If you think you “have seen everything” in Israel, you probably are wrong. Call it an event, a spectacle or what it really is – prayer in its purest form – it is called “Sivuv Sha’arim,” literally “Around the Gates,” referring to the old, closed gates to the Temple Mount.
Lest anyone be put off because of prohibitions by the Chief Rabbinate of ascending the Temple Mount, praying at the gates of the Temple Mount is similar, in terms of Jewish law, as praying at the Western Wall or any synagogue in the world.
It happens every eve of a new Hebrew month, unless the Arabs get antsy around Ramadan. Several hundred women and men, sometimes up to 3,000, walk and sing in prayer and dance around the old gates to the Temple Mount.
They have been doing this for several years, and last week, I joined them on the eve of the Hebrew month of Kislev, Rosh Chodesh.
I have written about the “Sivuv” in the past as reporter for the Jewish Telegraph Agency, the Jerusalem Post and Arutz Sheva, but this time I am writing it as my own personal experience.
Before the march begins, the organizers brief the crowd on behavior: Follow orders, don’t start up with the police or Arabs and keep all of the senses focused on prayer and the place where the Holy Temples once existed.
The march winds thorough the Muslim and Armenian Quarters under heavy police guard to make sure the Arabs don’t cause any trouble. This past week, there were about 100 police officers, one for every 10 worshippers, and almost ever policeman toted a machine gun.
The prayers are said with strict separation between men and women, and girls hold up a banner the width of the streets in the Old City, with “men” written in Hebrew on side and “women” written on the other side to ensure modesty during singing and dancing.
Young girls and young men, many of them with earlocks half-way down to their belly buttons, their shoulders, wave purple flags of the Temple Mount. There were a handful of the over 60 crowd, like myself, and several Haredim. Other than that, the average age was less than 20.
At each of the old gates, the crowd stops and sings a Psalm. The young men break out in dance, and the loudspeakers that are on a trolley that follows the crowd and separate the men from the women, blares out a Psalm, “Our feet shall stand within thy gates, Jerusalem.”
As I walked back from one gate with the men, it was the girls’ turn to approach the gate and pray. I saw one woman – yes I did look at a woman other than my wife – stopping for several minutes as several hundred others walked past to get near the gate and pray. She covered her face with her hands and moved her head from side to side and in quick motion, totally intense in her thoughts.
What happened? Did she lose a boyfriend? Was a relative sick? More likely, she was totally wrapped up in absolute goodness on a spiritual path.
I began to cry.
I was there once upon a time, when I made aliyah on my first visit to Israel in 1983, at the age of 39. Everything in Israel was good – even the Knesset, where I marveled at a picture or tapestry of King David and realized how everything in this Land of the Jews is connected to Judaism. It simply depends with what eye you are looking and what objective you have in mind.
A cynical visitor could consider the enthusiasm of the monthly crowd as acting out some sort of fantasy. To the cynics I answer that these people, especially the girls, are totally holy in their innocence and innocent in their purity.
The prayers took place last Sunday night, several hours before the so-called Women of the Wall (WoW) gathered for their monthly routine of strutting their spirituality.
The Women of the Wall barely manage to get 100 women to make the trip to the Kotel each month. Last week was an exception, and they came up with approximately 700. One reason for the unusually large number was the 25th anniversary of their monthly outing. Secondly, many of the women were Americans who flew in for the event, and we will probably seem them again in another 25 years.