By Julie Stahl
CNSNews.com Jerusalem Bureau Chief
April 22, 2008
Old City, Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Tens of thousands of Israelis visited the Old City of Jerusalem on Tuesday, partly to fulfill the Bible's commandment to "go up" to Jerusalem on the Passover holiday -- and to receive the "priestly blessing" pronounced at the Western Wall.
"In the Torah, God gave the priests the power to bless," said Shmuel Rabinovitch, the chief rabbi of the Western Wall.
In the Book of Numbers, Aaron, the brother of Moses, blessed the children of Israel, ending with an invocation for peace. So when the rabbis bless the people, they are invoking divine favor on Israel for peace with its neighbors and also between themselves, Rabinovitch told Cybercast News Service.
About 300 years ago, the rabbis decided that if more of them got together to bless at one time, the blessing would have more power. So twice a year the Jewish people are invited to come to the Western Wall to receive what is called the "Birkat Cohenim" -- the blessing of the priests, he said.
On Tuesday, about a thousand Jewish men -- descendants of the Biblical Jewish priestly line -- gathered at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City to bless about 40,000 people who braved a heat wave to attend, said Rabinovitch.
The Old City of Jerusalem was full of all types of Israelis on Tuesday, from the ultra-Orthodox wearing long black coats and fur hats to secular Jews in shorts and baseball caps. Police and soldiers were visible everywhere, keeping a watchful eye on celebrations and directing pedestrians.
In corners and on benches many of the pilgrims rested, picnicking on matzah -- the flat, unleavened bread that the Jewish people are commanded to eat during the weeklong holiday -- and other Passover foods. Children ate cotton candy.
Some 1 million Israelis are expected in Jerusalem over the weeklong Passover holiday, reports said. Traffic patterns have been changed in the city and special parking lots have been designated outside the city center, with shuttle buses bringing Israelis to the Old City. Special tours and concerts are being offered throughout the city this week.
And although Israelis take advantage of the holiday to travel throughout the country, it is a special week when many, religious and secular Jews, choose to come to Jerusalem for at least a day.
The Biblical injunction to "go up" to Jerusalem by foot three times a year during the Jewish holidays has to do with the connection that every Jew has in his heart to Jerusalem, Rabinovitch said. (No matter how high in elevation, one always ascends to Jerusalem because of its spiritual position, Jewish tradition says.)
"We wanted the children to see the Old City, the heritage of Israel," said Guy Danzig, who brought his three children from Tel Monde (about 45 miles from Jerusalem) to see the city for the second time in their lives.
His eldest son, Or, 10, said it was exciting. "It's a holy place. In my opinion, you need to come and see it, Jerusalem and the Old City."
Asher, who was originally from Toronto, Canada, but now lives outside of Jerusalem, said he brought his three children to see the priestly blessing.
It commemorates the Biblical time when Jews came from all over Israel to celebrate the Passover on the Temple Mount, said Asher -- not down below where the Western Wall plaza now stands but actually on the Temple Mount, he emphasized.
Two successive Jewish Temples stood on the Temple Mount, the second of which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. The Al-Aksa Mosque and Golden Dome of the Rock now stand there. The Western Wall -- or Wailing Wall -- below, where Jewish people pray is the remnant of the retaining wall of the Temple Mount.
Sovereignty over the sacred plateau -- as well as over the Old City and eastern Jerusalem -- is one of the most hotly contested issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestinians want the eastern part of the city for the capital of a future state and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has hinted that he is ready to divide the city. The disputed areas are currently under Israeli authority.
Talia, a Jerusalemite, takes the command to go up to Jerusalem very seriously. She was walking through the Old City streets with her son Avner.
"Every year we have a tradition to go up to Jerusalem by foot, even though my son is very sick with leukemia. He is going on foot to fulfill the commandment," Talia said.
Michal, from the Tel Aviv area, was sitting on the steps above the Western Wall with her five children, ages 15, 12, 11, and 8-year-old twins.
"My son was murdered in a terror attack seven years ago," said Michal. "He was 14 years old." (Her son, Eliran Rosenberg-Zayat, and 13-year-old Naftali Lanzkorn were killed in a Hamas suicide bombing on March 28, 2001 at the "Peace Stop" gas station in Petah Tikva.)
The family was joined on Tuesday by Eliran's best friend -- now in the army -- and his wife.
"We came together to tour and to see Jerusalem, to pray at the Western Wall," said Michal. "Jerusalem, we believe and we feel, is the most special place - the peak of spirituality in our faith. We hope that the prayers will bring the redemption of all of the world. We came here to pray for this."
Michal said he sees Jerusalem as a "free city" where everyone from whatever religion can come and practice his faith -- but "we believe it is our city," she said.
One couple -- who moved to Israel from Prague, Czech Republic, complained about the crowds and the traffic.
"It's hard to excite people from Prague with the masonry of Jerusalem" the man said.
Some visitors came to fight for the city's political future.
"We are demonstrating against the will to give up Jerusalem to the Arabs, to the enemy," said a man who was leading protestors carrying flags and signs. "We want all the Land of Israel [to be] free land to the Jews," he said.
"My husband and I are new immigrants from America," said Julie David, who said she had come to Israel a year ago from California.
"We're just here to say we love Jerusalem and we don't want to see it divided and we don't think it's up to any person to divide it. God put it here. It's a special place," she said.
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Jewish guards prevent Christians and Jews from exercising their religious right to pray on the Temple Mount? That's right! Only Muslims have unlimited access to Judaism's most holy site. Only the Koran is permitted within. The Tanach (Jewish Scripture, known to much of the world as the "Old Testament") and Christian Scriptures (the New Testament) are forbidden. Yet Israel claims to respect the religious rights of all people.