Pilgrimage: Contemporary Jewish Pilgrimage

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Jewish pilgrimages in Israel may be classified into three main types: (1) those that originated during the biblical period or that have as their goals historical sites from the biblical period located in Jerusalem and its surroundings; (2) pilgrimages to the tombs of Talmudic and qabbalistic sages, mainly located in the Galilee; and (3) emerging new centers of pilgrimage in various parts of the country dedicated to Diaspora sages and saints.

The tradition of pilgrimage, ʿaliyyah le-regel (literally, going up on foot), has been institutionalized in Jewish culture since the beginning of nationhood, with the religious prescription that committed all males to "go up" annually to the Temple in Jerusalem on three festivals (Passover; Shavuʿot or Pentecost; and Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles; see Ex. 23:17, 34:23; Dt. 16:16). The essence of the pilgrimage was the entry of the pilgrims into the Temple to worship, particularly through the offering of sacrifices. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 ce, pilgrimage to the holy site in Jerusalem continued until modern times, though it lost its convivial characteristics. The Western Wall (often referred to as the Wailing Wall), which survived the destruction of the Temple, became the symbol of Jewish historical continuity, recalling the tragedy of destruction and dispersion as well as the hope of the exiles to return to Erets Yisraʾel (the Land of Israel).

Other sites related to the biblical period have gradually become centers of pilgrimage. The most venerated are the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron (the reputed burial ground of the patriarchs); the reputed tomb of Rachel, Jacob's wife (and symbol of Jewish motherhood), in Bethlehem; and the reputed tomb of King David in Jerusalem. For most of the past nineteen hundred years, however, it was usually difficult, if not impossible, for Jews to visit most of the biblical sites because of obstructions set up by the local authorities. The Western Wall was for many centuries under Muslim Waqf administration, and Jews were not allowed to enter the Cave of Machpelah. Free entrance and worship at these sites became possible for Jews only after the Israeli army gained control of them during the 1967 war.

In later years, however, the free presence of Jews in the site of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem that hosts two monumental Muslim shrines (the mosques of Al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock) as well as the competition for control over the Hebron Cave of the Patriarchs gradually raised tensions that culminated in extreme violence between Israelis and Palestinians. These two centers of pilgrimage became major symbols of contesting national aspirations, as well as obstacles to reconciliation and a territorial accommodation between two independent states. But less-central sites also gained popularity after 1967 and gradually caused violent conflicts, in particular the reputed tomb of Joseph in the Palestinian town of Nablus (the biblical location of Shechem).

A second center for pilgrimages developed in the Galilee, at Safad and Tiberias, where many Talmudic sages (first to fifth centuries) and qabbalist sages (particularly during the sixteenth century) lived and were reputedly buried. The first evidence of pilgrimage to these sites dates from the thirteenth century. The most famous site is the reputed tomb of Rabbi Shimʿon bar Yoʾai, since the sixteenth century the most venerated postbiblical figure in Jewish folk tradition. Bar Yoʾai, who lived during the second century, was a scholar and patriot who opposed the Roman occupation and who has been accredited by popular tradition with the authorship of the Zohar, the classic text of Jewish mysticism. According to tradition, Bar Yoʾai was buried with his son Elʿazar in Meron, a village on a hill near Safad. For at least four centuries a ceremony and a popular festival have been held at Meron on the holiday of Lag ba-ʿOmer, the eighteenth day of the Jewish month of Iyyar. Pilgrims to Meron usually also celebrate at the tomb of Rabbi Meʾir Baʿal ha-Nes in Tiberias. The latter is believed by many to have been a distinguished scholar and saint, also from the second century.

Regular pilgrimages to the tombs of the sages and saints have been particularly popular in North Africa, where Muslim and Jewish beliefs have often been shared and exchanged. Among Moroccan Jewry (formerly the largest Jewish community in the Muslim world), many individuals were devoted to a particular family saint. Some of these saints' tombs acquired wide reputations throughout Morocco and became centers for large annual festivals (hillulot; singular, hillula). A number of these shrines have been symbolically transferred to the state of Israel, to which the majority of Moroccan Jews immigrated. Synagogues or memorial rooms were dedicated on spots indicated by the saints themselves, as revealed to certain individuals in dreams. Also a few venerated North African rabbis who died in Israel have gained the popularity of saints and attract large crowds of pilgrims (in particular the hillula at the tomb of Baba Sali in the Negev town of Netivot). The new shrines, often located in poor immigrant towns, have become new centers for convivial pilgrimages.

Contemporary pilgrims often visit, at the appropriate annual dates, the biblical, the Talmudic-qabbalistic, and the new centers of pilgrimage. But they demonstrate at the various sites different patterns of devotional activity. Visits to biblical sites are shorter than visits to other sites (a few hours at most), more specifically oriented, more formally ritualized, and less convivial.

The pilgrimage and the festivities carried out on Lag ba-ʿOmer in Meron are the most elaborate. More than 100,000 pilgrims assemble on that day, and many stay for several days. Boys are brought to the Meron pilgrimage for their first haircuts, and the hair is burned in the fire kindled on the roof of the tomb to commemorate the saint's spirit. Into the same fire people also throw small personal belongings, such as scarves and handkerchiefs. Money and candles are thrown onto the tomb itself; the money is later used for charity. Sheep and goats are slaughtered on the spot to provide food for the congregating people, including the poor, who are invited to take a share. A variety of ethnic groups, including Jews of Ashkenazic (eastern and central European), Middle Eastern, and North African extraction, meet convivially at the site, which is reputed to have miraculous powers. Structural liminality and feelings of Israeli communitas reach their peaks here.

In contrast, the North African immigrants who participate in hillulot at the new shrines, though aspiring toward similar religious and moral goals, display more noticeable feelings of ethnic solidarity. Through the commemoration of North African Jewish cultural heroes, they seem to express symbolically their shared experience of emigration and their position in Israeli society.

Contemporary Israelis also go on pilgrimage to Jewish sites outside of their country. They visit the graves of famous rabbis and saints left behind in eastern Europe (Naman of Bratslav [17721810] in the Ukraine in particular), in Morocco, and, since the late 1990s, to the grave in New York of the last venerated leader of the Habad Hasidic movement, Menaem Mendel Schneersohn (19021994).

All pilgrimages to holy sites, tombs, and shrines, during the major annual festivals or on other occasions, are deemed to carry good luck and remedy for particular misfortunes. The pilgrims pray, make offerings, and sometimes write requests on notes that they leave at the site. With the exception of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, where prayers are addressed to God, pilgrims tend to call on the ancestors and saints associated with the holy site to intercede for divine help. The belief in this practice has been expressed by a Moroccan immigrant, who stated: "We travel to the saint who will ask God for mercy. When you can't get to the mayor, you approach the deputy and ask for his help."

See Also

Culture Heroes; Folk Religion, article on Folk Judaism.


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