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Har Hazeitim

The midrash teaches us that the branch carried back to noah's ark after the flood by the second dove, marking the "renewal of life" and the return of humanity to the surface of the earth, was plucked from the slopes of the Mt. of Olives.

 

The name "Mount of Olives" really describes the whole mountain range running from north to south directly east of the "Old City" of Jerusalem, including what are today called Mount Scopus, the Mount of Olives, and Har HaMishcha or the Hill of Evil Counsel. The mountain is first mentioned in Biblical times, when King David fled Jerusalem before his rebellious son, Avshalom, "by the ascent of the Mount of Olives" (Samuel II 15: 30). It is also mentioned in the book of Zechariah.

 

The names Har Hazeitim (Mt. Of Olives) and Har Hamishcha (Mount of Anointing) come from the many olive trees which flourished all over the mountain range. Their precious oil was used to anoint kings and in the Temple service. The term Har HaMoshchit (destroying mountain) is mentioned in Jeremiah 51:25, in reference to Babylon, but was also used as a derogatory application for Har Hamishcha, which sounds very much alike, as a play on words. The designation Har HaMashchit apparently derives from the idol worship there, begun by King Solomon's Moabite and Ammonite wives "on the mountain which is before (east of) Jerusalem" (Kings I 11:17), just outside the limits of the holy city. This site was apparently infamous throughout the First Temple period, as Josiah, one of the last kings of Judah, finally destroyed "the high places that were before Jerusalem, to the right of Har HaMashchit,..." In Jewish literature, the hill is generally referred to as Har Hamishcha and not Har HaMashchit. In general, during the First and Second Temple periods, the city of Jerusalem was situated on the two hills to the south and west of the Temple Mount, (Mount Zion and the City of David), while the surrounding hills and valleys, including of course the Mount of Olives range, were used for agriculture and as burial grounds.

 

When the Hebrew University and Haddassah Hospital were founded, at the beginning of the century, the name "Mount of Olives" was firmly associated with the traditional Jewish burial ground. Therefore the name Mount Scopus (Har HaTzofim) was chosen to change this image for these institutions.

 

Of all the hills in the Jerusalem area, the Mt. Of Olives is the tallest - about 830 meters high at its peak, 40 meters higher than the mountain range on which what are today known as Mt. Zion and the "Old City" are situated. However, it is almost 90 meters higher than the peak of Har HaMoriah, the Temple Mount, site of the Dome of the Rock, which lies directly to its west. To its east lie the town of Ma'aleh Adumim and the Jordan Valley. The Jerusalem-Jericho road also winds around the mountainside. From the top, one has a panoramic view of the old and new cities of Jerusalem on the west, and the Judean Desert on the east - a vivid illustration of the verse, "Jerusalem - Mountains surround it, and the L-rd surround His people from now until eternity." Psalms 125:2 Separating Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives are the Valley of Jehoshaphat and the Kidron Valley. The latter turns east around the southern border of the mount and continues all the way on to the Dead Sea.

 

During both Temple periods, the preparation of the ashes of the Red Heifer, to be used in the Temple for purification, was performed on the Mount of Olives. Numbers 19:2-19 Talmudic sources indicate that during the time of The Second Temple, the Har Ha Beit and the Mt. Of Olives were actually connected by a bridge, and the rituals relating to the Para Adumah (red heifer), whose ashes were essential to the Mikveh purification process for the services at the Beit Hamikdash, were performed on Har Hazeitim. Shortly before the destruction of the First Temple, the Shechina (Divine Presence) "left" the Temple itself and hovered over the Mount of Olives for 3 1/2 years waiting for the People of Israel to repent, before ascending to the heavens. Ezekiel 11:23, Eicha Raba Petichta 23 (According to Talmudic tradition the Shechina departed from the Beit Hamikdash in ten stages. First the Shechina departed the Temple Mount, then the Holy City and the tenth and last resting-place was on Har Hazeitim. There, according to the tradition, the Shechina waited, in the hope that the Jewish People would repent of their sins. But when they did not repent, the Shechina eventually left this world, ascending to Heaven from a spot on the Mt. Of Olives which was called "the footstool of G-d". One tradition says that the Prophet Yechezkel will sound the shofar on Har Hazeitim to announce the beginning of the resurrection. According to the Prophet Zecharya, at the end of days, when the Jews are redeemed by the coming of the Messiah, the Mt. Of Olives will once more serve as "the footstool of G-d" and be the site from which the Shechina returns to the Temple Mount.) The Divine Presence, of course, returned to Mount Moriah when the Second Temple was built, and even upon the Temple's destruction, "the Divine Presence has never left the Western Wall."

