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SIDIC Periodical XIV - 1981/3
Pilgrimage to the Holy Land (Pages 04 - 07)

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Pilgrimages to the Jerusalem Temple
Joseph Cohen


`Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God at the place which he will choose: at the feast of unleavened bread, at the feast of weeks, and at the feast of booths. They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed; every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God which he has given you." Deut. 16:16-17.

The way in which the Bible ordains that the three feasts of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot be observed is by making a pilgrimage; hence these feasts are also called the pilgrimage feasts. They consisted essentially in visiting the sacred place of the Temple of Jerusalem in order to celebrate the feast there and to offer sacrifices in honor of the Lord. The duty of fulfilling this precept of pilgrimage is, according to the Talmud, incumbent on everyone except slaves, women and little children.

The greater number of instances of these pilgrimages have come to us above all from the time of the Second Temple and arc often picturesque and fascinating in their descriptions.

The Reception of Pilgrims

While the Temple stood, thousands and even tens of thousands of pilgrims2 used to get ready to go up to Jerusalem to "appear before the Lord". They would gather in all parts of the country and of the diaspora, in Babylon above all, where these was an important Jewish community. Before each pilgrimage the inhabitants of Jerusalem used to get ready to welcome these thousands of pilgrims: they would repair the roads' and wells at the end of winter.

Some of the water sources were considered the property of certain of the rich pilgrims who would be coming from Babylon." According to the Talmud, some of the pilgrims also owned some of the synagogues. These latter were used as meeting places and as inns during their stay in Jerusalem.5 Certain of these meeting places had been built by various communities of the Diaspora for their members. This was the case, for example, for the synagogues which belonged to the pilgrims coining from Alexandria and Tarsus. This is confirmed also by the finding of a Greek inscription in a Jerusalem synagogue which dates back to the time of the Second Temple. The inscription speaks of Theodotus (son) of Votanus who biult the synagogue, an inn and rooms for the pilgrims from the diaspora.

To protect pilgrims from brigands and other dangers along the way, pilgrims used to assemble in certain fortified towns such as Nehardea for example? For this same reason Herod had founded the Jewish Babylonian colony of Bathyra. For the going up to Jerusalem an important escort, made up of thousands of pilgrims, was provided for the funds from the Babylonian collection destined for the Temple and its priests.8

With their arrival, the pilgrims would absorb feelings of national fraternity and patriotic solidarity with the whole country, and especially with Jerusalem. The times of pilgrimages were politically the most favorable moments for stirring up the population and rebellion against the Romans would take place at the time of the Passover or Tabernacles pilgrimages. The arrival of the pilgrims would not only mean a national awakening, but also a certain amount of economic prosperity because they would spend money and bring substantial gifts.

To encourage pilgrims to come in large numbers, the inhabitants of Jerusalem would graciously put rooms and bedding at their disposal.' For their part, the pilgrims would offer their hosts the skins of the animals which they had just sacrificed in the Temple!'

In order to make things easier for the pilgrims, the shoe repairers of Jerusalem were even permitted to work during the in-between days of the week-long feasts in order to repair the sandals of the marchers after their long walk.' Rabbis who opposed this custom argued that the greater majority of the pilgrims were able to come to Jerusalem riding on their beasts of burden.13

The Pilgrimage of Pesach

The pilgrimage for the feast of Pesach or Passover, also called the feast of unleavened bread, was one of the most pleasant because it took place at spring. At this time of the year the climate in Israel is quite mild, water can still be found everywhere and the roads are passable. Apart from this, the number of pilgrims was greater than at other times because they wanted to eat the passover lamb offered in sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem. During the time of passover there is also celebrated the harvesting of the barley, the Omer." This ceremony attracted many people, above all the farmers who brought the first-fruits of their harvest to the Temple.15

From the evening of the second day of Passover seven weeks are counted and, on the fiftieth day, the second pilgrimage feast, that of Shavuot or Weeks, is celebrated.16

The Pilgrimage of Shavuot

"You shall keep the feast of harvest, of the first fruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field... The first of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God".17

