Israel, making Torah study illegal, killing tens of thousands, including the 10 martyred Sages that Jews remember in their liturgy on Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur. Jews were banned from the city of Jerusalem and the temple to Jupiter was restored. The Romans changed the name of the country from Judah to Palestine.16
The name Palestine comes from the Philistines, the last of the Canaanite tribes to spar with the Jews. By calling the providence Palestine, the Romans were trying to erase the 1,500 years of Jewish presence in the land, and give an impression that the land was really the Philistines.
Around the year 312 CE Emperor Constantine I converted to Christianity, beginning the process of Rome – and with it the western world – becoming Christian. After the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, Constantine had Hadrian’s Temple of Jupiter torn down and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher built 400 meters away in the place his mother, Helena, had identified as the grave of Jesus. This would divert attention away from the Temple Mount and place the focus on the Christian site instead.17 The ban on Jews from Jerusalem was kept in place.
When Constantine died his nephew Julian the Apostate took over. He tried to reverse the Roman Christian tide and gave the Jews permission to return to Jerusalem and build the Temple.18 But Julian did not live long enough to see his policies out, and with his death, Rome would be firmly Christian.
In 610 CE, the Persian Sasanian Empire would temporarily control Israel, also allowing the Jews to return, but their rule lasted only five years, and the Byzantine Romans came back in force, expelling the Jews once again, and turning the Temple Mount into a garbage dump.
In 637 CE, the Muslim conquest hit the holy land. Muslim tradition teaches that upon conquering Jerusalem, Caliph Umar was led to the Temple Mount by a Christian where he found it covered in garbage. An apostate Jew who had converted to Islam helped him to clear away the garbage and find the Foundation Stone.19 He subsequently built a mosque on the spot. To Caliph Umar, the spot was holy because that is where Solomon built his Temple. The present structure was built by Caliph Abd al-Malik in 691 CE (it was covered with gold in 1920).
Until 715 CE, there was no connection between the Temple Mount and the life of Mohammed. The Umayyad Muslims led by Caliph al-Walid I started to teach the idea that the Temple Mount was al-Aqsa – the distant place referred to in the Quran from which Mohammed ascended to heaven. In this spirit, they built the al-Aqsa Mosque, also on the Temple Mount.20 This was 83 years after the death of Mohammed and the conclusion of the teaching of the Quran.
The First Crusade began in 1095 and successfully conquered Jerusalem in 1099, forming the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock was turned into a church and the al-Aqsa Mosque was used by the crusaders as a headquarters who appreciated the mystique of being located on the ruins of Solomon’s Temple. They renamed themselves the “Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon” or the “Knights Templar” for short.21 The Crusaders continued to forbid Jews to live in Jerusalem and extended their ban to other holy sites such as Hebron.22
Back to The Muslims
In 1187, Saladin defeated the crusaders, reclaiming Jerusalem for the Muslims. He removed all Christian symbols from the Temple Mount and restored the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque to Muslim use. In 1190, Saladin made a proclamation inviting the Jews back to Israel and Jerusalem.23 This would begin the slow trickle of Jews coming back to Israel, joining the small population that had survived everything.
While the Jews were allowed to live in Jerusalem, they were not allowed onto the Temple Mount until the 19th century.24 This was the status quo until modern times.
The trickle of Jewish return that began with Saladin’s proclamation became a stream after the Spanish Expulsion in 1492, and eventually a flow in the 19th century with the disciples of the Vilna Gaon and the Ba’al Shem Tov, and subsequently the First Aliyah. By the end of the century, there would be a majority Jewish population in Jerusalem with neighborhoods being built outside of the Old City’s walls.25
During the 1948 Independence War, the superiority of numbers would not be enough to fully defend the Jewish position in the Old City, and while the fledgling Israel won monumental gains in other parts of the county, they lost the Old City of Jerusalem to the Jordanians.26
The unresolved issues of the ‘48 War would boil over in the form of the 1967 Six Day War. On the third day of the war (June 7, Iyar 28) the Old City of Jerusalem was captured by the Israeli Defense Force.
Rabbi Goren blowing the shofar at the Western Wall, 1967
Carrying a Torah scroll and a shofar, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, Chief Rabbi of the IDF, led the paratroopers who captured the ancient city to the Western Wall. Rabbi Goren blew a shofar and proclaimed “Har HaBayit B’yadenu – The Temple Mount is in our hands.” An Israeli flag was hoisted over the Mount. Moshe Dayan, the Israeli Minister of Defense, ordered that the flag be taken down, sending a signal that religious and national matters should be dealt with separately. The Israeli government decided to maintain the status quo of the Temple Mount.
The plan was that Muslim Authorities would remain in charge of the Mount and Israel would be responsible for the overall security. The one change was that Jews would be allowed to visit the Temple Mount, but they could not pray there.
For the most part, the “status quo” has remained in place. There are flare-ups from time to time, usually sparked by radicals on either side. The site is managed by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, while the land and its security are part of the State of Israel.
Today we are witnessing miraculous times when Jewish sovereignty has returned to the land of Israel after a hiatus going back to the times of the Maccabees.
But we are still mourning for the destruction of the Temple; the miracle is still incomplete. As we mourn the tragedies of the Jewish past, let us pray for the time when we can fulfill the collective hope of the Jewish past.