This week we are celebrating Chanukah. It commemorates the single small jar of tahor olive oil that miraculously burned for eight days. The olives that were pressed to make that olive oil may well have come from the nearby Mount of Olives – Har HaZeisim. The oil had to burn for eight days because the kohanim had become tamei through contact with the dead. To become tahor and be able to prepare new olive oil, they had to go through a seven-day process that involved being sprinkled twice with a mixture of water and the ashes of a parah adumah – a red cow, a process that took place on Har HaZeisim.
Like the parah adumah, which brought taharah to those who were tamei, while making the tahor person who performed the sprinkling tamei, Har HaZeisim is a study in contradictions. It is the most important Jewish cemetery in the world, a symbol of death, the ultimate source of tum’ah. It is the place where taharah was restored through the sprinkling of the ashes of the parah adumah. It is where the ultimate reaffirmation of life, t’chiyas ha’meisim – the resurrection of the dead, will take place. It overlooks the place of the highest k’dushah and taharah, the Har HaBayis, the former and future site of the Beis HaMikdash, where those who are tamei dare not tread. Har HaZeisim symbolizes a glorious though often troubled past and an infinite future. Until recently, due to violence, vandalism, and neglect, it was not part of our present. The International Committee of Har HaZeisim is changing that. Through their work, Har HaZeisim will be restored to its rightful place as a symbol of the eternity of the Jewish people and our connection to Jerusalem.
I recently had the opportunity to visit Har HaZeisim with Rabbi Shalom Lerner, the Executive Director of the International Committee for Har HaZeisim; General Uzi Dayan, the former Deputy Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces and nephew of the legendary Defense Minister Moshe Dayan; and Rabbi Sam Shor, the Director of Programs for the OU Israel Center.
In Maseches Rosh HaShanah, Har HaZeisim is referred to as Har HaMish’chah. In the days before the current calendar was adopted, the function of Har HaMish’chah was literally to “start spreading the news.” If eyewitnesses came on the 30th day and testified that they had seen the new moon, Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month, would be proclaimed. If no witnesses came, the next day would automatically become Rosh Chodesh. It was critical for Jews around the world to know when Rosh Chodesh was proclaimed, because fixing the dates of the Yamim Tovim depended on it. Har HaMish’chah was the first in a chain of mountains where torches would be waved if Rosh Chodesh was proclaimed.
As noted earlier, the process of burning the parah adumah, which was essential to the process of purifying those who had become tamei through contact with the dead, took place on Har HaZeisim. Tangible evidence that this process actually occurred can still be seen on Har HaZeisim today.
The first burials on Har HaZeisim date back to the first Beis HaMikdash. The last of the N’viim – Chagai, Zechariah, and Malachi – are buried there. So, too, is the great commentator on the Mishnah, Rav Ovadiah miBartenura. On our trip to Har HaZeisim, we visited the graves of some of the tzadikim more recently buried there.
Rav Hezekiah da Silva zt”l wrote the P’ri Chadash, a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch. This commentary is now included in most standard editions of the Shulchan Aruch, but it was quite controversial in its time. He was criticized by many for questioning the decisions of the author of the Shulchan Aruch, Rav Yosef Karo. The P’ri Chadash moved to Jerusalem in 1679. When he died in 1698, he was buried at the foot of Har HaZeisim.
Rav Chaim Ben Attar zt”l is best known for his masterful commentary on Chumash, the Or HaChayim. He also wrote P’ri Toar, which frequently took issue with the P’ri Chadash and his criticism of the Shulchan Aruch. After moving to Jerusalem in 1742, the Or HaChayim would often go to the grave of the P’ri Chadash to ask for m’chilah – forgiveness – for criticizing the work of a great talmid chacham. The Or HaChayim died less than a year later and was buried near the P’ri Chadash. Today, one can see the graves of these two Torah giants in a single glance. Though they disagreed on halachah, they stood as one in their devotion and commitment to Torah.
Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook zt”l is best known as the first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of modern day Eretz Yisrael. But this hardly does him justice. Rav Kook was an extraordinary talmid chacham who mastered all facets of Torah learning, and a tzadik with a deep love for every Jew. He was uncompromising in his devotion to halachah. Yet he said that the secular Zionists were helping to bring the Mashiach by strengthening the Jewish presence in Eretz Yisrael. When some Jewish construction workers worked on a building on Rosh HaShanah, people expected Rav Kook to denounce such a blatant desecration of one of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar. Instead, Rav Kook sent someone to blow the shofar for the workers. The blowing of the shofar touched their hearts. They stopped working and spent the rest of the day davening in Rav Kook’s beis midrash.
