Skip to content

Beit Al Maqdas, The House of Prayer for All Nations that Omar Built– Part I

November 7, 2014



We have learned in Seder Eliyahu Rabbah (Chapter 28, ed. Friedman, p. 149):

Once Rabbi Zadok (late 1st c.) entered the Temple and saw it destroyed. He said: My father who is in heaven, You destroyed Your city and burned Your Temple and yet you sat by tranquilly and remained silent…on another occasion, Rabbi Natan (early 2nd c.) entered the Temple and found the Temple destroyed but for one wall still standing.

Tosefta Berakhot (6:2, ed. Lieberman, p. 33 and parallels):

Ben Zoma (early 2nd c.), when he saw a large mass of Jews on the Temple Mount, used to say: Blessed is He who created all the people to serve me….”

Yerushalmi (Pesahim 7:11, ed. Venice 35b):

Said R Yohanan ben Maryah (4th c. Israel) in the name of R Pinhas : From the fact that we see the sages removing their sandals under the portals of the wall (surrounding the) Temple Mount, we can drive that under the portal was not sanctified.

R Pinhas is saying that since the sages took off their sandals under the portal according to the law that it is forbidden to enter the Mount wearing shoes (Berakhot 9:5), the portal is therefore not part of the Temple Mount. From here we can deduce that the sages of that period did indeed enter the Temple Mount on a regular basis.


The Christian Pilgrim of Bordeaux, who was in Jerusalem around the year 333 CE, relates that the Jews used to come to the Temple Mount every year on the Ninth of Av in order to recite lamentations over the Temple ruins and to rend their garments. He adds that next to two monuments of Hadrian there was a perforated stone upon which the Jews used to pour oil 1].


The Muslim Conquest of Palestine

At the time of the Muslim conquest of the Levant, a large Jewish population still lived in Palestine (see for instance the question posed in JT Demai 22c on whether  most of Eretz Yisrael is in the hands of the gentiles  or whether the greater part is in the hands of Israel). We do not know whether they formed a majority but we may assume with some certainty that they did so when grouped with the Samaritans. Significant Jewish population in places like Acre, Haifa, Sephoris  and Eilat (Ayla) are attested to directly and indirectly by Christian and Muslim sources such as Procopius and the anonymous tract “The Didaskalia of Jacob, the Recently Baptized”  (On Sephorris, there is the famous statement that Muhammed is said to have made to Uqba b. Ali, a descendant of Umaya: “You are a Jew from the Jews of Sephoris”).

In the biography of the monk-soldier Bar Sawma who was active in the area in the 5th c., it is told that the Jews and Samaritans virtually governed the land and they persecuted the Christians. Bar Sawma led a campaign against this Jewish-Samaritan front, presumably with the assistance of a Byzantine army. The Jewish-Samaritan forces were said to have consisted of 15,000 armed men. The Jews were defeated and Bar Sawma describes the ensuing destruction on the Jewish towns and villages. On one Synagogue in the city of Reqem of Gaya (Petra) he remarks “it could bear comparison only to Solomon’s Temple”.

In about the year 425, the Jews of the Galilee and its surroundings applied to the empress Eudocia to permit them to pray on the ruins of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, as they had forbidden to do so since Constantine. The empress relented. The author of the aforementioned biography cites a letter purportedly written by the Jews of Galilee to the Jewish communities in Rome and Persia:

To the great and elevated nation of the Jews, from the Priest and Head of Galilee, many greetings. Ye shall know that the time of the dispersion of our people is at an end, and from now onwards the say of our congregation and salvation has come, for the Roman kings have written a decree to hand over our city of Jerusalem to us. Therefore come quickly to Jerusalem for the coming holiday of Sukkot, for our kingdom is established in Jerusalem.

And indeed 103,000 Jews came and gathered in Jerusalem but they were struck by calamity where –in the biographer’s version ‘big stones rained from the sky’ whereas the Jews complained to the empress that they were attacked by hostile monks.

Some historians have understandably cast doubt on the version of events cited there. Some have cast serious doubt on the stories relating to the Jews since he lived a century after the events described. Moshe Gil retorts that “this is a facile way of dismissing ancient sources. We must not disregard or refute their contents even if they appear legendary in character, they still retain a germ of historical truth” 2].

There were no less then four Samaritan revolts against Byzantine rule from the year 484 to 555.

The period preceding the Arab conquest was undoubtedly a period of decline and internal disintegration of the Byzantine Empire. After a series of assassinations and wars with Persians and Longobards, a new Emperor gained the throne of Byzantium in 610, Heraclius. But the longed for peace would be short-lived as the Persians renewed their campaign against the Empire. In this the Persians were aided in no small part by their Jews as well as the Jews they encountered along the way. Jews fought in the Persian army and according to one contemporary chronicle, they were so influential as to gain exemption from fighting on the Sabbath.

The Jews, both the locals and the ones who joined the Persians in the conquest of Jerusalem in 614 CE, did not treat the city’s Christians with magnanimity. According to Christian accounts Jews destroyed churches and put to death Christians who would not convert to Judaism. One of the more famous Jewish personages of that time and place was a certain wealthy Jews named Benjamin of Tiberias. The Jews exulted at the liberation of the city from Byzantine hands. A trove of artifacts were recently discovered dating back from that period. A verse from Isaiah was found scrawled on a stone on the mount. Jews cautiously celebrated their victory and as mentioned may have resumed Temple sacrifices for the first time since the Bar Kokhba revolt– but alas it was to be short-lived.

