Every year around Purim, we read about the aron kodesh on Shabbat. But where is the aron today? To learn the answer to this question, The Jewish Press recently spoke to three experts.
Rabbi Chaim Richmond is co-director of the Temple Institute and recently started a project, “Jerusalem Lights,” whose goal is to bring the light of Torah to the wider world.
The Jewish Press: Do we know where the aron is today?
Rabbi Richman: There many opinions, but the Rambam writes that when Shlomo HaMelech oversaw the construction of the first Temple, he perceived through ruach hakodesh that it would be destroyed, so he had a maze of underground tunnels and chambers built to hide its vessels and thus prevent them from being captured.
The second book of Chronicles records that King Josiah had a premonition that the Temple would be destroyed due to the corruption of his era, so he had the ark hidden in a specially-constructed maze of underground tunnels and chambers.
The Rambam accepts this as fact, and indicates that the Ark of the Covenant has been there ever since, which means that the legend of the “Lost Ark” is a non-Jewish invention, an intriguing basis for exciting movies and novels, but nothing more than that.
We basically know where the ark is located. The problem lies in reaching it.
If its location is known, why didn’t the Jews who built the second Temple restore it to its place in the Holy of Holies?
That’s a good question, which has never been clearly answered. Perhaps they knew the Second Temple would be destroyed as well and therefore decided to leave it in its hiding place. Perhaps the special segulos of the aron functioned as before even though it remained hidden. Or perhaps they couldn’t find it.
You have stated that finding the aron is important. Why do you think so?
The discovery of the ark, with the Tablets of Law inside, along with the broken Tablets, will trigger a wave of world teshuvah. Mankind will return to G-d. They will realize that all of their gods and doctrines are false, and that the Torah, and the covenant between Hashem and the nation of Israel are true.
In addition to teaching at several high-school yeshivot, Rabbi David Samson is a tour guide and lecturer on Tanach and the history of Eretz Yisrael.
The Jewish Press: What attempts have been made to locate the ark’s hiding place under the Temple Mount?
Rabbi Samson: There are scattered records throughout the ages of excavations that were conducted without success. One of the most recent and documented was conducted in 1909 by Montague Brownlow Parker from England.
He actually began his digging in the City of David, basing his undertaking on research gathered by a Finnish explorer, Henrik Valter Juvelius, who theorized that a system of underground tunnels led from the area of Silwan (the City of David) to the Temple Mount and the hiding place of the Temple vessels from the time of King Solomon.
The excavations uncovered an ancient system of tunnels, and many artifacts valuable in archeological research, but no treasures from the Temple. In the spring of 1912, Parker began to dig under the Temple Mount itself. The excavation coincided with the Passover, Easter, and Nabi Musa Festival of the Muslims, who claimed that Parker was trying to undermine the foundations of the Dome of the Rock shrine.
Due to incitement by the Arab Wakf, Arab rioting broke out in the city, and Parker had to pack up whatever equipment he could salvage and flee. Some of the items he left behind during his hasty escape are on display in the City of David National Park.
The most ambitious attempt to discover the hidden cavern chamber holding the ark under the Temple took place in July 1981, led by Rabbi Yehuda Meir Getz, who served as rabbi of the Kotel for 27 years before his death in 1995. The Jewish Press recently spoke with his grandson, Rabbi Adiel Getz.
The Jewish Press: What can you tell us about that excavation?
Rabbi Getz: My grandfather’s most inner being was connected to the Beit HaMikdash. In addition to his official duties as Rabbi of the Kotel, he headed the Bet-El Yeshiva for the Study of Kabbalah in the Old City.
Long before the Western Wall Tunnels were renovated and made available to the public, he would spend his nights, learning Torah and reciting Tikkun Chatzot with students in a narrow passageway he had discovered, facing what is now called, “Warren’s Gate,” after the engineer Charles Warren who was sent by the British to map underground Jerusalem in 1867.