Buried in the same section as Rav Kook is Rav Shlomo Goren zt”l, the first Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces. Rav Goren was one of the first to arrive at the Kosel on 28 Iyar 5727. His blast of the shofar and his proclamation “This year in Jerusalem,” informed the world that Jerusalem was reunited under Jewish control for the first time in 1900 years. Eighteen years to the day later, Rav Goren spoke from the steps of Queens Borough Hall at the first Jerusalem Reunification Day celebration in Queens. Rav Goren served an eventful ten years as the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel.
Nearby are the graves of some of the most significant American roshei yeshivah, including Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l of Chaim Berlin, Rav Mordechai Gifter zt”l of Telshe, and Rav Elya Svei zt”l of Philadelphia.
Others who were not rabbanim but played a major role in developing Jerusalem and Israel were also honored with burial on Har HaZeisim. Yoel Moshe Salomon felt that overcrowded conditions in the Old City exacerbated the 1866 cholera epidemic, which killed most of his family. He founded Nachalas Shivah, one of the first neighborhoods outside the Old City, and Petach Tikvah, known as the mother of settlements. Dr. Irving Moskowitz worked to strengthen the Jewish presence in all of Jerusalem through the purchase of land. Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino magnate and Republican mega-donor, published the Yisrael Hayom newspaper and provided half of the financial support for Birthright, the program that brings Jewish students to Israel.
These are only a few of the many prominent individuals, from all walks of life, buried on Har HaZeisim.
During the 1948 War for Independence, the Jewish Quarter of the Old City was under siege. Those who fell defending the Old City could not be brought to Har HaZeisim for burial. Under the circumstances, they were buried in a common grave within the city walls, which would not be permitted under normal conditions. When Jerusalem was reunited in 1967, they were reburied in a mass grave on Har HaZeisim with individual plaques honoring each of the heroes.
During the 19-year Jordanian occupation, Har HaZeisim was desecrated. Tens of thousands of tombstones were destroyed. They were broken and used for building houses, paving roads, and even for latrines. When I visited Har HaZeisim in 1973, I could actually see Hebrew letters in the pavement of the road, clear evidence of what was used to make the pavement.
Attempts to restore the historic cemetery were set back during the intifada when Jewish visitors were frequently attacked by stone throwing “demonstrators.” When Evelyn and I wanted to visit the graves of her grandparents, relatives warned us that it was too dangerous. We went anyway and found much of the cemetery still in shambles.
In 2010, Israel’s State Comptroller issued a scathing report showing how one of our holiest sites had become dangerous and neglected. The response was to form the International Committee of Har HaZeisim, founded by Abe and Menachem Lubinsky. Shalom Lerner was recently named as Executive Director of the International Committee. He brings impeccable credentials to the position. Born in Brazil, he grew up in the United States where he attended Yeshiva Torah Vodaath and Ner Israel in Baltimore. Rav Nathan Kaminetzky recruited him as one of the first students at the ITRI yeshivah in Jerusalem. He went on to serve in the Israel Defense Forces and fought in the 1982 War for the Peace of Galilee. A successful career in journalism, jewelry, and real estate in the United States and Israel followed. In 1989 he moved to Beit Shemesh as part of a garin Torani. He went on to become deputy mayor and to build a school for Russian immigrants. The seed that he planted blossomed beautifully. It was largely through his efforts that Beit Shemesh was transformed into the bastion of Torah that it is today.
After a successful business career, Shalom Lerner wanted to devote himself to “something which will last forever.” He sold his real estate interests to take on the challenge of leading the International Committee of Har HaZeisim.
In the effort to make Har HaZeisim more accessible to both the families whose loved ones are buried there and those interested in learning more about one of our holiest sites, security is a top priority. Visitors will only come to Har HaZeisim if they believe it is safe. Some 170 security cameras, monitored 24 hours a day, and lighting have been installed. The committee has worked with the police to secure the approaches to the cemetery. At least 20,000 graves have been restored. A police station, to further enhance security, is under construction.
A Visitor Educational Center will be the key to helping people find graves. It will include a database on all of the people buried there with video biographies. Relatives and friends will have the opportunity to record information about their loved ones, which will also be included in the database.
Monthly themed tours are being planned. The next one, titled “In the Footsteps of Jewish Heroes,” will focus on people like Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who helped to found and build Israel. Private and individual tours will also be available in the near future.
Before entering the cemetery, we davened Maariv at the top of Har HaZeisim. According to the Gemara in Taanis, the Sh’chinah moved to Har HaZeisim for two and a half years after the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed and will return there on the way back to the Har HaBayis, before the Beis HaMikdash is rebuilt. The experience of praying for the Sh’chinah to return to Zion overlooking the past and future site of the Beis HaMikdash was awesome. Thanks to the work of the International Committee of Har HaZeisim, every Jew will have the opportunity to share that experience. You can be a part of preparing Har HaZeisim for T’chiyas HaMeisim by going to www.harhazeisim.org.
By Manny Behar