Heraclius eventually regrouped, forming powerful alliances with the sworn enemies of the Persians (such as the Khazars). A bloody battle ensued. It lasted from 622 to 628 with Byzantium once again in control of the Holy Land.

Revenge was swift and bloody. Heraclius’s edict of apostasy resulted in a wave of conversions and martyrdom (the Samaritan Chronicle The Tolida- a Samaritan Chronicle records a great number of people crucified among the Samaritans as well). Interestingly enough, Heraclius’ persecution of the Jews is still commemorated to this day by the Coptic Church which holds an official fast day of the carnival (that is the great fast before Easter). It is intended to beg God’s pardon for the Emperor Heraclius for having permitted the slaughter of the Jews in 628.

But the Byzantine sun was setting as the crescent  was ascending from the south.


It is erroneous to think that the natives of the levant in particular welcomed the Arabs with open arms as kindred brothers. Gil takes pains to point out that arguments as to racial affinity are exaggerated at best: “there are some among contemporary arab savants (although fanciful tales which clearly attempt to respresent this sentiment appear early, see for instance Baladhuri who relates that the Jews of Homs swore an oath on the Torah scrolls that they would not let Heraclius back into the city and pledged their loyalty to the Muslim forces) who see an ethnic motivation behind the conquests. They see Arabs everywhere…the Cannanites and Phillistines are Arabs according to their theories. This applies to an even greater degree to the population of Syria and Palestine in the seventh century, who were certainly Semites. Thus, according to their claims, the conquering Arab forces, in the course of their battles, actually encountered their own people or at least members of their own race who spoke the same language (see for instance Hitti, History, 143). This is of couse a very distorted view: Semitism is not a race and relates to the sphere of language. The populations in the cities and countryside along the route of battle were not arabs and neither did they speak Arabic. We do know of Bedouin tribes who inhabited the southern desert of Palestine, west of the Eurphrates in the Syrian desert, Palmyra and elsewhere, But the cultivated inner regions were inhabited by Jews and Christians who spoke Aramaic. They did not sense any special ties to the Beduin; of anything the opposite was true. The proximity and danger of an invasion from that quarter disturbed their peace of mind and this is amply reflected both in the writings of the Church Fathers and in Talmudic sources (on early Rabbinic attitudes towards Arabs, see BT Kettubot 66b and 72b; Taaniot ii 69b and Lamentations Rabba [Buber]108).

The first incursion commenced in 629. While in Arabia Muhammed often pursued a brutal policy of dispossession and wholesale slaughter against the ‘non-believers’ he quickly learned that it would do him well to adopt a wiser policy. He made treaties with towns in the south of Palestine. His treaty with the people of Maqna (a town near Eilat) explicitly references the Jews:

To the sons of Hanina, who are Jews of Maqna…your security is ensured and you are granted God’s protection and that of his one will do you injustice and harm.. you will owe a quarter of your date harvest and quarter of your fishing yield..if you will listen and obey, the messenger of God will respect the honorable amongst you…there will be no chief over you other than one of you or one of the messengers of God’s people. And peace.

At Mohammed’s death in June of 632, the campaign as continued by Abu Bakr and the leader of the forces Usama b Zayd.

In 638, the city of Jerusalem fell. The commander of the armies was the Caliph Umar Ibn Al Khattab who ascended to the throne four years earlier.

On who stood at the helm of the Muslim forces and why it may not have been Umar after all but rather an underling. Professor Moshe Sharon of Hebrew University writes in his work The Shape of the Holy:

Islamic tradition ascribes the conquest of Jerusalem to a number of glorified Muslim rulers, but in all likelihood this to be a fabrication, saying Jerusalem capitulated to a minor commander out of choice rather than necessity.

The tradition about its conquest was shaped at least a century after the event took place and it was no longer possible for the first association of Islam with Jerusalem to remain mundane.
On Jewish ascription of the fall of Jerusalem to a mighty ruler,  see BT gittin 56b

In Tabari, Umar is said to have granted the residents of Jerusalem (who were all Christians) a writ of protection which included the proviso continuing the ban on Jewish residence in Jerusalem. Goiten casts doubt on the veracity of that covenant (as we shall soon see).

Ibn Asaqir quotes a strange version from Waqidi, according to which an agreement was made with the Jews who were in Jerusalem, 20 in number, and their leader being Joseph bin Nun (?). The number 20 is interesting as it figures later with the number of Jews assigned for work on the Temple Mount. Other sources mention the clause in the treaty concluded between the conquering forces and the Christians, namely that no Jews should be able to reside in the city.


1.] All pre-Arab Rabbinic quotes are reproduced from Rabbi David Golinkin, A Responsum Regarding Entering the Temple Mount in Our Day, CONSERVATIVE JUDAISM, Volume XLVII, Number 3, Spring 1966

2] Moshe Gil, Palestine p. 3

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: