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Visiting the Temple Mount in Our Time (1)

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
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Based on a Shiur given by HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein*

The issue of visiting the Temple Mount is a somewhat loaded topic. In this lecture, we shall deal exclusively with the halakhic aspects of the issue, and not with its other dimensions, the importance of which should not be treated lightly.

The issue of visiting the Temple Mount in our time can be divided into two separate questions:

1) Is there any prohibition whatsoever to enter the Temple Mount?

2) Assuming that such a prohibition exists, with what restrictions, if at all, is visiting the Temple Mount nevertheless possible?

Generally speaking, there are a number of questions and issues regarding the Temple Mount and the site of the Temple. The Temple area divides into several zones: the Kodesh ha-Kodashim (the Holy of Holies), the Heikhal (the Sanctuary), and Har ha-Bayit (the Temple Mount). This division is by Torah law. The Heikhal and Har ha-Bayit further divide into sub-zones; this division is on the rabbinic level. Obviously, the severity of entering any particular area varies according to the area's sanctity, regardless of the question of ritual purity and impurity.




Entry into the Kodesh ha-Kodashim is permitted solely to the High Priest and only on Yom Kippur.


As for the Heikhal, "needless entry," as it is termed by Chazal, is forbidden. There is, however, a question about the Rambam's position on this issue. The Rambam states (Hilkhot Bi'at ha-Mikdash 2:1-2):

The High Priest did not enter the Holy of Holies except on Yom Kippur; but an ordinary priest would enter the Holy Place every day for the service.

All priests were admonished not to enter the Holy Place or the Holy of Holies outside the time of service. For it is said: "That he come not at all times into the holy place within the veil" (Vayikra 16:2), "the holy place" referring to the Holy of Holies, and "within the veil" being an admonition with respect to the entire Temple.

These laws are based on the Gemara in Menachot 27b. The Rambam seems to imply that the prohibition to enter the Temple outside the time of service applies exclusively to the priests, and not to ordinary Jews. The reason for this might be that the priests are connected to the sacrificial order in the Temple, and therefore they are forbidden to enter the Heikhal when they are not involved in such service. In any event, the Vilna Gaon does not mention this point; he leaves the impression that needless entry into the Heikhal is forbidden to all.



In various places in the Torah, the term "Kodesh" refers to both the Kodesh ha-Kodashim and the Heikhal. The next level of sanctity is that of the Azara. While it too is endowed with a certain sanctity, the term "Kodesh" does not apply to it.

The Rambam describes the area of the Azara as follows (Hilkhot Beit ha-Bechira 1:5):

These are the things that were essential in the construction of the Temple: A Holy Place and a Holy of Holies were to be made. In front of the Holy Place there was to be a specific place called the Ulam. Together these three structures were called the Heikhal. Around the Heikhal, at a distance, another wall was erected, corresponding to the hangings of the court [of the Tabernacle] in the wilderness. Everything comprised within this partition, which corresponded to the court of the Tent of Meeting, was called the Azara. All the aforementioned together was referred to as the Mikdash.

Regarding the Azara, there is no prohibition of needless entry. There are, however, certain types of conduct that are forbidden there. The guiding principle is that when a person enters the Azara, he should not feel overly relaxed, as if he were sitting in his living room. This finds expression primarily with regard to sleeping and sitting in the Azara. There is a famous halakha that is mentioned in several places:

Sitting in the Azara is permitted only to the kings of the House of David.

It should be noted that it is unclear whether these prohibitions are by Torah law or only by rabbinic decree. This issue is subject to a dispute in Zevachim 16.


The wall of the Azara constitutes the border separating between the priestly and levitical camps. The next level of sanctity (in descending order), below that of the Azara, is the sanctity of the Temple Mount. On the Temple Mount, free entry is somewhat restricted, so as not to detract from the atmosphere appropriate for the place. These prohibitions fall into a category that appears several times in the Torah: the mitzva of showing reverence to the Temple.

The source of these prohibitions is a Mishna in Berakhot (9:5):

A man should not enter the Temple Mount with his staff or with his shoes on or with his wallet or with his feet dust-stained; nor should he make it a short cut, and spitting [on it is forbidden], a fortiori.

The Gemara on this Mishna specifies additional prohibitions, but adds nothing to the basic principle. The Gemara explains that the command is to refrain from conducting oneself in the sanctuary as if he were in his own home.

