Three times a year all males must appear before the Lord your God at the place he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Tabernacles. [Deuteronomy 16]
Assuming that “aIl males” pertains to the entire family, this passage in Deuteronomy called for Jews to make a pilgrimage to a central place of worship three times a year. But this was not to be just a recreational family outing, says Rabbi Benjamin Lau, speaking within the framework of the Bible study 929.org.il website (which, if you don’t know about it, you should). No, this was to be a sort of “date”, a meeting with your Maker, where you would see Him – and be seen by Him.
How to prepare for such an important event, one that would undoubtedly become a definitive moment in your life? During the Second Temple period, when observing the precepts of Judaism was a way of life, pilgrims flocked to Jerusalem in droves from all over the ancient world. They traveled on foot or by donkey, on horseback or atop camels. At every new village or town other travelers would join the procession, eventually converging into large convoys which often journeyed for weeks on end.
Yet the hardships of the long expedition were quickly forgotten as the pilgrims approached Jerusalem. Bursting with excitement, they knew that soon they would be part of the hustle and bustle of the Holy City and able to worship the Lord just as He had commanded.
Of course, when they finally arrived, there was no way they could ascend to the Mount covered in dust and dirt from their travels. Even after bathing in the clear waters of the Shiloah Pool at David’s City, they were not yet ready to sacrifice in the Temple: They would still have to purify their minds and souls in a ritual bath called a mikveh. And that is why, of the 700 ritual baths uncovered so far throughout Israel, 200 are found in Jerusalem and, of these, fully 50 of them are located near the Temple Mount.
Most of these are found beneath the Mount’s southern wall, an area jam-packed with millennia-old antiquities open to any visitor entering Jerusalem’s unique Archaeological Park-Davidson Center. And no wonder there were so many, says Gura Berger, spokesperson for the East Jerusalem Development Company. At any one time there could be thousands of pilgrims in need of ritual cleansing.
A few weeks ago, with a generous contribution from Australian philanthropist Kevin Bermeister, the Israel Antiquities Authority opened a special Mikveh Trail within the park. Preserved and restored by the IAA, it consists of a well-marked path that takes you to dozens of ritual baths located on the exact route followed by pilgrims before they began their final ascent.
The idea, explained Berger, as she guided us along the trail a few days ago, is to show visitors from all walks of life what a mikveh looks like, how it was used in Temple times, and the strict rules that applied – including detailed instructions on where the water came from (rain), what to wear when you went in (nothing), and how you immersed yourself (all at once).
Hard to imagine unless you can remember back that far, but until excavations began in 1970 this entire area – abandoned after the Byzantine era — was completely covered with dirt. Known as the Ophel, it is mentioned several times in the Bible when referring to the space between the Temple Mount and the City of David, where King David established Jerusalem as his capital.
The new trail begins just outside the southern wall with a view of the excavations below, including the site at which a tiny ivory pomegranate – the only relic ever recovered from the treasures of King Solomon’s Temple – was discovered. You also look down into a large plaza that, during the Hasmonean era (second century B.C.E) was actually a cistern with plastered sides. Water from cisterns like this one was piped into the ritual baths.
The Bible speaks of purifying oneself in water many times. Yet, says Berger, the ritual bath as we know it today wasn’t invented until the Second Temple era, when priests developed all kinds of rules that made it possible to carry out the biblical commandments.
According to one rather wild tradition, the water in the baths never got dirty, even though it was never changed. Still another holds that – although there were thousands of people milling around the area and animals were being slaughtered non-stop — it was never smelly on the Temple Mount. And there weren’t any flies up there either.
Few Jews were left in the city after the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., and the rest were banned following the Bar Kochba revolt (132-135 C.E.) Later Byzantine-era residents built their houses on the ruins of many of the structures, and turned ritual baths into storerooms or cisterns. From the trail you can see remains from one of the houses, including a mosaic floor with a Greek inscription that reads: “Happy are the habitants of this house.”
Scattered throughout the route are dozens of ritual baths, as well as vast variety of cisterns from which they were fed. At one point the trail leads down into a huge, deep cistern. Inside, it is easy to see that it was carved out of Jerusalem’s limestone rock. It was also covered with a special hydraulic plaster to prevent water from seeping out of the sides.
One structure was partially restored and boasts part of the original roof. On the floor, there is a rose design, a very common symbol in Jerusalem. Maybe that’s because at least one Jewish source forbids Jerusalemites from planting anything but roses in the city.
An interesting, beautifully carved rectangular opening in the rock could have been a store, suggested Berger, or maybe a display area. One of the guests we brought along on this tour suggested that shopkeepers could have put ice in the long, vertical slot nearby, and kept cold drinks there for the pilgrims during their ascent.
When you reach the bottom of the trail you, too, begin to ascend. Your route leads to some large ritual baths as well as smaller ones that were perhaps used for purifying animals and/or dishes.
Also visible on this portion of the trail are ritual baths whose steps are separated down the middle. The reason for the division was simple: You walked down into the water still filled with impure thoughts — and walked up the other side in a completely different state of mind. Hopefully you weren’t too cold: the water in the mikveh was not heated.
Even if you were a good walker, it was a long, long climb to the Temple. And it was a difficult one: Pilgrims didn’t have wooden steps and planks like those on the trail, frailer pilgrims would have had enormous problems, and everyone’s feet would undoubtedly have hurt. Maybe they didn’t care, bent as they were on their mission to worship God at the Temple. But the IAA wants visitors to feel at least a bit of their pain, and has left a small portion of the trail for you to climb up on unpaved bedrock.
The trail ends below the stairs leading up to the Hulda Gates, from which pilgrims entered the Temple Mount. Although the gates were blocked up long ago, one portion of the beautiful lintel can still be seen. While some of the stairs have been repaired, most look just as they did 2,000 years ago. Their size and irregularity forced the crowds to walk slowly, and perhaps to meditate on the sanctity of the site they were about to visit.
Some scholars believe that the gates were named for the prophetess Hulda, who lived during the First Temple Period. Hulda declared that God had called for the destruction of Jerusalem because its inhabitants had turned to idolatry. She was one of the prophets who induced King Josiah to undertake reforms so comprehensive that the Lord deferred this disaster until a later time.
But it is also possible that the name “Hulda” is from the Hebrew word for mole (holed). Once pilgrims had walked through the gates they found themselves in long, wide covered tunnels. When they finally emerged from these “burrows,” they were blinded by the sun as it reflected off the walls of the Temple.
All day long, modern-day Christian pilgrims sit quietly on the ancient steps or climb them with reverence as they chant hymns of praise. If you take the time to watch them, you can imagine what Jewish pilgrims must have felt as they climbed to the Temple Mount. Perhaps they sang a verse from Psalms 126: “A song of ascents. When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion, we were like dreamers.”
How they must have hushed their rowdy youngsters and gazed in awe as they walked through the gates to the Temple.