In spite of the short duration of the feast of Shavuot (also known as Pentecost) one day only the pilgrims were no less numerous in comparison with other solemnities. Several sources, notably that of Josephus, confirm this.' Like the other Jewish feasts, this one also combines a religious and agricultural aspect the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai and the feast of the first fruits of the harvest. At the time of the Second Temple the latter agricultural aspect was the one most stressed. The Mishnah has preserved for us one of the most beautiful accounts of the details of the ceremony of the offering of the first fruits of the harvest by the pilgrims.19

"How do they take up the first fruits (to Jerusalem)? (The men of) all the smaller towns that belonged to the Maamad gathered together in the town of the Maamad and spent the night in the open place of the town and came not into the houses; and early in the morning the officer (of the Maamad) said, Arise ye and let us go up to Zion unto the Lord our God.
They that were near (to Jerusalem) brought dried figs and raisins. Before them went the ox, having its horns over-laid with gold and a wreath of olive-leaves on its head. The flute was played before them until they drew nigh to Jerusalem. When they had drawn nigh to Jerusalem they sent messengers before them and bedecked their first fruits. The rulers and the prefects and the treasurers of the Temple went forth to meet them. According to the honor due to them that came in used they go forth. And all the craftsmen in Jerusalem used to rise up before them and greet them, saying, Brethren, men of such-and-such a place, ye ate welcome'.
The flute was played before them until they reached the Temple mount".
(M. Bikkurim 3:1-4)

The Mishnah relates further that even kings participated in these joyful processions. King Agrippa, for example, had borne on his own shoulders his sheaf of first fruits until he come to the court of the Temple. This mishnaic account, according to certain historians, goes back to the time of King Agrippa himself (44-44 AD.) since he is explicitly mentioned. According to others," it dates from the beginning of the Second Temple, about the fifth century B.C. This can be confirmed by the mention of "rulers, prefects and treasurers" which were titles in use at that time.20

The Pilgrimage of Sukkot

This third pilgrimage feast is the religious commemoration of the wanderings of the Israelites in the desert of Sinai after their Exodus from Egypt. From an agricultural point of view, it celebrates the end of the ingathering of the fruits of the earth.

This feast was probably established at the time of the Second Temple as a thanksgiving feast. It is strategically placed in the agrarian cycle since after Sukkot the winter rains of the new year begin, on whose account, in the days when the Temple stood, the water-carrying ceremony was carried out. Today this sacrifice corresponds to the prayer for rain in the Mussaf service." Apart then from the celebration of the first day of Sukkot, the water-carrying ceremony of libations was the most striking feature of the feast. The Priests used to walk in procession from the pool of Siloe, close to Jerusalem, from which they drew water, then went back singing in order to pour this water on the altar of the Temple. This action was a prayer for rain that would soon fall. This ceremony, which was really an addition to the feast itself, was celebrated each of the days of the feast beginning with the second day. Its Hebrew name is Simhat Beit haShoevah or Sheuvah, that is to say, the rejoicing in the water libation or in the lighting up of the Temple. In fact, the Mishnah relates that

"he that has never seen the joys of the Beth Ha-She'ubah, has never in his life seen joy".22

At nightfall, enormous oil lamps used to be placed in the women's court, thus lighting up the whole of Jerusalem:

"There was not a courtyard in Jerusalem that did not reflect the light of the Beth Ha-She'ubah".21

Joy was evidenced everywhere among young and old, little and big, ordinary people and leaders, all of whom intermingled and sang with great jubilation. The Levites used to stand on the steps of the court and play their trumpets, lyres and cymbals. They also did acrobatics and played games." It is even related of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel that his manner of participating in this feast was to juggle eight flaming torches, throwing them up into the air without letting them touch one another. The festivities were very gay and lasted all through the night;" they attracted so many pilgrims that whole villages were empty of their inhabitants.

Other Pilgrimages

Apart from these three popular pilgrimages that corresponded to the three great Jewish solemnities, there were also individual pilgrimages motivated by personal reasons.

Pilgrims would go up to the Temple in order to bring offerings or else to have sacrifices offered such as thanksgiving or expiatory sacrifices. Sacrifices were also offered for lepers, for the newlyborn, for Nazirites, for those who wished to be released from vows which they had made. 28 These isolated pilgrimages did not have the solemn or popular character of the others. Their importance lay in the fact that they caused the individual to tighten the bonds which linked him to the Temple so that it occupied a central place even in his personal life.