The Rambam adds something to what is stated in the Mishna and the Gemara (Hilkhot Beit ha-Bechira 7:1-2):

It is a positive commandment to revere the Sanctuary, for it is said: "You shall … revere My sanctuary" (Vayikra 19:30). This does not bid you fear the Sanctuary itself, but Him who commanded that we revere it.

What did this [command to] revere imply? That one might not enter the Temple Mount with his staff, or with his sandals on his feet, or in his undergarment, or with the dust upon his feet, or with coins wrapped up in his kerchief; and needless to say, it was forbidden to spit any place in the Temple Mount. If one found it necessary to spit, he had to absorb the spittle in his cloak. Nor might one use the Temple Mount to shorten his way by going in through one entrance and going out through the opposite entrance, but he had to go around it from the outside. One might not enter it at all except to perform a religious duty.

The Rambam adds the last line, according to which even a ritually clean person is forbidden to enter the Temple Mount, not for the sake of a mitzva. There does not seem to be a source in the Gemara for what the Rambam says here. The Kesef Mishne directs us to the laws governing a synagogue:

And that which he wrote: "One might not enter it at all except to perform a religious duty" – in chapter Benei ha-Ir (Megila 28b) we say this about a synagogue. All the more so, should this apply to the Temple.

The law governing the sanctity of a synagogue appears in Megila 28a. There the Mishna states:

Rabbi Yehuda said further: If a synagogue has fallen into ruins, it is not right to deliver funeral orations therein nor to wind ropes nor to spread nets nor to lay out produce on the roof [to dry] nor to use it as a short cut. As it says: "And I will bring your sanctuaries into desolation" (Vayikra 26:31), [which implies that] their holiness remains even when they are desolate. If grass comes up in them, it should not be plucked, so as to excite compassion.

Regarding this Mishna, the Gemara says:

For instance, Ravina and Rav Ada bar Matana were once standing and asking questions of Rava when a shower of rain came on. They went into the synagogue, saying: "Why we have gone into the synagogue is not because of the rain, but because the discussion of a legal point requires clarity, like a clear day."

It follows from this passage that one is forbidden to enter a synagogue for extraneous purposes. The Kesef Mishne invokes a kal va-chomer, arguing that a similar prohibition applies to the Temple Mount. But this argument is by no means simple. If we understand, as did the Ramban, that the sanctity of a synagogue derives from the fact that it is used for the performance of a mitzva (tashmish mitzva), similar to the strings of tzitzit – then the prohibition is on an entirely different plain, for the sanctity of the Temple Mount is not based on tashmish mitzva. Thus, when the Torah writes, "And you shall revere My sanctuary," which, according to the Rambam includes the Temple Mount – it imposes prohibitions upon the Temple Mount which are entirely different than those imposed upon synagogues. If, however, we understand that the sanctity of a synagogue is similar to consecration, i.e., the consecration of an object for its value, kedushat damim it is then possible to compare the prohibitions applying to the synagogue to those applying to the Temple Mount. Even then, however, the comparison is not so simple, for it is not clear that the Temple Mount falls into the category of consecrated property by virtue of monetary ownership.

It may be suggested that the Rambam understood by way of logical reasoning that the command to revere the sanctuary, which applies also to the Temple Mount, includes the prohibition of needless entry. Thus, one is only permitted to enter the Temple Mount for the sake of a mitzva. It should be noted that since the Rambam understood that the mitzva of revering the sanctuary applies also to the Temple Mount, it follows that the prohibition to enter the Temple Mount for no reason is by Torah law.

It may further be suggested that, according to the Rambam, the prohibition of needless entry to the Temple Mount is based on the mitzva of safeguarding the sanctuary. This mitzva is explicitly stated in Parashat Korach (Bamidbar 18:1-7):

And the Lord said to Aharon, You and your sons and your father's house with you shall bear the iniquity of the sanctuary: and you and your sons with you shall bear the iniquity of your priesthood. And your brethren also of the tribe of Levi, the tribe of your father, bring you near with you, that your sons with you shall minister before the tent of the Testimony. And they shall keep your charge, and the charge of all the tent: only they shall not come near the vessels of the sanctuary and the altar, that neither they, nor you, die. And they shall be joined to you, and keep the charge of the Tent of Meeting, for all the service of the tent, and a stranger shall not come near to you. And you shall keep the charge of the sanctuary, and the charge of the altar: that there be no wrath any more upon the children of Israel. And I, behold, I have taken your brethren the Levites from among the children of Israel: to you they are given as a gift for the Lord, to do the service of the Tent of Meeting. Therefore, you and your sons with you shall keep your priest's office for everything that concerns the altar, and within the veil: and you shall serve: I have given your priest's office to you as a service of gift: and the stranger that comes near shall be put to death.

