Here’s a little-known fact: The Dome of the Rock – the magnificent structure that stands atop the site of the Holy of Holies – was originally built up not for Muslims; rather, it, or its precursor, was built for the Jewish people.
How do we know this? We rely on the late Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren, and on a Byzantine historian from the 7th century.
Rabbi Goren, in his classic work The Temple Mount, wrote that the silver-domed Al-Aksa Mosque, at the Mount’s southern end opposite the gold Dome of the Rock, points southward toward Mecca and was built as a Muslim house of prayer. “At the request of the Jews,” Rabbi Goren continues, “Omar built the Dome of the Rock sanctuary to serve as a house of prayer for the Jews. This was after the Jews showed him the site where the Holy Temple had stood – and it does not point to Mecca.”
Most certainly one of Rabbi Goren’s sources was the Byzantine historian Theophanes. Written in Greek and translated into English in 1839, the following relevant passage from Theophanes was cited by English historian Guy Le Strange in his 1890 work History of Jerusalem Under the Moslems (p.11):
“In this year [635 C.E.], Omar began to restore the Temple at Jerusalem, for the building, in truth, no longer then stood firmly founded, but had fallen to ruin. Now when Omar inquired the cause, the Jews answered saying, ‘Unless thou throw down the Cross, which stands on the Mt. of Olives, the building of the Temple will never be firmly founded.’ Thereupon Omar threw down the Cross at that place, in order that the building [of the Temple] might be made firm…”
Thus we see that the Dome of the Rock, or its precursor by several decades, was built not for Muslims but for Jews, and was even supposed to be a “more firmly founded” version of the Holy Temple.
How ironic that this is the true background of the building that now symbolizes, throughout the world, Muslim control of Judaism’s holiest site – and the ban on Jewish prayer there.
Israelis officials have repeatedly promised of late, at the behest of pressure from without and within, not to change the “status quo” on the Temple Mount. Is it clear to all what exactly this means?
At the outset, it must be explained that the halachic aspects of visiting the Temple Mount are beyond the scope of this article. The issue is a matter of dispute among leading rabbis, and the opinions range from “forbidden because it leads to bloodshed,” “forbidden because we are impure,” “permitted if you know the halachic boundaries and precautions,” to “important to do so in order to retain the holy site for the Jewish people.”
When Israeli, American, and other diplomats speak of maintaining the status quo, they generally mean that Muslims must be allowed free entry for worship or playing soccer, while Jewish access must continue to be restricted.
However, some recent historical background is in order, showing that what people think is the “status quo” is actually not that at all. For one thing, how far back do we go when referring to the “status quo”?
There is much historical evidence that up until three centuries ago Jews historically prayed on the holy site relatively freely. Maimonides, for instance, wrote that he made an annual holiday to commemorate his visit to Jerusalem, on which occasion he “prayed in the Great and Holy House.” Many believe this is a clear reference to the site of the Holy Temple, and that he referred to it by the same phrase we recite in the beginning of the third blessing (Rachem) in the Grace After Meals. (The Rambam also held that nowadays, the site of the Temple is not absolutely forbidden for entry; rather (“Laws of the Chosen House 7:7), “No one may enter it except the places that one is permitted to enter.”