Very few Jews realize that for more than 1.000 years, while Jerusalem’s First and Second Temple–Bait ul Muqaddas/Beit HaMiqdash stood, the Jewish festival of Hag Sukkot was celebrated as a Hajj, a pilgrimage festival. The Hebrew word Hag comes from hagag to circle; and the Arabic word Hajj literally means ‘to set out for a special place’ where one walks in circles.
In the centuries after the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed Jewish 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 on the long path to, and amidst the mass tumult of, a uniquely holy and sacred place.
Jews can however see in the Muslim Hajj, some of the 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 ceremonies.
The first time Hag/Hajj is mentioned in the Torah for in that famous scene when Prophets: “Moses and Aaron went in and told Pharaoh; ‘Thus says the LORD God of Israel, Let my people go, that they may hold a feast for me in the wilderness.’” [Exodus 5:1]
The verb translators render as “feast” is yakhuggū (יחגו) which is cognate to the Arabic “yuhajjū” (يُحَجّوا) so the verse should be rendered in this context as: “And afterward Moses and Aaron went in and told Pharaoh; ‘Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Let my people go, that they may hold a Hajj/pilgrimage feast for me in the wilderness.’” But that one-time Hajj never occurred because Pharaoh refused to free the Jewish People thus incurring Divine wrath.
The normative annual Jewish Hajj week was the liberation celebration of Passover; and especially the gratitude celebration of the harvest festival of Sukkot. 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…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)
The Hajj of Sukkot was chosen by Prophet Solomon to dedicate the First Temple in Jerusalem. (1Kings 8; 2). Hajj Sukkot was so important during the centuries when Solomon’s Temple stood that the holy week of Sukkot was often called simply “the Hajj” (1 Kings 8:3; 8:65; 12:62; 2 Chronicles 5:3; 7:8) because of the very large numbers of Jews who came up to the Temple in Jerusalem,
On each of the first six days of Sukkot it was traditional to circle the Temple alter while reciting psalms. On the seventh day of 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 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.
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. Most of the many thousands of Jews from foreign lands outside the Land of Israel; and the tens of thousands of Jews from all over the Land of Israel outside the city of Jerusalem; who used to came each year to celebrate the week of Sukkot in Jerusalem at Bait ul-Muqaddas, the furthest sanctuary; ceased coming.
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–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.
Muslims will see some similarities and some differences between the Jewish Hajj and the Islamic Hajj.
Crowded as Jerusalem was, there always seemed to be enough room to squeeze everyone in. Indeed, every year it seemed a continuing 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)
Only a rare outside observer can experience even a small fraction of the spiritual feelings of those who belong to a pilgrimage tradition. One such observer, Mark Twain, wrote: “It is wonderful, the power of a faith that can make multitudes upon multitudes of old, weak, young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining.”
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 Abraham and Ishmael, was some centuries later polluted by the introduction of idols. Some centuries later Solomon built a Temple on the site where Abraham bound Isaac as an offering.
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,
One might say 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 the soon to be realized removal by Prophet Muhammad of the 360 idols around the paganized Ka’ba (Holy Sanctuary) in Makka.
Will the cycle of the pollution and destruction of the two Holy Sanctuaries, ever come to an end?
The Prophet Zechariah envisions a future time when God helps humans establish worldwide peace. All the nations in the world then may travel to Makka and Jerusalem to worship God in peace. It is important for Muslims to realize that during this prophesied future Hajj Sukkot, the future city of Jerusalem (without a physically rebuilt Temple) will welcome both Jews and non-Jews, just a it did in the days when Prophet David (before King Solomon built the Temple) wrote in his Zabur:
“I rejoiced with those who said to me, “Let us go up to the house of the LORD…There the (12) tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, As it was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord.” (Psalm 122:1-4)
Orthodox Jews still pray for the ancient Temple to be rebuilt. But Reform Jews stopped doing that two centuries ago. The place is holy; not the building. This is the feeling of the great majority of Jews today who are not Orthodox Jews.
And Prophet Zechariah even includes 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) 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).
One of the many lessons of Sukkot is that it reminds us of the importance of unity in diversity. The Torah tells us, “You shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son and your daughter and your man-servant and your maid-servant and the Levi and the stranger and the orphan and the widow that are within your gates…” emphasizing the concept of unity in diversity.
According to the Torah, true rejoicing can only be achieved when we are united and include all our minorities as emphasized in the Torah, “your man-servant, maid-servant, the Levi, the stranger (convert), the orphan and the widow.” But while servants, orphans and widows usually are less fortunate, Levites and converts to Judaism (the stranger) are not less fortunate than most of us.
This teaches us that unity means including those who are different i.e. Jews by inheritance and Jews by choice, as well as Jews who are more religious or less religious than we are.
The Sukkot holiday teaches us the importance of unity in diversity and the great joy that comes from
openminded pluralism The four different kinds of tree products in the lulov and etrog are necessary for observing Sukkot, just as four different denominations of Judaism are necessary for Jewish unity.
Joy results not from conformity to one path, or one interpretation of Torah. Joy results from the feeling of acceptance and caring for each other that comes from respecting differences: a harmony in diversity.