Aljumuah offers our series of articles by Reform Jewish Rabbi, Allen S. Maller, as a bridge-building effort to promote good relations among Jewish and Muslim communities. We share much in common due to the same source of our prophets and the revelations they received, namely the One God. Indeed, we are both stronger when we work together for justice, peace and mutual understanding. Our profound thanks to Rabbi Allen, who alone is responsible for the views and interpretations expressed herein.
Both the Holy Qur’an and the Holy Bible stress the religious importance of annual pilgrimage to a sacred location (Hajj in Arabic, Hag in Hebrew). In Biblical times the Hebrew word Hag was pronounced Haj.
The Qur’an states:
And [remember] when We assigned for Abraham the site of the House, [saying] … purify My House for those who circle round it [in My worship] … and proclaim the ḥajj among mankind: they shall come … through every faraway passage … that they may … mention the Name of God, during the days appointed … Then let them complete the rites prescribed for them … and [again] circle round the Ancient House [in My worship]. [Surah Al-Ḥajj, 22:26-29]
The Torah states:
Three times a year all your men are to appear before the God of Israel. (Bible, Exodus 34:23)
and in the Zabur of Prophet David he says:
“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.” (Bible, Psalm 122:14)
Almost two million Muslims from around the world arrived in Saudi Arabia for the start of the 2018 annual Hajj pilgrimage last year. And according to the Hajj Ministry of Saudi Arabia, over six million ‘Umrah visas were issued.
To the north some four million tourists visited Israel in 2018, and a quarter of them said the purpose of their visit was ‘religious’ or a ‘pilgrimage.’ A record 349,000 Christian and Jewish foreigners visited during April (the Easter/Passover month) — a major increase over the previous year. Over 80,000 of those 2018 tourists were Muslims.
To this very day Jerusalem and Makkah remain much smaller than the capitals of the great Empires of the past (Rome and Constantinople) or even compared with the recent present world capitals (London and Paris). 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. For Muslims, unlike for Jews or Christians, both places, Jerusalem as well as Makkah, are holy sites.
House of God as Destination of Pilgrimage Journey and Ritual
Few Jews today realize that for more than 1,000 years, while Jerusalem’s First and Second Temple– Beit HaMiqdash (Bait Al-Muqaddas in Arabic) stood, the week long Jewish festivals of Hag/Haj Sukkot and Hag/Haj HaMatzah were celebrated as a Haj, a pilgrimage festival very similar to the Islamic Hajj to Makkah. The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE – c. 50 CE) states that Jewish pilgrims came from the ends of the earth, and from all the compass points.
The commandment to observe the Jewish pilgrimage applied only to Jews living in the Land of Israel; it could be observed at three holy day festival times a year. Two of them, Hag/Haj HaMatzot [Passover] and Hag/Haj Sukkot were seven day festivals. The third pilgrimage festival could be observed anytime during the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot.
This third Jewish pilgrimage festival would correspond to ‘Umrah, the Islamic pilgrimage to Makkah that can be undertaken at any time of the year, in contrast to the Islamic Ḥajj pilgrimage, which has specific dates. For both Islamic pilgrimages, a Muslim must perform two key rituals, Tawwaf and Sa’i. Tawwaf is a circling round the Ka‘bah. This is followed by Sa’i, a walk to commemorate Hagar’s search for water for her son, and God’s mercy in answering her prayers.
Recently archeologists in Jerusalem have identified a “Pilgrimage Road,” the 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.
The Spiritual Experience of Pilgrimage
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 Christian 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.
We 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, especially during Haj Sukkot, with the ancient Jewish practice of Haj ceremonies.
