Are we permitted to participate in tours of Har Bayit (the Temple Mount) led by Orthodox groups in Israel, such as the Machon Mikdash (Jerusalem’s Temple Institute)? While there are highly respected rabbanim who encourage such visitation, the matter is embroiled in considerable controversy. The Temple Institute posts a video advocating such visits https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pwbvhY50Qg&t=1s&ab_channel=TheTempleInstitute. We partially base our discussion on the information that is presented in this video.
The Ra’avad: Har HaBayit Does Not Retain Its Kedusha Post-Churban
The primary concern is entering Har HaBayit in a state of tumah, ritual impurity. Each of us is tamei met (tamei by contact with the dead) by attending a funeral or touching someone who participated in a funeral. We cannot cleanse ourselves of tumat met by merely immersing in a mikvah. We must await the arrival of Mashiach, when we will be able to use the ashes of a parah adumah as the only means of purification from tumat met.
A tamei met is forbidden to enter specific sections of Har Habayit. Violators are subject to the severe punishment of karet. This is the same punishment for one who eats on Yom Kippur or consumes chametz on Pesach. This strict prohibition serves as a formidable barrier to permit visits to Har HaBayit.
The Ra’avad (to Hilchot Beit HaBechira 6:16), however, dramatically reduces the concern. He famously states that after the Churban (Temple destruction), Har HaBayit lost its kedusha, and therefore a tamei met who enters today is no longer subject to karet.
Rav Ovadia Yosef (Teshuvot Yabia Omer 5 Yoreh De’ah 26 and Teshuvot Yechave Da’at 1:25) strongly rebuts this argument, noting that the Rambam rules that even after the Churban, Har HaBayit retains its kedusha. The Rambam explains that the source of the kedusha is the Shechina (divine presence), which cannot be eviscerated by enemy conquest. Rav Ovadia marshals a long list of Rishonim who agree with the Rambam, including Tosafot, the Rosh, the Sefer HaChinuch, and Rabbi Eliezer of Metz. He also notes that the Rambam’s view is codified as normative halacha by the Magen Avraham (561), the Mishna Berura (561:5), and Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohein Kook (Teshuvot Mishpat Kohein (number 96).
Rav Eliezer Waldenburg (Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer 10:1) adds the tantalizing possibility that the blessed regaining of Jewish control over Har HaBayit in 1967, with Hashem’s help, restored the kedusha of Har Habayit even according to the Ra’avad.
The Radbaz: The Precise Location of the Azara and Chel
The Machon MaMikdash video emphasizes that a tamei met is permitted to enter Har HaBayit until the area known as the chel (Rambam Hilchot Bi’at Mikdash 3:4-5). The video further notes that we know the precise location until where a tamei met is permitted to enter. This assertion is based on the Radbaz (Teshuvot 2:691), who writes that the even shetiya is located at the Mosque of Omar, as Moslems claim.
However, Rav Waldenburg, Rav Ovadia Yosef, and Dayan Yitzchak Weisz (Teshuvot Minchat Yitzchak 5:1) note that many poskim question this assumption. The Tzitz Eliezer notes that there has not been a Jewish presence on Har HaBayit for many centuries to verify this assertion and transmit a tradition about the exact locations of the Kodesh Kodashim and Azara. We, therefore, are unable to precisely delineate the areas of Har HaBayit forbidden to a tamei met. Rav Waldenburg, Rav Ovadia Yosef, and Dayan Weisz thus forbid walking anywhere on Har HaBayit due to concern for karet.
The Rambam’s Visit to Har HaBayit
The Machon Mikdash video touts the fact that the Rambam in a letter (that appears in the Sefer HaCharedim, Sha’ar HaTeshuva, chapter three) records that he visited Har HaBayit. Rav Ovadia responds that perhaps the Rambam visited a location just outside Har HaBayit, where he saw a full view of Har HaBayit. As a talmid at Yeshivat Har Etzion in 1981, we were taken to such a location where we had the merit of standing just outside Har HaBayit and partaking in a breathtaking view of the Makom HaMikdash.
The Meiri vs. the Bartenura And Kaftor Vaferach
The Machon HaMikdash video also cites the Meiri (Shavuot 16a), who writes (in the 13th century) that he heard that “it is customary to enter the Har HaBayit.” However, the Tzitz Eliezer notes that Rav Ovadia Bartenura records that when he traveled to Eretz Yisrael (in the 15th century), he learned of the custom to refrain from entering Har Bayit. Dayan Yitzchak Weisz cites the 13th-century Kaftor Vaferach’s firsthand report that Jews entered only until the walls of Har Habayit.
Both Rav Waldenburg and Dayan Weisz note that this custom has prevailed until current times. Rav Waldenburg cites from elderly Jerusalemites who recalled from before 1948 that special precautions were taken to avoid drawing close to Har HaBayit. These safeguards are due to concern for possible violations of a severe prohibition involving the potential punishment of karet.
Rav Waldenburg writes that there were even some authorities who did not place their fingers inside the Kotel due to concern that the Kotel is the Azara’s (Temple courtyard) western wall. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (Nefesh HaRav page 101), even advised his talmidim to refrain from leaning on the Kotel. While Rav Waldenberg notes that the consensus view permits placing our fingers in the Kotel since we regard it as a retaining wall of Har HaBayit and not the Azara, the stricter opinions reflect the extent to which Jews traditionally avoided coming near the Har HaBayit.
Conclusion: The Consensus of The Great Poskim of the Second Half of the 20th Century
There are undoubtedly prominent rabbanim who today encourage visiting Har HaBayit. Nonetheless, it appears that the mainstream view in the Orthodox community follows the consensus of the great poskim of the second half of the 20th century to refrain from visiting Har HaBayit. These poskim include Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Waldenburg, Dayan Weisz and Rav Yosef. These four rabbanim rank in the top tier of modern-day poskim. Much of our routine halachic practice, such as procedures regarding tefilla, Shabbat, chuppah, eruvin and mikvaot, is based on these authorities. I believe we should also follow these major poskim in regard to this very serious halachic issue involving a potential punishment of karet and refrain from visiting Har HaBayit.
Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.