In the time of the Second Temple, the gateway led to a tunnel and staircase to the Temple Mount, adjacent to the site of the Mikdash. After the Byzantine conquest of Jerusalem collapsed, the Jews were allowed to pray in a synagogue they built in the tunnel until it was destroyed in 1099 in the First Crusade. The tunnel became a water cistern, which Wilson named Cistern 30. My grandfather believed it could lead to the chamber where the ark was concealed, and above it, on ground level, to the place of the Altar.
Did he confer with anyone about his theory?
In 1976, he wrote to the Lubavitcher Rebbe about the matter, as he did with many issues, and asked if he could conduct excavations to investigate his conjectures. The Rebbe answered in the negative, saying it was a matter of Kodeshim. For the next five years, Rabbi Getz left things at that.
At the time, he was in charge of all Kotel affairs, from security to public ceremonies and archeological studies. The Ministry of Religion, and other government agencies, had authority on paper, but they left my grandfather alone to watch over the Kotel and its immediate surroundings.
In 1981, prompted by an inner compulsion, he ordered Jewish workers to break through the wall of Wilson’s Gate. The other ancient, sealed gates of Har HaBayit are composed of thick barricades of mud and stone, but the five-meter-high Wilson’s Gate crumpled into dust after a few hours of ardent sledgehammering. Suddenly, the ancient cistern appeared before the eyes of the workers who immediately summoned my grandfather.
How did your grandfather react?
During all of the work, he kept a diary. That day, he wrote, “I sat motionless for a long time, with hot tears pouring out of my eyes. I was seized with joy and trembling, and I felt deep inside that the next stage after discovering the tunnel would be the coming of the Mashiach and the redemption of Am Yisrael.”
He took the disappearance of the wall as a Heavenly sign that the time had arrived to carry out the exploration.
What did the opened gateway lead to?
It exposed a cistern 8 meters wide, 10 meters high, and 30 meters long, filled with water, mud, and sewage. First with shovels and buckets, then with a generator and pump, the water was removed from the cistern, which became a broad tunnel when empty.
My grandfather was sure it would lead them to the aron ha’brit. Holding to his calculation, which was shared by Rav Goren, that the Foundation Stone supported the altar outside the Sanctuary – not the Ark of the Covenant in the Kodesh HaKodeshim – and considering a Gemara that related how a kohen saw the hidden ark in a tunnel near the Chamber of Wood in the Woman’s Court, then died before he could approach it, Rav Getz first set out to reach the Foundation Stone. He planned to take chemical samples of the rock to determine if they contained traces of the materials used in the construction of the Altar.
When the diggers reached the end of the tunnel and banged on the wall in front of them, they heard hollow sounds indicating that the tunnel continued beyond the wall.
All of this was conducted in secret?
My grandfather first informed Rav Goren and Rav Ovadia Yosef. Then he told the heads of the Ministry of Religion about the project; also Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, Mossad Chief Rafael Eitan, and Deputy Prime Minister Yigael Yadin, the famous archeologist.
They all told him to continue the excavation, but not to tell Prime Minister Menachem Begin. In retrospect, my grandfather said that if he had told Begin, he would have consented along with the others, but that after the story became public, Begin had to stop it to prevent a war.
Some people maintain that Arabs heard the digging and informed the Muslim Wakf. My grandfather attributes the news leak to a reporter for Kol Yisrael who broke the headline story. The Wakf authorities sent Arabs down the scaffold shaft that the Ministry of Religion had erected, and a fight broke out in the tunnel between them and the Jewish workers and yeshiva students that my grandfather rallied to defend the site.
The project was terminated by Begin, and Warren’s Gate was once again sealed with enough layers of concrete to stop a division of tanks.
How did Rabbi Getz react?
He was heartbroken. He collapsed from exhaustion and was rushed to a hospital. In his diary entry for September 3, 1981, he writes: “My feeling when I recited Tikkun Chatzot today was close to that of my forefathers when they saw the House of our God go up in flames when it was destroyed…but I must persevere and not let the disappointment shatter my spirit.”