In the days of the Temple, there were three times a year that Jews would gather from all over the world to offer sacrifices. These holidays are Sukkot, Shavuot, and of course, Pesach. Prof. Doron Bar, president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, takes us back in time and uncovers ancient secrets about the pilgrimage via the Hulda stairs and through the holy city of Jerusalem.
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Pilgrims have been attracted to Jerusalem for generations. We have many testimonies of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim pilgrims who tell of the long journey they made to visit Jerusalem’s holy sites. There is no doubt that, at the end of the Second Temple period, Jewish pilgrimage to Jerusalem reached its peak. It was considered a mitzvah, or divine commandment, to come to Jerusalem, to visit the Temple, to pay the half-shekel tax, and to offer a sacrifice. Therefore, tens of thousands of pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem, especially on the three pilgrimage holidays: Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot.
Until the large archeological excavations were conducted in Jerusalem after the Six Day War, it was not clear where most of the pilgrims entered Temple Mount to visit the Temple. Most of our information about the pilgrimage was based on historical sources: The words of the Mishnah and Talmud, the New Testament, and especially the accounts of Josef Ben Matityahu (Josephus Plavius), who wrote in his various books about the worship rituals in the Temple and the appearance of Jerusalem.
In 1968, Professor Benjamin Mazar, Rector of the Hebrew University and one of Israel’s most famous historians, began digging in this area. Slowly, the excavators, led by him, descended below ground and revealed the remains of Jerusalem’s various historical periods. More than anything else, the researchers were excited to find remains from the city in the late Second Temple period, including a system of streets, stairs, and gates that led the pilgrims to Temple Mount.
It turned out that most of the pilgrims entered Temple Mount from the south, the area where I am now standing. One of Mazar’s most impressive discoveries was this splendid staircase, which led the many pilgrims who entered here to the Temple. These stairs led to the Hulda gates, three gates through which the pilgrims entered the Temple plaza. After they visited there, they went out the Temple Mount through the double gate and continued on to their stay in Jerusalem.
What’s interesting is that both the Mishnah and Josef Ben Matityahu wrote about how mourners customarily made their way in the opposite direction. They ascended to the Temple through the exit gate, so that the rest of the pilgrims could comfort them as they walked. An important testimony to the centrality of this area, in terms of the pilgrimage, are the many public bathing houses, or mikvahs, discovered all around us. Since the mitzvah was, of course, to enter the Temple in purity, pilgrims immersed themselves in the mikvahs later discovered in this area by Benjamin Mazar.
Shavuah Tov and Chag Kasher v’Sameach!
Doron Bar is the president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. He earned his PhD from The Hebrew University in Historical Geography. Professor Bar is researching the development of popular and national holy places. He is a seventh generation descendant of an Old Yishuv Jerusalem family.