Location of the Temple

From: David in Ann Arbor

Dear Rabbi,

In a recent article entitled Water on the Temple Mount you wrote that the mosque of the Dome of the Rock is not necessarily built on the site of the Temple. Would you please explain. Because I have always heard that the rock under the golden dome is the “even ha-shatia” or foundation stone which was in the Holy of Holies in the ancient Temple. Thank you.

Dear David,

Indeed, the Holy of Holies of both Temples was built around the even hashatia or Foundation Stone. Its name refers to the idea that it was from this stone that the world was created, and as such is the foundation from which the world “spread forth” (Yoma 54b). It was on this stone that the Holy Ark containing the Ten Commandments rested in the first Temple, and upon which the high priest placed the holy incense when he entered the Holy of Holies once a year on Yom Kippur. When King Solomon built the first Temple, he designed a secret labyrinth of underground passageways and chambers in which King Yoshiyahu later hid the ark, the tablets, the staff of Aaron, the manna, and the special anointing oil – which remain hidden to this day (Rambam, Beit HaBechira 4:1).

The theory that the Dome of the Rock is built on this stone is well grounded. In his “Travels of Rabbi Benjamin of Tudelo” (Spain, 1100’s), that famous rabbi-explorer wrote (p 392), “On the site of the Holy Temple, Omar ibn al Katub built a large and beautiful dome”. This appears to be the opinion of Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura (1400’s, born in Italy and buried on the Mount of Olives opposite the Golden Gate), who wrote, “I investigated the location of the even hashatia and many say it’s under the dome built on the site of the Temple” (Darkei Tzion 1:15b). Finally, the renowned sage of the Land of Israel, Rabbi David ben Zimra, (1479-1573) stated explicitly that the rock under the dome is the foundation stone of the Holy of Holies (Shut HaRadbaz, 4:691).

Nevertheless, based on ancient texts, archeological finds and scientific studies, some rabbis of the last hundred years have suggested that the Temple was actually located on the vacant part of the Temple Mount opposite the Western Wall.

First, the Zohar suggests, as understood by an authoritative commentator, that the foundations of the Temple remain hidden and that no building will be built there until the restoration of the third Temple (Nitzutzei HaZohar p. 480). Also, a disciple of the Arizal states that the writings of his master refer to this idea, explaining the matter in great mystical depth (Emek HaMelech, Intro ch. 9). But there are sources other than the esoteric.

Talmudic sources (Tosephta, Pesachim 4:10) record that the huge, open courtyard of the Temple was washed by opening an aperture to let water from an aqueduct run into the courtyard and out the other side. This aqueduct originated in Solomon’s pools in Bethlehem, made its way to the present day Jewish quarter, and onto the Temple Mount via Wilson’s bridge. [In more recent times, the Turks used this aqueduct, and much of it remains intact today.] The problem is that this water source entered the Mount many meters below its current level. This suggests that the original level of the Mount was much lower, and that the rock under the dome was not in the Temple, but part of a rocky high place outside of it. What was this rocky high place?

Our Sages (Yoma 2a) describe that there was a high point on the north of the Mount upon which was built a fortress to protect the Temple from invasion. This fortress, originally built by the Hasmoneans and later enlarged by King Herod, was called Antonia’s fortress. It has been suggested that the rock under the dome is the top of the high place that was originally exposed, upon which the fortress was built. It overlooked the Temple to the south, which would place the Temple’s location opposite the Western wall. Josephus (War of the Jews 5.5.8, Antiquities 15.7) refers to this fortress and says it was built on a rocky hill that was steep on all sides. He also describes secret, underground passages to the north and south of the Antonia. Interestingly, early archeological research revealed long and narrow passageways north and south of the Dome of the Rock, which strengthens the suggestion that it was the site of the fortress, not the Temple.

But these are only a few of the underground caverns discovered below the Mount. About a hundred years ago, archeologists found about thirty such spaces. Oddly, all of the caverns in the area of the Dome of the Rock are relatively small and symmetrical, whereas those to the south of the dome are very large, deep and asymmetrical. Some of these chambers were reported by the archeologists as having decorated ceilings, ruling out the possibility of their being cisterns. This suggests that the ruins of the Temple and its underground chambers are not in the area of the dome but rather opposite the Wall. Recent electro-magnetic and infrared tests have revealed other, previously unknown spaces under the Mount, which may also have resulted from the same phenomenon. Somewhere in those deep, hidden recesses may be the holy objects hidden and lost so long ago.

On the verse, “You shall inquire after His dwelling and come there” (Deut. 12:5), our Sages instructed (Sifri, Re’eh 62): “Inquire and find! This teaches that G‑d will not reveal the secret of the Temple’s location through a prophet until the Jewish people make an effort to inquire and search for it. Only then will he send a prophetic spirit from above to reveal it.”

In the merit of our inquiry, may we deserve to see the building of the Temple speedily in our day.

[For a detailed discussion on whether it is permitted to go on the Temple Mount see Mourning on the Mount]

Sources:

  • Beit HaMikdah HaShelishi, Shalom Dov Steinberg, pp 159-183
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