Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
Frightening rumors forewarn that the State of Israel will transfer control of Kever Dovid Hamelech, King David’s Tomb, to the Vatican during the upcoming visit of Pope Francis to Eretz Yisrael, May 24 through May 26. Though refuted by various governmental representatives, an investigative report in Makor Rishon, the reliable Jerusalem daily newspaper, cites La Stampa Vatican insider journalist Andrea Tornielli as saying that the deal has been nearly completed, and that Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin is in charge of the negotiations with the Vatican.
Dovid Hamelech is undoubtedly one of the key figures in all of Jewish history. He ruled in Jerusalem and established the Jewish presence there. He brought the holy Mishkan to Jerusalem and purchased the very land upon which the Beis Hamikdash was built by his son, Shlomo Hamelech. Dovid Hamelech accumulated the necessary gold, silver, and other monies to have the Beis Hamikdash beautifully built. He authored the Tehillim, a great part of which is incorporated into our daily prayers. His gravesite is just a short walk from the Kotel, which is visited by millions. Kever Dovid Hamelech, astoundingly, does not have millions of visitors.
Dovid Hamelech and his descendant kings of Beis Dovid are buried in Ir Dovid, the City of David. According to modern archeologists, Ir Dovid is the city of Yerushalayim that Dovid Hamelech built across the slopes southeast of Har Habayis. They ridicule the notion that Kever Dovid is on Mt. Zion, somewhat distant from Ir Dovid, dismissing it as unfounded legend. Nonetheless, despite ongoing extensive excavations that have revealed engineering marvels of Dovid Hamelech and Chizkiyahu Hamelech, no trace of the tombs of the kings have been found in their assumed Ir Dovid, although the tombs should have been a significant feature in the city.
How do we know Dovid Hamelech is actually buried on Mt. Zion? Every child has been challenged with the question “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?” The gravesite of Dovid Hamelech and his descendant kings were not forgotten after the first Churban Beis Hamikdash (420 BCE). It was well known to the Jews who returned to the city after their 70 years of exile (350 BCE). Nechemiah, who designated neighborhoods of Yerushalayim for prominent Jews, recorded that one of these areas bordered the gravesite of the kings of the House of David (Nechemiah 3:16). The Malbim described this section as extending to the heights of Mt. Zion. The Zohar confirms Kever Dovid as being located on Mt. Zion. The Ari, z’l (1534–1572), according to Rabbi Moshe Chagiz, zt’l (1671–1750), declared that Dovid Hamelech is buried in the tomb on Mt. Zion. Many of the holy sites in Israel today are those that the Ari, z’l, identified and confirmed. The Ari, z’l, identified and confirmed that Kever Dovid is not only the burial site of Dovid Hamelech alone, but also the gravesite of Shlomo Hamelech and 23 successive kings of Judah, descendants of Dovid Hamelech.
On Monday morning, Pesach Sheni, May 16, 1927, the fifth day of the visit to then-Palestine by Rabbi Chaim Elazar Shapiro, zt’l (1868–1937), revered Munkatcher Rebbe and author of Minchas Elazar, a visit was made to Kever Dovid. Special permission was obtained to allow the Minchas Elazar to enter the tomb, otherwise forbidden to Jews by Muslim Ottoman law. The Minchas Elazar was permitted to enter up to a gate that barred the door to the inner room. He was warned by police guards not to pray. He entered with great emotion, absorbing the immense sanctity of the kever of Dovid Hamelech and of Shlomo Hamelech, simultaneously deeply pained that the words of Tehillim written by Dovid Hamelech were not allowed to be vocalized.
This story repeats itself almost daily. A madrich (tour guide) takes a group of tourists to the north of Israel and points out the burial place of Shmuel Hanavi. The next day, while traveling through the south of Israel, the madrich boldly points out the burial place of Shmuel Hanavi. Several curious tourists ask, “But yesterday, didn’t you tell us that Shmuel Hanavi was buried in the north?” “Yes,” responds the guide. “That was Shmuel Aleph and this is the burial place of Shmuel Beis.” Such stories feed skepticism regarding the identified ancient burial sites of many sages in Israel.
Kever Dovid was considered one of Judaism’s holiest sites during the times of the Holy Temples. Talmud Yerushalmi, Beitzah 2:4, records the passing of Dovid Hamelech on Shavuos (970 BCE). The tradition to visit his grave on or around this day has become an accepted heritage. Kever Dovid is on Har Tzion (Mt. Zion), immediately southwest of the wall of today’s Old City of Jerusalem.
Rabbi Yechiel Mechel Tukitchinsky, zt’l (1872–1955), mashgiach ruchani of Yeshiva Eitz Chaim in Jerusalem, devoted an entire chapter of his Ir Hakodesh v’Hamikdash (vol. 2, chap. 4) confirming that Mt. Zion was within the Jerusalem of King David. There is little doubt that at the time of the Churban (Destruction of the First Temple) in 586 BCE, Jerusalem included most of today’s Jewish Quarter, extending as far as the modern Jaffa Gate and including Mt. Zion. However, those critical of the Mt. Zion Kever Dovid identification propose that Jerusalem during the First Temple period greatly expanded and eventually did include Mt. Zion, but question the boundaries of Jerusalem at the time of King David’s death.
The Romans, after their conquest and subjugation of Eretz Yisrael, obliterated the holy sites in Jerusalem, with special efforts directed at the second Beis Hamikdash and Kever Dovid. The ground was plowed and salted. The first mention of Kever Dovid after the Churban is in the diary of Rabbi Binyamin of Tudela, zt’l (1130–1173), who claimed that Kever Dovid had been rediscovered only 15 years before his visit (1165), about 850 years ago. Subsequently, many gedolim since have identified it as the resting place of King David, as well as that of the descendants of the House of David who reigned as kings in Israel, including Shlomo Hamelech.
After his release from communist prisons in 1927, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson, zt’l (1880–1950), sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, traveled to then-Palestine. He called for Jews all over the world to unite in having a quorum of scholars recite the entire Tehillim daily near Kever Dovid. His call was joined by Rabbi Yosef Zvi Dushinsky (1865–1948), zt’l, Chief Rabbi of the Jerusalem Eidah Hachareidis; Rabbi Yitzchok Halevi Herzog, zt’l (1889–1959), Chief Rabbi of Palestine and later of Israel; and Rabbi Ben Zion Chai Uziel, zt’l (1880–1953), Rishon Letziyon and Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel (Chitas, Letters, p. 212).
In spite of criticism by secular Biblical scholars, the identification of Kever Dovid has been confirmed by gedolim throughout the ages. The great sage Hillel, in Pesachim 66a, when faced with a challenge of an important halachah not being remembered, declared “Leave it to the Children of Israel to find a solution. If they are not Nevi’im, they are bnei Nevi’im (children of prophets). If our gedolim and thousands of Jews visit Kever Dovid, then it must be Kever Dovid. We must protest loudly and continuously to prevent the Israeli government from giving it away.
In 2006, when a trade was proposed by the Vatican for Kever Dovid, this writer organized several important meetings here that had the participation of the Chief Rabbi of Israel, important rabbinical leaders, and leading Torah activists. We were successful in having Kever Dovid opened 24/7 with security. At that time, the 2006 Lebanon War displaced hundreds of thousands of Israelis from the north. Having Kever Dovid open for prayers 24 hours a day, seven days a week, surely opened the gates of Heaven and protected Jews in all of Israel. v
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.