I found an interesting description of Jerusalem and the Western Wall on a tourist website: “The Western Wall is the most religious site in the world for the Jewish people. Located in the Old City of Jerusalem, it is the western support wall of the Temple Mount. It is one of the major highlights in any tour of the Old City.” This seems to be an apt description of the Kotel, except that it’s wrong. The most “religious site” for the Jewish people isn’t the Western Wall – it’s the Temple Mount that sits behind the wall.
Fifty-five years ago, the Jewish people reunited the city of Jerusalem. In an interview with Providence Magazine, former Ambassador Michael Oren talked about the Six-Day War that reunited Jerusalem, “Even throughout the war, the Israeli government kept sending messages to the Jordanians saying that if they stopped fighting the Israelis would stop fighting. On the morning of June 7, Prime Minister Eshkol sends a message to Hussein saying, ‘Stop fighting and enter peace talks and we won’t even take the Old City.’ Think about that. On Jerusalem Day, we walk through the Old City with flags, celebrating the reunification. In 1967, the Israeli government was willing to forgo, willing to forfeit, that historic reunification of the Jewish people with its holiest sites in order to have peace with one Arab country. King Hussein never responds. Israeli paratroopers enter the Old City at about 9 a.m. Two hours later they report, ‘The Temple Mount is in our hands,’ and the war is essentially over on the Jordanian front.”
The religious Zionist community celebrates the 28th of Iyar as “Yom Yerushalayim.” They consider the day no less miraculous than Chanukah. They recite special prayers and have a parade through the streets of Jerusalem. With a few exceptions, the day hasn’t really caught on with communities outside of Israel’s religious Zionist community. Yom Yerushalayim isn’t a day off for students or companies like Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day).
It’s clear that Jerusalem plays a central role in every Israeli’s life. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion often spoke about Jerusalem. He made three memorable statements about Jerusalem that demonstrate the importance of Jerusalem to Israel. “No city in the world, not even Athens or Rome, ever played as great a role in the life of a nation for so long a time, as Jerusalem has done in the life of the Jewish people.” He also said, “If the Land of Israel is the heart of the Jewish nation, then Jerusalem is its heart of hearts.” Jerusalem is indivisible from Israel, “We regard it as our duty to declare that Jewish Jerusalem is an organic and inseparable part of the State of Israel, as it is an inseparable part of the history of Israel, of the faith of Israel.”
Over two thousand years ago King Solomon said, “[The Jewish people] turn back to You with all their heart and soul, in the land of the enemies who have carried them off, and they pray to You in the direction of their land which You gave to their fathers, of the city which You have chosen, and of the House which I have built to Your name.” The Talmud noted the direction the Jews prayed in and taught, “One who was standing in prayer in the Diaspora, should focus his heart toward Eretz Yisrael.” Many knowledgeable people assume Jews around the world pray towards Israel, and some assume more, that Jews pray towards Jerusalem. Like the quote from the website quoted above, that isn’t the entire picture.
Jews don’t pray towards Israel or Jerusalem. The complete teaching in the Talmud, which Maimonides wrote goes back to the times of Moses, stated, “One standing in Eretz Yisrael, should focus his heart towards Jerusalem, one standing in Jerusalem, should focus his heart towards the Temple, and one standing in the Temple, should focus his heart toward the Holy of Holies. Consequently, one standing in prayer in the east turns to face west, and one standing in the west, turns to face east. One standing in the south, turns to face north, and one standing in the north, turns to face south; all of the people of Israel find themselves focusing their hearts toward one place, the Holy of Holies in the Temple.” Jews don’t pray towards Israel or Jerusalem; they pray towards the Temple. At a time when the Temple isn’t standing, they pray towards the place it once stood, the Temple Mount.
The most sacred place for the Jewish people isn’t Jerusalem or the Western Wall, it’s the Temple Mount. There is a significant distinction between the two locations. Outsiders often claim the Jewish people can walk away from the Temple Mount as long as they keep the Western Wall and its plaza. The claim that Jews are just provoking anger by praying on the Temple Mount is made with a pure heart but is based on a lack of awareness of how important the Temple Mount is to the Jewish people. As the Jewish people commemorate the reunification of Jerusalem it’s important to note the most sacred part of the city.