On the Temple Mount, priests take on a new sacred duty: Collecting bodies
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On the Temple Mount, priests take on a new sacred duty: Collecting bodies

Ultra-Orthodox organization ZAKA, which retrieves fatalities after car accidents and terror attacks, creates volunteer group fearing more attacks on holy site

ZAKA volunteers next to the entrance to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem following the July 14, 2017, terror attack. (courtesy ZAKA)
ZAKA volunteers next to the entrance to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem following the July 14, 2017, terror attack. (courtesy ZAKA)

The ultra-Orthodox emergency response organization ZAKA is forming a special unit of volunteer Kohanim, or Jews from the priestly class, to deal with the aftermath of any future fatal terror attacks on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, it announced.

Many rabbis, including the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, forbid Jews from ascending to the Temple Mount, declaring that Jews today cannot attain the necessary purity needed to allow them to reach the holiest spot in Judaism. ZAKA, a volunteer group that handles dead bodies and human remains after terror attacks or accidents, follows the ruling of the Chief Rabbinate on this and other matters.

According to Jewish law, there are some areas of the Temple Mount, such as where the Holy of Holies is believed to have been, that are accessible to Kohanim only. This is separate from the matter of purity, and it means that while the Rabbinate discourages Jews from entering the Temple Mount, if there is an emergency situation, Jews from the priestly class are preferable because they would not incur the unnecessary sin of entering forbidden areas.

In the chaos immediately after a July 14 attack, in which two Israeli border guards were killed, emergency services across Jerusalem kicked into their seasoned post-terror attack routines. But ZAKA had never before operated on the Temple Mount.

In an emergency conference call directly after the attack, ZAKA’s rabbis decided on a one-time basis to send a single volunteer who had immersed in a mikveh, or ritual bath, to deal with the dead bodies of the officers, Haiel Sitawe, 30, and Kamil Shnaan, 22, as well as the remains of the three terrorists, who were killed by security forces at the scene. They later convened ZAKA’s council of rabbis to discuss a more permanent ruling.

Israeli ZAKA emergency response members are seen in the Israeli settlement of Halamish, Saturday, July 22, 2017, a day after a Palestinian terrorist stabbed to death three members of the Salomon family there (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)
Israeli ZAKA emergency response members are seen in the Israeli settlement of Halamish, July 22, 2017, a day after a Palestinian terrorist stabbed to death three members of the Salomon family there (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Although the Red Crescent emergency services also operated on the Temple Mount after the attack, Israeli police directed ZAKA to handle the bodies because the police usually hold on to the bodies of terrorists until the families agree to hold small, low-profile funerals. In this case, the bodies were released after two weeks following an order from the High Court of Justice.

ZAKA, formed in 1989, handles all human remains in accordance with Jewish law, or halacha, even when the deceased is not Jewish. In the case of the Temple Mount attack, for instance, none of the bodies was Jewish, as the two slain officers were Druze, while the terrorists were Muslim.

In Israel’s crowded field of emergency response organizations — police, firefighters, Magen David Adom, United Hatzalah, and others — ZAKA’s niche is dealing with the bodies of victims with an emphasis on adherence to halacha. Judaism has very strict religious laws about attending to dead bodies, including requiring a constant presence or guard to watch the body and commandments to bury all parts of the body together, which sometimes entails ZAKA volunteers searching for and collecting minute body parts at the scenes of terror attacks and accidents.

Chairman of ZAKA, Israel’s voluntary emergency response organization, Yehuda Meshi Zahav (ZAKA/Lydia Weitzman Communications)
Chairman of ZAKA, Israel’s voluntary emergency response organization, Yehuda Meshi Zahav (ZAKA/Lydia Weitzman Communications)

Though ZAKA volunteers are also trained as first responders and can administer lifesaving first aid when necessary, their main task is to work as something of a cleanup crew, handling the bodies of people killed from non-natural causes. They respond to about 30 fatal incidents per week, mostly traffic accidents, said ZAKA director Yehuda Meshi-Zahav.

ZAKA in a Hebrew acronym that means Disaster Victim Identification. Its volunteers also respond to international disasters, like the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, and assist in cases where Israelis die abroad.

The creation of the new volunteer unit of Kohanim was the result of intensive meetings among the ZAKA council of rabbis, headed by Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl, the former rabbi of the Old City of Jerusalem. They concluded that the importance of quickly removing impurities, including dead bodies, from the Temple Mount supersedes a basic ruling forbidding Jews to visit the area, as well as a law forbidding Kohanim from coming into contact with the dead.

In the case of a future attack on the Temple Mount, members of the volunteer unit will have special requirements before entering the compound. They must not wear shoes (or they can wear cloth shoes). They must bring in the minimum amount of equipment, and enter and leave by the shortest route.

ZAKA's council of rabbis discusses requirements for removing bodies from the Temple Mount on July 30, 2017 in Jerusalem. (courtesy ZAKA)
ZAKA’s council of rabbis discusses requirements for removing bodies from the Temple Mount on July 30, 2017 in Jerusalem. (courtesy ZAKA)

Many religious Jews, following the Chief Rabbinate’s ruling, do not ascend to the Temple Mount due to their inability to achieve the necessary purity and the uncertainty about where exactly they would be allowed to step even if pure. Other Jews do not subscribe to this belief and do visit the compound.

“These are weighty questions about the most severe prohibitions in Jewish law, with their violation carrying a punishment of karet [divine excommunication],” said Meshi-Zahav. “Therefore, it was very important to ZAKA to receive clear directions for the volunteers in accordance with Jewish law.”

ZAKA has previously not allowed Kohanim to volunteer with the organization because they are, as a rule, forbidden to touch dead bodies or enter cemeteries.

ZAKA rescue personnel carry the bodies of family members at the scene where a woman and four children were killed in a fire in what police suspect was a murder-suicide at an apartment in Jerusalem, January 1, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
ZAKA rescue personnel carry the bodies of family members at the scene where a woman and four children were killed in a fire in what police suspect was a murder-suicide at an apartment in Jerusalem, January 1, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

ZAKA is recruiting priestly volunteers who live near Jerusalem’s Old City for the new unit. They will study the relevant commandments and train so they will be ready in the case of a future fatal terror attack.

Other emergency response organizations do not have the same policies regarding Jewish volunteers who are Kohanim.

“Kohanim go out on regular calls as a responder, and if someone on the scene is going to declare a person dead they may ask the Kohanim to leave first,” said Raphael Poch, a spokesman for United Hatzalah. He said that the organization does not ask volunteers whether they are Kohanim, though many Kohanim have questions about this subject during their training. He added that it is the volunteer’s responsibility to say something or leave if they would rather not be in the room when a death is declared.

Fatalities on the Temple Mount are a very rare occurrence. According to Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, the last time there was a fatality on the Temple Mount was during the 1990 Temple Mount riots. Then, a crowd of Muslim worshipers threw stones and construction material at Jews praying in the Western Wall plaza below during Sukkot, when the place was packed. Israeli border police fired at the crowd, killing 20 Muslims and injuring 100. About a dozen Jews were injured.

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