ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 149

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Ben Gvir faces dilemma as activists ask to hold Passover sacrifice on Temple Mount

Each year, fringe group tries to slaughter a lamb in line with its interpretation of a biblical edict, and is always denied. But now it’s asking a different kind of police minister

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

A goat rescued by police from a man who intended to slaughter it as a Biblical Passover sacrifice in the Old City of Jerusalem, April 10, 2017. (Police spokesperson)
A goat rescued by police from a man who intended to slaughter it as a Biblical Passover sacrifice in the Old City of Jerusalem, April 10, 2017. (Police spokesperson)

A fringe religious group on Monday night asked newly installed National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir for permission to perform the Passover ritual sacrifice on the Temple Mount this coming spring.

The “Returning to the Mount” group makes this request every year, to no avail. But Ben Gvir, who ascended the Temple Mount on Tuesday morning, is no normal police minister, and they stand a better chance than ever before to get permission to perform the controversial animal sacrifice ritual.

“Each year, we make many efforts to advance the Passover sacrifice, both in national educational campaigns and in practice, as each year we attempt to make the sacrifice in its proper place and time,” the group said.

Most Israeli security officials believe that permitting the Passover sacrifice on the Temple Mount would prompt fierce protests by Muslims, in Jerusalem, the West Bank and in neighboring Arab countries, who would see it as a major change to the status quo on the holy site. As a result, these requests have always been denied, though activists have been permitted to perform the ritual slaughter of a lamb within the Old City, but outside the Temple Mount.

“This year, in light of the political situation and the formation of a ‘fully right-wing’ government for the first time in a long time, there is real potential that the Passover sacrifice could be performed in a respectful way, with approval from and coordination with all of the different authorities, principally the Israel Police, which are under your power as the new national security minister of the State of Israel,” the group wrote.

In the past, Ben Gvir has allegedly attempted to perform the Passover sacrifice himself, and more recently he has defended in court other activists who have tried to do so, arguing that it is undemocratic to forbid Jews from performing a religious commandment.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visits the Temple Mount, January 3, 2023. (Courtesy: Minhelet Har Habayit)

Returning to the Mount referred to this in its letter, noting that Ben Gvir “knows well the importance of the Passover sacrifice from his activities in the past.”

The group said it planned to file a formal written request to the Israel Police on Wednesday.

Returning to the Mount has repeatedly sought official permission to perform the sacrifice and its members have also tried to do it illegally when they were inevitably rebuffed, attempting to smuggle lambs onto the Temple Mount. This often results in police detentions or arrests. Last year, the group caused a stir when it offered a cash prize to anyone who succeeded in performing the ritual and compensation to those arrested in the process.

In the Book of Numbers, God commands the Jewish people to sacrifice a one-year-old male lamb on the eve of Passover, which this year falls on April 5. This was performed in the courtyard of the Temple. Following the destruction of the First and Second Temples, most Jews stopped performing all animal sacrifices, waiting to resume the practice once the messiah comes and the Third Temple is built.

However, while most other animal sacrifices can only be performed in a temple, some rabbinic sources — notably the 19th Century Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer — have argued that the Passover sacrifice could or even must be fulfilled today, at least in theory.

Many of the technical questions of how exactly such a sacrifice must be performed remain unresolved — such as the precise location on the Temple Mount where it must occur, how the money to purchase the lamb should be raised, and whether the commandment should be performed if it potentially endangers human life — and therefore most rabbinic authorities do not believe that the sacrifice must be carried out.

The Returning to the Mount group, however, not only believes in the need to perform the ritual but is convinced that it has the answers to those technical questions and can conduct the sacrifice in line with Jewish law.

Illustrative: A ritual slaughterer prepares a sheep as part of a demonstration about the Passover sacrifice in Jerusalem’s Old City on April 6, 2017. (Alexander Fulbright/Times of Israel)

This is an exceedingly fringe belief. While there is some support — in theory — for the notion that the sacrifice must be performed today, the overwhelming majority of religious authorities maintain that the unanswered questions about how to practically perform it makes it an entirely moot point.

While this belief is far from commonly held, it is apparently held by Ben Gvir, or at least was in the past.

In 2006, Ben Gvir was stopped by police as he and a number of other far-right activists attempted to perform the Passover sacrifice, according to a Channel 13 news report from the time.

Ben Gvir said at the time that “anywhere else it would be called antisemitic” to forbid Jews from performing the Passover sacrifice.

In 2017, Ben Gvir — then an attorney for a far-right legal defense group — represented a group of Returning to the Mount activists when they were arrested for planning to perform the Passover sacrifice.

“The police must allow Temple Mount activists the freedom of worship. Israel is losing its democratic character. It is unimaginable that people are being arrested in the middle of the night because they want to perform a Jewish religious commandment,” Ben Gvir said in a statement.

Ben Gvir’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In an interview Tuesday evening with Channel 12 news, Ben Gvir was asked whether he would permit the sacrifice but dodged the question.

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