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Rethinking Pilgrimages to Jerusalem Amid a Global Pandemic

Prof. Doron Bar
| 06/10/2020
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As we celebrate the week-long festival of Sukkot, we are forced to approach the holiday in a drastically different way in light of the coronavirus pandemic. This includes our inability to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Western Wall.

The belief that visiting a holy place brings believers closer to their religion and God is a universal concept. Pilgrims of all religions visit holy places. Throughout history, pilgrims walked hundreds or thousands of kilometers, crossing seas and rivers, climbing mountains, and risking their lives to reach a sacred place to feel spiritually connected. 

Prof. Doron Bar,  president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, shares his insights into our historical connection and age-old desire to visit these holy sites. Despite not being able to fulfill the recently revived commandment of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he reminds us that the current global conditions created an opportunity to realize that God’s holy presence can be found everywhere.

 

Read the full article below.

 

The following dedication appears in the preface of a new book on the Western Wall, which I wrote together with my colleague and friend, Prof. Kobi Cohen-Hattab: “Dedicated to the Cohen, Hatab, Baumgarten and Bar families, who for many generations dreamed of a rebuilt Jerusalem and aspired to realize it.”

This dedication and its vision are most probably common to the majority of the Jewish people who for generations lived in Jewish communities in the diaspora, far from the land of Israel. They prayed for the land of Israel and aspired to return to it, but were unable to accomplish this.

Nevertheless, for many years Jews did not live in the land of Israel and for the greater part most of Jewish history most Jews did not fulfill the commandment of making a pilgrimage to the Land of Israel. Lacking any other alternative, they were content with reciting a short supplication after the blowing of the shofar and at the end of the Passover seder: “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Of course, this reality was different when the Temple was still in existence during the Second Temple period. At that time, countless Jews from the Land of Israel and the diaspora came to visit the Temple in Jerusalem during the three pilgrimage festivals. The climax of this pilgrimage occurred during the festival of Succot. Allusions in various historical sources testify to the fact that pilgrimage during Succot was the leading event of the three pilgrimage festivals, with the greatest number of pilgrims.

The terrible destruction of Jerusalem and the burning of the Temple in 70 CE forced the Jews to adapt themselves to a reality in which their religious focal point had been annihilated. They, therefore, replaced pilgrimage, bringing the first fruits and offering sacrifices with prayer, fasting, and mourning. Since then and for 1,900 years, the majority of Jews were disconnected from Jerusalem, which became an abstract idea and the object of longing. Jerusalem as a physical focus for pilgrimage was replaced with wishes for rebuilding it and the desire to visit it as pilgrims.

The need for a holy site and consequent obligation to visit it is common to all historical periods and religions. Pilgrims of all religions visit holy places. Throughout history, pilgrims walked hundreds or thousands of kilometers, crossing seas and rivers, climbing mountains, and risking their lives. The reason for this is not only that pilgrimage is a religious precept in some religions, but mainly the belief that visiting a holy place brings believers closer to the roots of their religions and to God. Believers intensely feel and believe that the Axis Mundi, an imaginary axis that unites heaven and earth, is located in a holy site.

The custom of mass pilgrimage to Jerusalem recommenced only 53 years ago, in 1967. The Six-Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem immediately changed the reality wherein Jews were separated from the city’s holy sites; it enabled Jews living in the State of Israel and the diaspora to transform the holy wall and its plaza into an object of mass pilgrimage. The custom of visiting and praying at the Western wall steadily increased since 1967 and new customs were created, which can be characterized as Jewish-Israeli both in their nature and essence. As in antiquity, today as well Succot is one of the pinnacles of this pilgrimage custom. With the exception of the Priestly Blessing ceremony that takes place there on Succot (and Passover), visiting the Western Wall and other holy sites have become both a popular and a family tradition for many years.

This year, however, the harsh reality of the COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated many lifestyle changes, including making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Western Wall. It is clear that, as during Passover, there will be no mass Priestly Blessing ceremony nor will there be the Second Hakafot after Simhat Torah. Thus, not only will ultra-Orthodox society have to adapt themselves to a new reality but also large sections of Jewish society who traditionally visited Jerusalem on Succot for festivities.

This is a great challenge for all. During the last two generations, Israelis were accustomed to a life in which access to holy sites was open to all, without any interruption. Moreover, many believers need a physical site at which to pray and direct their supplications. Nevertheless, this year there is no choice and most people will have to make do with “ordinary” prayers at outdoor synagogue services.

This is not necessarily an adverse development. This year Jerusalem, the Western Wall, and the destroyed Temple will once again become abstract concepts and not actual places. This challenge to faith is actually a return to a reality that existed for many generations among the Jewish people in which Jerusalem was a distant and inaccessible site. Jews who lived in different places around the world only imagined Jerusalem without visiting it. In this respect, Israeli Jews are now feeling what Jews in the diaspora felt when they were physically separated from the holy sites, which left only a metaphysical aspect. The elements of community, synagogue, family, prayer and ceremonies, that for generations gave Jewish content to the lives of Jews around the world, are this year a substitution for the holy site.

This reality is difficult and taxing for many people. Still, Israeli society was able to adapt itself to a difficult reality and create substitutes for visits to the Western Wall, Mount Herzl and military cemeteries when observing holidays and memorial days during the past seven months since the pandemic commenced. Many hope that people will once again be able to pray at the Western Wall and other holy sites during the next holiday of Succot in 2021. Still, perhaps the pandemic also created an opportunity to realize that God’s holy presence is located everywhere.

    

  

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.

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