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SIDIC Periodical XXXII - 1999/1
Toward a new millennium. A Jubilee of hope (Pages 10-13)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Pilgrimage in Judaism
Graetz, Michael


The Oxford Universal Dictionary defines pilgrim as one who travels from place to place, a wanderer. The term pilgrimage is used to denote a “journey to a sacred place, as an act of religious devotion.” It is interesting that the sense of wandering from place to place is inherent in the word pilgrim.

In the Torah Jews are commanded to ascend to a sacred place as an act of religious devotion at specified holiday times. So the basic sense of pilgrimage seems to be ascent rather than wandering. However, these times are known in Hebrew as shalosh regalim, or the three Pilgrimage festivals. The Hebrew word regel, is used here to mean time, but its simple meaning is foot, leg or step. That is, it is clear that the ascent of pilgrimage includes the notion of walking from one place to another. Still, the overall meaning of the Hebrew phrase is not wandering. Wandering implies walking to an unknown place, whereas the whole concept in the Torah is going to a known designated place to see God and to be seen by God.

The command in the Torah is: “Three times a year you shall hold a festival for Me: You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread - eating unleavened bread for seven days as I have commanded you - at the set time in the month of Abib, for in it you went forth from Egypt; and none shall appear before Me empty-handed; and the Feast of the Harvest, of the first fruits of your work, of what you sow in the field; and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in the results of your work from the field. Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Sovereign, the LORD.” (Ex 23:14-17) This prescribed set of pilgrimage festivals is repeated in Ex 34:22-23 and in Dt 16:16-17. In II Ch 8:13 we read that King Solomon made provisions for observing these festivals upon the dedication of the Temple building in Jerusalem.

The purpose of the pilgrimage is to fulfill the commandment of being seen (re’ayon) by God. JPS translates Dt 16:16 as: “Three times a year - on the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the Feast of Weeks, and on the Feast of Booths - all your males shall appear before the Lord your God in the place that He will choose....”. The translation shall appear just misses the notion of being seen by God, which is so clear in the Hebrew use of the passive form of “to see”.

This is not nit-picking with the translation. I mean to emphasize the point about how we are seen by God. The pilgrim holidays are the opportunity to act out, not how we see God, but how we are seen by God. The Torah, at this point, spells out the manner in which we are to be seen, and this is translated in JPS thus: “... They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed, but each with his own gift, according to the blessing that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you.” (Dt 16:17)

This passage proclaims the spiritual message that all persons have gifts, talents bestowed on them by God. God wants to see them use those talents to the fullest. When one comes to the Temple on a pilgrim holiday it should not be a matter of just showing up or appearing. That would be to come empty-handed, or in a literal translation of the Hebrew reikam, with emptiness inside. Rather, one should come “using the blessings which God has given you”. We should try and get the most out of the intellectual, emotional and artistic talents that we possess when we come before God and the community.

As attractive as this spiritual interpretation of the passage is, the context in the Torah is one of bringing sacrificial gifts to the communal worship at the Temple. In that context, Dt 16:17: “but each with his own gift, according to the blessing that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you” presents some difficulties. The first difficulty associated with this kind of language in Jewish law, halacha, is that it is not specifically quantified. Is the amount of what each person gives to be left up to his own estimation of what God’s blessing to him has been? That DOES seem to be the case. The first Mishnah in tractate Peah lists those things which have NO specified quantity required in order to fulfill those mitzvot, and one of the items on the list is re’ayon, that is, the gift brought to fulfill our verses! However, the Rabbis did not leave these areas unspecified. Indeed, the Mishnah makes the point that despite the fact that the Torah has no specified amount, the sages DID specify it. (cf. Hagigah 1:1) In any case, the point of Pilgrimage is both to see and to be seen: To see God’s bounty to us, and to be seen by God to be appreciative of that bounty, to acknowledge our gratitude to God.

There is another aspect to the Pilgrimage that is emphasized in the Torah and in later Rabbinic literature. The Pilgrimage festival is an occasion when all of the nation comes together for a spiritual enterprise. It is thus an opportunity for all the nation to study Torah. As we find in Dt 31:9-12: “Moses wrote down this Teaching (Torah) and gave it to the priests, sons of Levi, who carried the Ark of the LORD’s Covenant, and to all the elders of Israel. And Moses instructed them as follows: Every seventh year, the year set for remission, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the LORD your God in the place that He will choose, you shall read this Teaching (Torah) aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather the people - men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities - that they may hear and so learn to revere the LORD your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching (Torah).” It is clear from this passage as well as from Rabbinic interpretation that women also made the pilgrimage. The Rabbinic understanding was that the specification of males pertained only to the obligation to bring a sacrifice, not to the obligation to make the pilgrimage. Thus, there is a fixed time during the Pilgrim festival of Sukkot when the whole nation must review its covenant with God, the covenant that was made by accepting the Torah at Mt. Sinai.

Indeed, we know that all of the Pilgrimage festivals were opportunities for Torah study, and the Jerusalem Talmud indicates that the influence of the pilgrimage lasted long after the journey was over. It recounts that “their hearts prompted them to study Torah” after making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem during a holiday (JT, Sukkot 5:1, 55a). This passage describes the feelings of those who made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem from abroad. Here the pilgrimage becomes the moment of ascent, of cleaving to God, and the moment when a Divine message may be close at hand to be grasped and cherished. It also becomes an act which remains with a person and influences spiritual life long after the journey is over.