After the Destruction of the Temple

The destruction of the Temple, in 70 AD., was a terrible suffering for the Jewish people and caused them untold affliction.

"He who sees the Temple destroyed should tear his garments"

says the Talmud." Although sacrifices had been obliged to stop, pilgrimages continued, without, however, having the same solemnity as formerly. The joy of yesteryear was replaced by mousing and sadness. Pilgrims used to go weeping to the Temple on seeing its ruins and the distress of the country and the people. The Roman governors would have liked to put a stop to this continuous flow of pilgrims in mourning. Fearing a resurrection, they installed guards to prevent Jews from going back into Jerusalem, Hadrian setting up roadblocks at Hamata, Laquitia and Beit-El." Nevertheless, and in spite of these restrictions, pilgrims continued to go up to the Holy City. The Midrash praises these persistent pilgrims, describing them as

"this dove whose little ones have been taken away yet which nevertheless does not abandon its nest".31

The prohibition, however, was severely applied, especially after the revolt of Bar Kochba and the destruction of Betas which was the last line of Jewish resistence against the Romans. A mishnaic passage illustrates this, relating how, immediately after the destruction of the Temple, a group of Nazirites from the diaspora went up to Jerusalem in order to be released from their vow of abstinence, not knowing that the Temple had been destroyed.

..Nazirites came up from the exile (to Jerusalem) and found the Temple destroyed. Nahum the Mede said to them, Would ye have vowed to be Nazirites had ye known that the Temple was destroyed? They answered, No. And Nahum the Mede released them from their vow. But when the matter came up before the Sages they said to him: if any man vowed to be a Nazirite before the Temple was destroyed, his Nazirite-vow remains binding; but if he vowed after the Temple was destroyed, his Nazirite-vow is not binding"? 32

Pilgrimages have never ceased. Jewish history is sprinkled with several accounts which testify to the fact that the custom of going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem was looked upon almost as a duty which should be accomplished when possible.

Again in our days numerous pilgrims go to Jerusalem during the time of the three feasts in order to commemorate the pilgrimages of former days and to pray at the Western Wall a relic of the time when the Temple was still standing.

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of the author and of Le Monde de la Bible, No. 13, March-April 1980.

1. Cf, also Exodus 23 : 17 ; 34 : 23; II Chron. 8 : 13.
2. Philo: On the Special Laws Books 1, 69.
3. Toscfta, Shekalim I, 1.
4. M. Nedarim 5, 5.
5. Y. Ketuboth 13, I.
6. Tosefta Megillah 3, 6; B. Talmud, idem 26, 1.
7. Josephus: Antiquities 17, 2, 2 and 18, 12, 1.
8. Shekalim 3, 4; Josephus: Antiquities 18, 12, 2.
9. Josephus: The Jewish Wars 1, 4, 3.
10 Yoma 12, 1.
11. Tosefta Maaser Sheni 1, 12 and 13.
12. Tosefta Pesahim 2 (3),. 18.
13. Pesahim 4, 7.
14. M. Menahoth 10, 1, 4 and Tosefta Talmud idem
15. Leviticus 23:9.
16. Cf. Idem 23:15, 16.
17. Exodus 23;16, 19.
18. M. Bikkurim 3:1-9.
19. Ibid.
20. Jet 51:23; Neh. 5:15; Esther 8:9 etc.
21 Mussaf is the additional service for Sabbaths, feast days and the beginning of each month which takes place after the main morning service.
22. M. Sukkah 5, 2. Cf. also 4.
23. Idem 5, 3.
24. Talmud Sukkah 53, 1.
25. Talmud Y. Sukkah 5, 4.
26. Talmud Sukkah, idem.
27. Josephus: The Jewish Wars, II, 19, I.
20. Lev. 27:2-23; Num. 30:3-6, etc.
29.. Talmud Moed Katan 26, 1.
30. Eikha Rabba 1, 48, 59.
31. Shit Ha-Shirim Rabba 1, 63.
32. M. Nazir 5, 4.


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