The Rambam, based on the mishnayot dealing with this mitzva, rules in Hilkhot Beit ha-Bechira 8:8 that the mitzva applies also to the Temple Mount:

Where did the Levites keep guard? At the 5 gates of the Temple Mount; at its 4 corners inside; at the 4 corners of the Azara outside, since it was forbidden to sit within the Azara; at the 5 gates of the Azara outside the Azara, since the priests kept guard [within] at the Gate of the Hearth and at the Gate of the Flame. There were thus eighteen posts.

It is possible to argue that there is no proof from here that the mitzva of safeguarding the sanctuary applies also to the Temple Mount. It may indeed apply only to the Azara, but practically speaking the safeguarding of the Azara must be executed at the gates of the Temple Mount. On the other hand, it is entirely possible to understand that the mitzva of safeguarding the sanctuary applies even to the Temple Mount. If that is the case, the Rambam may have reasoned that if there is a mitzva to safeguard the Temple Mount, then certainly it must be forbidden to enter the Mount for no reason, and the guards are required to warn those entering the area about this prohibition.


Practically speaking, the mitzva of revering the sanctuary has ramifications regarding the manner in which one is permitted to enter the Temple Mount.

First of all, one is forbidden to enter not for the sake of a mitzva. Obviously, we must clarify the precise definition of "for the sake of a mitzva." This question arises in various contexts, and in each context, the answer is different. What is the law regarding a person who wishes to enter the Temple Mount in order to experience that unique feeling of intimacy with God? Is such entry considered "for the sake of a mitzva"? It is entirely possible that even such entry is considered "for the sake of a mitzva." Hence, a person who thinks that visiting the Temple Mount will enhance his fear of Heaven should be permitted to do so. According to this understanding, the prohibition of entering the Temple Mount for no reason applies only to entry for the sake of taking a walk, or the like.

An additional prohibition governing entry into the Temple Mount is the prohibition of entering with one's shoes, one's staff, or the like. It may be assumed that the specific restrictions mentioned by the Rambam do not exhaust the mitzva of revering the sanctuary; it would, for example, be forbidden to enter the Temple Mount riding a bicycle, even though such a prohibition is not explicitly stated in the Mishna. It seems, however, that the primary practical prohibition is that which forbids one to enter the Temple Mount wearing shoes.

The Ramban writes in his commentary to the Torah that wherever there is a revelation of the Shekhina, one may not go about in shoes, and it is for this reason that the priests would perform the Temple service while barefoot. If the prohibition against entering the Temple Mount with shoes is connected to these words of the Ramban – then it would only be permissible to enter the Temple Mount when one is absolutely barefoot. This, however, is difficult, for the Gemara in Zevachim 24 implies that the priests would serve barefoot only in order to overcome the problem of an interposing substance between their feet and the floor of the Azara, and not because of a prohibition of entering the sanctuary with shoes.

Alternatively, we may understand that the prohibition to enter the Temple Mount with shoes stems from the fact that such walking is normal walking, and as such it is inappropriate for the Temple Mount. According to this, it may be permissible to enter the Temple Mount with some type of foot covering that is not a normal shoe. This question was raised by the Minchat Chinukh (commandment 254); he too, however, fails to reach a clear conclusion.

This week we dealt with the various parts of Har ha-Bayit, and the mitzva of revering the sanctuary. Next week we will deal with purity requirements of a person entering those areas.


*This lecture was not reviewed by HaRav Lichtenstein.

[1] The term that the Torah uses with regard to the prohibition of entering the Temple in a state of ritual impurity – lo tetam'u – is a plural form, but clearly the prohibition applies to each and every individual (just like "You shall not eat – lo tokhlu - on the blood," or the like).

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