Being in a holy place, being together with the community of Israel at large, learning the Torah, being in the presence of God - all make for a powerful religious experience which imparts a sense of gratitude for life and tranquillity of soul that leads one to praise God fully. Indeed, Ps 27:4 depicts this: “One thing I ask of the LORD, only that do I seek: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD, to frequent His temple.”

Behind the prophetic visions of universal pilgrimage to God’s holy mountain (Is 2 and Mi 4) lies the sense that pilgrimage involves a spiritual journey to God to be seen by God, and that it involves learning God’s message, God’s Torah. “The Mount of the LORD’s House shall stand Firm above the mountains; And it shall tower above the hills. The peoples shall gaze on it with joy, And the many nations shall go and shall say: ‘Come, Let us go up to the Mount of the LORD, To the House of the God of Jacob; That He may instruct us in His ways, And that we may walk in His paths.’ For instruction (Torah) shall come forth from Zion, The word of the LORD from Jerusalem. Thus He will judge among the many peoples, And arbitrate for the multitude of nations, However distant; And they shall beat their swords into plowshares And their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up Sword against nation; They shall never again know war; But every man shall sit Under his grapevine or fig tree With no one to disturb him. For it was the LORD of Hosts who spoke. Though all the peoples walk Each in the names of its gods, We will walk In the name of the LORD our God Forever and ever.” (Mi 4:1-5)

The universal pilgrimage, the walk of humanity, is to God’s holy place in Jerusalem, Zion. The spiritual message, God’s Torah, is that no nation will wage war on any other. An era of freedom from fear of violence will result from this universal pilgrimage, where no one will be afraid or feel disturbed. The prophet Micah envisions this pilgrimage and this learning of Torah for all mankind, even as they retain their own gods! That is, the Torah of God, the spiritual message of peace and curbing of violence does not depend on giving up other forms of religion. It depends only on accepting this particular instruction and on making the pilgrimage.

Indeed, in talking about the Temple in Jerusalem, the destination of the pilgrimage, the prophet Isaiah says: “My Home (Baytee) will be a ‘home of prayer’ for all the nations”. (Is 56:7) Isaiah’s vision is that the Temple in Jerusalem will be restored, but not in its ancient style. It will not return as an ‘idealized’ or ‘romanticized’ tribal altar of animal sacrifice. Rather, it will be restored as a house of prayer for all nations.

The true function of religion in human society is to project the vision of what persons can be at their best, of what humanity can be at its best. An intrinsic part of Judaism is the vision of the future found in the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Their vision of the future always includes the following elements: 1) freedom for Israel, and all nations; 2) a situation where all are at peace, and there is no more war; 3) a universal recognition of God as the father of all, i.e., feelings of closeness between all human beings based on the recognition of one universal commonality for all humanity.
Religion should make this vision the central part of its ministry to humanity. It should not be obfuscated by other concerns such as ‘sanctifying’ or ‘idealizing’ the past or the present, or by political preoccupations. Religion should make the universal vision its major motivating force and its central revelation.

By concentrating on their own particular revelatory history religious groups have underplayed the universal message of peace and brotherhood, a message which is also part of their history. Furthermore, the path to salvation of each particular group has been defined through its particular rather than its universal message. Organized religion is guilty, to some degree or other, of denying the universal commonality of mankind, and of making recognition of that commonality contingent on accepting its particular path to salvation.

Because religion is perceived as representing the ideals and ultimate values of mankind and its gods, organized religion has been one of the central organizing principles of human society. However, since most religions have stressed their particularistic side, human society has been strongly particularistic in character. This had led to religion being a factor in the perpetuation of conflicts and wars. Even in the Hebrew Bible - the source of the concept of One universal God - there exists a tension between the universal God and the tribal god. No organized religion has been free of this tension.

The challenge for the future is to create the dialogue between religious leaders which will lead to furthering the basis of universality and commonality in religion. The basis for this dialogue can be Baytee - pilgrimage to the Temple which can become a home of prayer for all humanity.

This does not mean that particularity will disappear. It is essential that particularity be preserved. The message of the prophet Micah does not demand homogenized universality. What must be done is to prevent particularity from destroying the common good. On the universal pilgrimage there must be space in the Temple for each particular religion to pray in its own way. But there must also be a common space so that all men and women can learn that it is possible to pray together as humanity. The implementation of this vision of Pilgrimage is a challenge for all religious people in the world.


* Rabbi Michael Graetz is rabbi of Magen Avraham congregation in Omer. Since his arrival in Israel in 1967 he has worked as assistant to the Editor-in-chief and written articles on modern Jewish thought for the Encyclopedia Judaica. He has published articles in Hebrew and English and has recently edited, translated and provided commentary for a Passover Haggadah. He teaches at Kaye State Teacher’s College in Beer Sheva and is a director of Shiluv Institute in Omer and Beer Sheva, which includes “Baytee”, a branch of the Institute promoting interfaith dialogue and activities.
Note: all Biblical passages are from the JPS Bible.


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