Modern Jews can see in the annual Muslim Hajj, some of the wonderful spiritual uplift that occurs when large numbers of people from all over the world travel to one holy place and join together in a traditional religious ceremony. Muslims in turn, can see some similarities in the ancient Jewish practice of Hajj Sukkot ceremonies.
Very few Jews realize that for more than 1000 years, while Jerusalem’s First and Second Temple, the Bait-ul Muqaddas/Beit HaMiqdash stood, the Jewish festival of Hag Sukkot was celebrated as a Hajj, a pilgrimage festival. In Biblical times the Hebrew letter g was sometimes pronounced as in gym so Hag was pronounced Hajj.
In the centuries after the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed in 70 CE; pilgrimage ceased. Today the overwhelming majority of Jews outside the Land of Israel live in Protestant countries where pilgrimage plays little or no role in religious life. Thus, it is very hard for most Jews to feel the tremendous spiritual uplift that can occur to pilgrims amidst the mass tumult of a uniquely holy and sacred place.
The Torah declares, “Celebrate Hajj Sukkot for seven days after you have harvested the produce of your threshing floor and your winepress. Be joyful at your festival—you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, the Levites, the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns.
For seven days celebrate the festival to the Lord your God at the place the Lord will choose. For the Lord your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete. Three times a year all your men must appear before the Lord your God at the place He will choose: at the Hajj of Matzah, the Hajj of Weeks, and the Hajj of Sukkot. (Deuteronomy 16:13-16)
On each of the first six days of Hajj Sukkot it was traditional to circle theJerusalem Temple’s alter while reciting psalms. On the seventh day of Hajj Sukkot the custom was to circle the Temple alter seven times. As the Oral Torah says: “It was customary to make one procession around the altar on each day of Hajj Sukkot, and seven on the seventh day.” (Mishnah Sukkah 4:5). Each circle is done in honor of a prophet; Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David.
Muslims will see some similarities and some differences between the Jewish Hajj and the Islamic Hajj.
With the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, the pilgrimage aspect of the week long harvest festival began a gradual decline in the spiritual consciousness of the Jewish People. Two generations later, after a second major Jewish revolt (132-135 CE) in the land of Israel, the Romans rebuilt Jerusalem as a pagan city filled with idols, That stopped all Jews from coming to the ruined site of the Jerusalem Temple, the Bait ul Muqaddas/Beit HaMiqdash.
But even centuries after the destruction of the Temple, and the end of pilgrimage, generations of Jews repeated wonderful tales about pilgrimage experiences in Jerusalem and at the Holy Temple.
“Crowded as Jerusalem was, there always seemed to be enough room to squeeze everyone in. Indeed, each year it seemed an ongoing miracle that pregnant woman didn’t suffer a miscarriage, a rain shower never quenched the fire on the alter, the wind never blew smoke from the fire into the crowds of worshipers, and no one was ever bitten by a scorpion or a snake. Most amazing of all, no one complained, “It is difficult for me to find lodging in Jerusalem”. (Pirkay Avot 5:8)
Orthodox Jews to this day still pray daily for the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple; and the revival of its every day and Holy Day animal sacrifices. But even Orthodox Jews know that the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple, and the revival of its animal sacrifices will not come about, until the Messiah brings about world wide peace and justice.
For 99% of the Jewish People their love for Jerusalem, the city of their prophets and kings, is more similar to their love for the Torah scroll. The city of Jerusalem itself is holy in the eyes of its lovers not for its Temple but as poet Yitzhak Yasinowitz writes:
“One does not travel to Jerusalem. One returns. One ascends the road taken by generations. The path of longing on the way to redemption. One brings backpacks stuffed with memories to each hill; and in the white alleyways one offers blessings for renewed memories of the past. One does not travel to Jerusalem. One returns”.
Indeed, recently archeologists in Jerusalem have identified the “Pilgrimage Road,” path that millions of Jews took when performing the commandment to go up to the holy Temple in Jerusalem. The Pilgrimage Road goes from the Shiloah Pool to the area adjacent to the Western Wall known as Robinson’s Arch, where today you can still see remnants of the ancient stairway that led into the Holy Temple. Josephus, the first century Roman-Jewish historian, wrote that up to 2.7 million people used to visit Jerusalem during the three annual Jewish festivals.
For Muslims, the Furthest Sanctuary is located in Jerusalem. “Glory to He Who carried His servant by night, from the Holy Sanctuary to the Furthest Sanctuary, the precincts of which We have blessed. so that We might show him some of Our signs. Surely He is the All-Hearing, the All-Seeing. (Qur’an 17:1)
It is significant that the ruins of the Jerusalem Temple was the site of Prophet Muhammad’s ascension—miraj– up to the heavens.
The Ka’ba built by Prophets Abraham and Ishmael, was some centuries later polluted by the introduction of idols. Then the great King Solomon built a Temple on the site where Abraham bound Isaac as an offering. Solomon spent seven years building the Beit HaMiqdash. the Jerusalem Temple, so Jews could travel to their holy place and join together in the pilgrimage religious ceremony as God had commanded them.
When the Beit HaMiqdash. the Jerusalem Temple, was finished and dedicated (1 Kings 8:22-61) The Muslim scholar Tha’labi says Prophet Solomon traveled 700+ miles south from Jerusalem to Makka to perform the rites Prophets Abraham and Ishmael had first initiated.
Some centuries later the Temple of Solomon was destroyed by the Babylonians. It was then rebuilt only to again be destroyed some centuries later by the Romans, who would later pollute the whole site with a Roman city with buildings and streets filled with idols,
The destruction of the Furthest Sanctuary center of monotheistic pilgrimage in Jerusalem by the pagan Romans, was five and a half centuries afterward overcome by Prophet Muhammad’s ascension—miraj up to the heavens and then the removal by Prophet Muhammad of 300+ idols from the paganized Ka’ba (Holy Sanctuary) in Makka.
The Jerusalem Temple will not be rebuilt by human hands, but Christians and Jews in large numbers still make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem similar to the Muslim Umrah.
To this very day, Jerusalem and Mecca remain much smaller than the capitals of the great empires of the distant past, like Rome and Constantinople, and the recent past, like London and France. Yet the spirit that continues to rush forth from those two geographically tiny places provides inspiration to billions of Christians, Jews, and Muslims throughout the world.
The Prophet Zechariah envisions a future time when God helps humans to establish worldwide peace. Then all the nations in the world then may travel to Mecca or Jerusalem to worship God.
During Hajj Sukkot, a future Jerusalem will welcome both Jews and non-Jews, even including those who were previously Israel’s enemies: “Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem, will go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, and to celebrate Hajj Sukkot.” (Zechariah 14:16)
If we can live up to this ideal that religious pluralism is the will of God. we will help fulfill the 2700 year old vision of Prophet Isaiah: “In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt, and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel will join a three-party alliance with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing upon the heart. The LORD of Hosts will bless them saying, “Blessed be Egypt My people, Assyria My handiwork, and Israel My inheritance.”…(Isaiah 19:23-5)
Just as the Ka’ba has always welcomed all Muslims who answer the call: “Call upon the people for Hajj. They will come to you on their bare feet, or riding any weak camel, and they come to you from every far desert. (Qur’an 22:27).