The Torah declares,
“Celebrate Haj 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, Levites, foreigners, orphans 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 Haj of Matzot, the Haj of Weeks, and the Haj of Sukkot. (Bible, Deuteronomy 16:13-16)
The Haj of Sukkot was chosen by Prophet Solomon to dedicate the First Temple in Jerusalem. (Bible, 1 Kings 8; 2). Haj Sukkot was so important during the centuries when Solomon’s Temple stood that the holy week of Sukkot was often called simply “the Haj” (Bible, 1 Kings 8:3; 8:65; 12:62; 2 Chronicles 5:3; 7:8) because of the very large number of Jews who came up to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Pilgrimage Ritual and Practices
Muslims will see many similarities and some differences between the Jewish Haj and the Islamic Hajj. Muslims circle the Ka’bah seven times (Tawwaf) for Hajj and ‘Umrah.
For Jews, on each of the first six days of Haj Sukkot it was traditional to circle [circumambulate] the Temple altar while reciting psalms of Prophet David. 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 of the seven circles done on the seventh day is done in honor of a particular prophet: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David, all of whom both Jews and Muslims revere.
Islamic tradition urges one who goes on Hajj to remember with pious prayers his or her parents and other close relatives who have passed away; and make-up for them if they could not fulfill their obligations for hajj. And Jewish tradition has a special service on the last day of Haj Sukkot and Haj HaMatzot [Passover] called Yizkor to remember parents and other close relatives who have passed away with pious prayers.
The ritual slaughter of Qurbani (Korban in Hebrew) Halal/Kosher animals toward the end of all the ritual reenactments comes to teach everyone that:
“Their flesh and their blood do not reach Allah, but the devotion from you reaches Him.” [Surah Al-Ḥajj, 22:37]
This is the same basic understanding that the Hebrew Prophets and the Rabbis gave to the offerings in the Temple of Solomon.
Prophet Muhammad was once asked by his Companions: “O Prophet of Allah! What is this qurbani?” He replied, “It is the Sunnah of your father Ibrahim.”
Jewish Pilgrimage Without the Temple Standing
With the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, the pilgrimage aspect of the week long harvest festivals of Haj Sukkot and Haj HaMatzot, there 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 —as well as the tens of thousands of Jews from all over the Land of Israel outside the city of Jerusalem, who used to come each year to celebrate the week of Haj Sukkot and Haj HaMatzot [Passover] in Jerusalem at Bait Al-Muqaddas, “the Furthest Sanctuary” (Surah Al-Isrâ’, 17:1) —all of these 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 Al 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, every year it seemed a continuing miracle that pregnant woman didn’t suffer a miscarriage, a rain shower never quenched the fire on the altar, 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)
- The wonderful fragrance of the Temple’s incense was so widespread throughout the city that brides in Jerusalem did not need to use perfume. (Yoma 39b)
- Monobaz, king of Adiabene, and his mother Queen Helene, who were well known converts to Judaism, contributed a very large golden candlestick that was placed over a Temple entrance. When the sun rose in the east, sparkling rays were reflected from it, and people knew it was time to recite the morning prayers. (Mishnah Yoma 3:10 and Tosefta Yoma 2:4)
Modern People Missing a Pilgrimage Tradition
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 regarding the pilgrimage encounter:
“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.”
The “Furthest Sanctuary” —Shared by Muslims and Jews as a Sacred House
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. [Surah Al-Isrâ’, 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, where he met Abraham, Moses and other messengers and prophets of the One God.
Five and a half centuries after the Romans had destroyed f the Furthest Sanctuary, the ancient center of monotheistic pilgrimage in Jerusalem, one might say, this was reversed, first by Prophet Muhammad’s ascension (miraj) up to the heavens, followed by his removal of the 360 idols in and around the paganized Ka’bah in Makkah, the Sacred House of Abraham and Ishmael.
The Prophet Zechariah envisions a future time when God helps all humanity to establish worldwide peace. All the nations in the world may then travel to Makkah and to Jerusalem to worship God. Then during Haj Sukkot, 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 Haj Sukkot.” (Bible, Zechariah 14:16)
Just as the Ka’ba has always welcomed all Muslims from all the nations of the world, 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 will come to you from every far desert. [Surah Al-Ḥajj, 22:27]