 

During the Second Temple period, the Mount of Olives was the first in the chain of mountains throughout Israel upon which bonfires were lit every Rosh Chodesh (New Month), to announce the beginning of a new month. (The Jewish month begins with the new moon. In its original form, Rosh Chodesh, officially announced the first day of each new month by the Sanhedrin (the Supreme Rabbinic Court), in Jerusalem.) To enable Jewish communities throughout Israel and Babylonia to know exactly when the month had begun, bonfires were lit on high mountains, from the Mount of Olives up to Sartaba - in Samaria, near the Jordan Valley, from there up to Grophina - in lower Galilee, and so on until Babylonia. See Mishna Rosh Hashana 2:4

 

After the destruction of the Temple, during the Roman and Byzantine periods, Jews were not permitted to live or pray in Jerusalem. With the Moslem conquest of Jerusalem in 638 C.E., Jews were allowed to resettle in Jerusalem. However, since the Dome of the Rock and Al-Akza had been built on the Temple Mount, surrounded by palaces and hostels for Moslem pilgrims, the Jewish community naturally turned to the Mount of Olives, with its numerous religious associations and its spectacular view of the Eastern Wall of the Temple Mount, which had never been destroyed. The Mount of Olives then became the central site for prayer services. A plot of land was acquired on the mount and a synagogue erected, in which special prayers were recited. They are mentioned in a famous letter by the heads of the Jewish community in Jerusalem to the Diaspora, in which they write, "..We have no comfort but to go about the gates...praying for mercy and forgiveness...for the return of the Shechina, the coming of the Messiah, the ingathering of the exiles...form the holy sanctuary on the Mount of Olives." (A. Ya'ari, Igrot Eretz Yisrael, p.47) Naturally, prayers at that time concentrated on mourning the destruction of the Temple, particularly on Tishah B'Av, the fast day of the anniversary of the destruction.

 

Another custom was the pilgrimage to the Mount of Olives on Jewish holidays, in memory of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem during the Temple period. On Hoshanna Rabba., the seventh day of Succot, it was the custom to encircle the mountain seven times, blowing the shofar, with the Kohanim (priests) dressed in festive white garments, and the people carrying murbiot (willow branches) following them, to commemorate a similar ceremony formerly held in the Temple on that day. It was a festive occasion, with much singing and dancing, and many that were not Kohanim would also seek to join and even lead the procession. On Hoshanna Rabba, the leader of the Jewish community would sit on the spot on the Mt. Of Olives from which the Shechina ascended to Heaven and issue various rulings and announcements of important appointments. Another ceremony centered around the sighting of the new moon, a continuation of the ceremonies during the Second Temple period. These customs continued on throughout the Moslem and medieval periods. Even when Jews were allowed to pray at the Western Wall and the Temple Mount gates, the Mount of Olives retained its status as a holy site revered and visited by Jewish residents and pilgrims to Jerusalem.

 

Looking towards the future, the Mount of Olives plays a key role in the Jerusalem of Messianic times. It figures prominently in the apocalyptic vision of the prophet Zechariah 14. "And I shall gather all the nations to Jerusalem to battle...Then will the L-rd go out and fight against those nations...And His feet shall stand on that day upon the Mount of Olives which is opposite Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split along the middle of it by a very great valley from east to west, and half of the mountain will be moved towards the north, and half of it towards the south... And on that day, living waters will go forth from Jerusalem...And the L-rd shall be king over all the earth: on that day the L-rd will be One and His Name One..And Jerusalem shall dwell secure."

 

The Mount of Olives has traditionally been revered as the site from which the Redemption of the Dead will begin in the end of days (Bereishit Rabah 33:11 and Bavli Ketubot). This is one of the reasons why Jews have always wanted to be buried in Jerusalem, and particularly on the Mount of Olives. Many famous graves are located there, from the first Temple period in the Silwan, at its southern border (for example, the monolithic grave of "Pharoah's daughter) to the Second Temple period burial caves found intact in the Kidron Valley with inscriptions in Greek and Hebrew and the famous monumental graves from the Second Temple period in the Valley of Jehoshaphat in the North. These include the Tomb of Zechariah the prophet, Yad Avshalom, and the family grave of the priests of the House of Chizir (Chronicles 1 24:15). According to tradition, the royal graves of some of the kings of the House of David, and particularly that of King Uzziah, may have been nearby (See Tosephta to Baba Bathra 100) The prophet Isaiah is also said to be buried near the Kidron. Towards the to of the mount are ancient graves ascribed to the prophets Chulda, Chagai and Malachi.

