The crowning achievement of King Solomon's reign was the erection of a magnificent Temple (Beit ha — Midkash) in Jerusalem. His father, King David, had wanted to build a great Temple for God a generation earlier, as a permanent resting place for the Ark containing the Ten Commandments. A divine edict, however, had forbidden him from doing so. "You will not build a house for My name," God said to him, "for you are a man of battles and have shed blood" (I Chronicles 28:3).

The Bible's description of Solomon's Temple suggests that it was 180 feet long, 90 feet wide, and 50 feet high. He spares no expense in the building's creation. He orders vast quantities of cedar from King Hiram of Tyre (I Kings 5:2025), has huge blocks of the choicest stone quarried, and commands that the building's foundation be laid with hewn stone. To complete the massive project, he imposes forced labor on all his subjects, drafting people for work shifts lasting a month at a time. Some 3,300 officials are appointed to oversee the Temple's erection (5:2730). Solomon assumes such heavy debts in building the Temple that he is forced to pay off King Hiram with twenty towns in the Galilee (I Kings 9:11).

When the Temple is completed, Solomon inaugurates it with prayer and sacrifice, and even invites non — Jews to come and pray there. He urges God to pay particular heed to their prayers: "Thus all the peoples of the earth will know Your name and revere You, as does Your people Israel; and they will recognize that Your name is attached to this House that I have built" (I Kings 8:43).

Until the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians some four hundred years later, in 586 B.C.E., sacrifice was the predominant mode of divine service there. Seventy years later, a second Temple was built on the same site, and sacrifices again resumed. During the first century B.C.E., Herod greatly enlarged and expanded this Temple. The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E., after the failure of the Great Revolt.

As glorious and elaborate as the Temple was, its most important room contained almost no furniture at all. Known as the Holy of Holies (Kodesh Kodashim), it housed the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. Unfortunately, the tablets disappeared when the Babylonians destroyed the Temple, and during the Second Temple era, the Holy of Holies was a small, entirely bare room. Only once a year, on Yom Kippur, the High Priest would enter this room and pray to God on Israel's behalf. A remarkable monologue by a Hasidic rabbi in the Yiddish play The Dybbuk conveys a sense of what the Jewish throngs worshiping at the Temple must have experienced during this ceremony:

God's world is great and holy. The holiest land in the world is the land of Israel. In the land of Israel the holiest city is Jerusalem. In Jerusalem the holiest place was the Temple, and in the Temple the holiest spot was the Holy of Holies.... There are seventy peoples in the world. The holiest among these is the people of Israel. The holiest of the people of Israel is the tribe of Levi. In the tribe of Levi the holiest are the priests. Among the priests, the holiest was the High Priest.... There are 354 days in the [lunar] year. Among these, the holidays are holy. Higher than these is the holiness of the Sabbath. Among Sabbaths, the holiest is the Day of Atonement, the Sabbath of Sabbaths.... There are seventy languages in the world. The holiest is Hebrew. Holier than all else in this language is the holy Torah, and in the Torah the holiest part is the Ten Commandments. In the Ten Commandments the holiest of all words is the name of God.... And once during the year, at a certain hour, these four supreme sanctities of the world were joined with one another. That was on the Day of Atonement, when the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies and there utter the name of God. And because this hour was beyond measure holy and awesome, it was the time of utmost peril not only for the High Priest but for the whole of Israel. For if in this hour there had, God forbid, entered the mind of the High Priest a false or sinful thought, the entire world would have been destroyed.

To this day, Orthodox Jews pray three times a day for the Temple's restoration. During the centuries the Muslims controlled Palestine, two mosques were built on the site of the Jewish Temple. (This was no coincidence; it is a common Islamic custom to build mosques on the sites of other people's holy places.) Since any attempt to level these mosques would lead to an international Muslim holy war (jihad) against Israel, the Temple cannot be rebuilt in the foreseeable future.

The Western Wall: Judaism's Sacred Shrine

Mount Moriah, in the heart of the Old City, is known to the Jews as the Temple Mount because it was once the site of the two Jewish temples. It is considered in Jewish mystical writings to be the center of the world. In Jewish tradition, this Temple Mount is sacred because Abraham, the first patriarch of the Hebrew people, is said to have prepared to sacrifice his son, Isaac, in this place. On this site, King Solomon built a magnificent place of worship, the First Temple, which housed the Ark of the Covenant, a sacred chest holding the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments.

This First Temple served as the center of worship as well as a meeting place for the Jewish people of Jerusalem. While people visited the Temple to perform religious rituals, they also came to perform secular rituals, such as trading, discussing politics, and socializing. The small, oblong building consisted of only three rooms: the vestibule (porch), the Holy Place (main room of religious service) and the Holy of Holies, the sacred room in which the Ark rested. The exterior courtyard, however, was extensive so that it could accommodate those who assembled at the Temple.

Over two centuries after the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple, the Jews constructed the Second Temple on the same site — a modest version of the original. It was not until Herod the Great rebuilt the Second Temple, however, that it became a magnificent monument to Judaism. During its construction (which began in 20 B.C.E. and lasted 46 years!) the area of the Temple Mount was raised, doubled, and surrounded by a wall with gates. The Temple itself, was raised, enlarged, and faced with white stone.

A newly enlarged Temple square served as a gathering place, its porticos sheltering merchants and money changers. The Herodian Temple became, after centuries of Jewish repression and hardship, the center of Jewish life once more. During the Roman period, the Temple was not only the focus of religious ritual but also the repository of the Holy Scriptures and other national literature as well as the meeting place of Sanhedrin, the highest court of Jewish law.

From the day after the Temple's final destruction by the Romans in 70 C.E., Jews gathered to mourn its ruins. While nothing remains of the Second Temple itself, part of the retaining wall that raised the Temple Mount has survived. Today, the eighteen meter Western Wall — sometimes called the Wailing Wall on account of the sorrowful prayers said there — is the only surviving remnant of Judaism's most sacred shrine.

For a live webcam of the Temple wall, click here.

What can be seen of the wall reveals rows of the massive stones that Herod the Great used to restore the Second Temple. The layers above use different stones from varied periods. When the Muslims restored the wall in the eighth century, for instance, their smaller stones could not match the massive slabs used by Herod. Archeologists have recently discovered that there are seventeen rows of rock below ground. In 1996, archaeologists discovered a new section of the Western Wall, separated from the main place of prayer by a slope up to the Temple Mount.

The Western Wall, called Hakotel HaMa'aravi in Hebrew, is considered the holiest Jewish site on account of its proximity to the destroyed ancient Temples. Because it was so close to the Temple, it is said that the gate of heaven is situated directly above the wall. Today, the area in front of the Wall is used as an outdoor temple. The Temple built by Solomon, which was rebuilt and restored throughout the centuries before its final destruction, gave pilgrims and worshippers an experience of God which the Jews honor today at the surviving Western Wall, a resilient, yet unyielding symbol of Jerusalem's centrality to Jewish belief and ritual.

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