 

This, then has been the burial ground of Jerusalem throughout the ages. Unfortunately, the problem of desecration of graves there has also continued throughout the ages. Rabbi Binyamin of Tudela was a famous Jewish traveler who visited Jerusalem at the end of the twelfth century. He writes that during the Crusader period, when Jews were once again forbidden to live in Jerusalem, many tombstones were stolen and were used to build houses for the Crusaders. A similar situation existed during the 16th and 17th centuries, leading one pilgrim to note that graves in Jerusalem "have no tombstones" (Elchanan, "Emek HaMelech"). Etchings and photographs from the 19th and first half of the 20th century show many many graves at the foot of the Mount of Olives which cannot be found at all today, the result of the destruction and defilement of the cemetery, along with so many other Jewish holy sites. Nonetheless, Jews throughout the ages have consistently chosen this sacred place above all others to be buried.

 

Indeed, there was only one period in which the Mount of Olives cemetery was not in use - from the war of Independence in 1948 until the Six-Day War in 1966, when the mountain was under Jordanian rule. Not only were burials there forbidden but the graves were desecrated and the tombstones used for public and private building projects, particularly by the Jordanian Legion army. Immediately after the re-unification of Jerusalem, the mountain was mapped, and many of the desecrated graves restored. Although there are other, newer cemeteries in Jerusalem today, the Mount of Olives still takes precedence over all, and the areas of the mount allocated as burial sites have been greatly expanded from the original sites, which were concentrated towards the bottom of the south-western range.

 

Numerous graves of famous rabbis and authors can be found in the cemetery, ranging from the tenth to the twentieth centuries, such as those of Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura of the 15th century, author of the famous commentary on the Mishna; Rabbi Kolonymos: Maharam Galanti; Maharam Pardo; Rabbi Yehuda HaChasid, who led a large aliya of Ashkenazi Jews to Jerusalem at the beginning of the 18th century; Rabbi Shalom Sharabi, the renowned Yemenite kabbalist, also in the 18th century; Rabbi Haim Ben Attar, author of the Or HaHaim Commentary on the Torah in the same period; the disciples of the Vilna Gaon who settled here in the 19th century; Rabbi Avraham HaCohen Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, and his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda; and many others too numerous to mention.

 

There are also two mass graves: One - of the remnants of bones and tombstones which were found strewn all over the mountain - the result of the wholesale Arab desecration of the cemetery from 1948 until 1967. Most of the gravestones had been taken away and used to build roads, buildings and toilets in Jordanian Legion out posts and army camps, as well as a part of the Jericho cinema and other structures. One of these camps, the Camp of the Tombstones, about two miles from the cemetery area, is still standing today. There is ample evidence that this gross desecration was carried out with the full knowledge and active participation of members of the Jordanian government.

 

A second mass grave is that of the 48 victims of the battle over the Jewish Quarter, who were buried within the "Old City" walls during the six months of siege and warfare from November 1947 until the fall of the Quarter on May 19, 1948. At that time the Quarter's residents were evacuated, but the graves were not allowed to be removed. In 1967, they were transferred to a national memorial plot on the Mount of Olives, the first burial to take place in the cemetery after the Six-Day War.

 

During the war itself, the I.D.F. progressed from Mount Scopus to the Mount of Olives, and from there through Lions Gate to the Temple Mount and the Kotel. It was on the Mount of Olives that the order was given: "To all commanders - we are situated on the mountain range overlooking the "Old City" which we will soon enter - The 'Old City" of Jerusalem which we have dreamed about and longed for for so many generations. We will be the first to enter...Forward! Towards the gate!.."

 

In August of 1967, two months after the liberation, regular Jewish funerals resumed on the Mt. Of Olives, and continue to this day. Har Hazeitim has resumed its role as the prime burial spot for Jews throughout Israel and the world. Today, there are an estimated 150,000 gravesites there.

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