Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
Recently, reports have been released by the Vatican that the State of Israel will cede control of the Tomb of King David on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, as well as six other Christian sites. In exchange, the Vatican will transfer Kinneret waterfront properties to Israel. The careful wording of the Vatican releases laments that the control will come without sovereignty. The net effect, however, will be detrimental to Jewish interests.
The campaign to wrest away Kever Dovid HaMelech on Mount Zion in Jerusalem has been under way for some time. The “Last Supper,” a pivotal event in Christian history, supposedly took place in an upper chamber of the structure. The Vatican has been striving to gain control of the room and its surroundings, which would include the burial site of Dovid HaMelech.
During the Crusades (1095–1292), Christians fought to take control of Jerusalem and Kever Dovid. They claimed that the Last Supper, which was a Passover seder, took place in the “Coenaculum” or room of the last supper, located on an upper floor of the structure above Kever Dovid. Muslim authorities then forbade both Christians and Jews from entering or praying there. Instead, Muslims situated a mosque in one of the rooms and affixed doors that had Muslim motifs. Very recently, under the direction of the Vatican, the doors of the unused mosque were replaced. Huge sums of money have been offered and political prestige is being promised. Guarantees of bringing millions of Christian tourists to Mount Zion, with their tourist dollars, have been quoted. Recent Vatican radio discussions have given the public a glimpse of these secret discussions.
Dovid HaMelech and his descendant kings of Yehuda are buried in Ir Dovid, the City of David. According to modern archaeologists, Ir Dovid is the city of Yerushalayim that Dovid HaMelech built across the slopes southeast of Har HaBayis. They scoff at the notion that Dovid’s tomb is on Har Tzion, so far from Ir Dovid, dismissing it as unfounded legend. Nonetheless, despite 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 Ir Dovid, although these should have been a significant feature in the city.
The gravesite of Dovid HaMelech and his descendant kings were not forgotten after the first Churban Beis HaMikdash (420 BCE). They were well known to the Jews that returned to the city after their 70 years of exile. 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 Mount Zion. The Zohar confirms Kever Dovid as being located on Mount 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 Mount Zion.
Christians laid claim to the tomb, having built a crusader’s church there, claiming it as additionally holy because of its use as the site of the Last Supper. Of course, Jews were locked out.
Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela, zt’l (1130–1173), notes that Kever Dovid was rediscovered approximately 875 years ago. In 1272, one of the students of the Rambam visited Jerusalem and notes that Kever Dovid was not far from Migdal Dovid. Rabbi Ovadiah of Bertinoro, zt’l (1445–1515), records that a wealthy German Jew had offered a huge fortune to purchase Kever Dovid. The then Muslim rulers suddenly understood the value of the place, usurped it from the Christians, and dedicated it as a mosque, locking out both Jews and Christians. Meshullam Volterra of Florence recorded this in his visit to Jerusalem in 1481. He found Kever Dovid locked tight by the Muslims, who considered it a sacred site and prayed there. Rabbi Moshe Bassola, zt’l (1480–1560), was in Jerusalem in 1528 and reported the status of Kever Dovid exactly as did Meshullam Volterra some 50 years earlier.
Sir Moses Montefiore, zt’l (1784–1885), visited Jerusalem in 1831 and paid dearly for the privilege of entering the Kever Dovid structure. Because of a severe drought in then Palestine, the Muslim rulers asked the Jews to enter Kever Dovid and to pray for rain. During the British Mandate (1918–1948), British soldiers were stationed at Kever Dovid and Jews were allowed to pray there. In 1948, with the re-establishment of the State of Israel, Jews had full access. The Jordan–Israel armistice borders from 1948–1967 were a few feet from Kever Dovid. The rooftop of Kever Dovid was the only place from where the Kotel could be seen, though sometimes Jordanian soldiers took potshots at onlookers.
Sadly, the burial place of King David, revered author of Tehillim, is not fully appreciated and is right now under severe threat of immediate disenfranchisement to Jewish visitors. Dovid HaMelech was king of Israel for 40 years, during 33 years of which he reigned in Jerusalem. His yahrzeit is on the 6th of Sivan, Shavuos (in Israel, Shavuos is only one day), the same calendar day the nation of Israel received the Torah at Mount Sinai. On Shavuos we are accustomed to read Megillas Rus which includes Dovid’s’ genealogical roots. The last verse delineates the ancestry of Boaz’s descendants, closing with the mention of Dovid.
The Diaspora Yeshiva
Founded by Rabbi Mordechai Goldstein as Yeshiva Toras Yisroel almost 50 years ago, the world-renowned Diaspora Yeshiva has maintained its formidable presence on Mount Zion since 1967. In addition to losing Kever Dovid itself, the loss of the Diaspora Yeshiva looms darkly. Rabbi Goldstein was a talmid muvhak of Rabbi Chanoch Henach Leibowitz, zt’l, rosh yeshiva Chofetz Chaim. Effectively, Rabbi Goldstein was the first to establish a Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim satellite. The yeshiva evolved into the renowned Diaspora Yeshiva, the pioneer and preeminent outreach yeshiva that has brought thousands back to Torah.
When the Israeli armed forces achieved spectacular success during the Six Day War in 1967, the Jordanian Royal Army was pushed out of Jerusalem and beyond the Jordan River. The border installations, such as the Mandelbaum Gate, that ran through Jerusalem and the West Bank, were dismantled. On Mount Zion, where the Israeli–Jordanian border had existed, a very special building was brought back into the service of avodas ha’kodesh. The building had served as the Beth Din of Jerusalem until the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, when, because of its vulnerable location, it was no longer usable on a regular basis.
The building had two levels. When the Beth Din was forced to leave in May 1948, the lower level was still safe, out of reach of Jordanian snipers. A Holocaust Hall of Remembrance was established where memorial plaques were placed commemorating the European kehillos annihilated by the Nazis during WWII. This preceded Yad Vashem, thus being one of the very first Holocaust museums in the world. Holocaust survivors gather there on the yahrzeit anniversaries of their shtetls. The second level was seldom used since it was in the line of fire of Jordanian snipers.
After the Six Day War, the building was again fully usable. However, the Beth Din was well established in the heart of Jerusalem in a large modern facility. Mount Zion was no longer a central location. The Beth Din elected not to return, and the facility was offered to a small yeshiva that needed space. Rabbi Goldstein had started a yeshiva in Jerusalem for advanced talmidim who were committed to intensive learning. At the time, Rabbi Goldstein spent his entire day learning with six students that comprised Yeshiva Toras Yisrael. Rabbi Goldstein accepted the invitation and moved his yeshiva into the building, making full use of the empty second level. An adjacent building that had served as a military fort through the years was designated as dormitory space. Thus the yeshiva had space to grow and the building was once again entirely dedicated to avodas ha’kodesh. The six students grew to eight, then ten, etc., and intense Torah study reigned in this former military outpost.
That first winter found the yeshiva ill equipped. The dormitory had gun shutters for windows and the frost entered from every crack and crevice. The students slept wearing all their clothing under several blankets, all surrounding a petrol-burning space heater. They awoke each morning with soot from the heater embedded in the creases on their faces. When they went to wash themselves, they sometimes found the water pipes frozen. That winter, Jerusalem was paralyzed by two major snowstorms, a first in many years. The seldom-used roads were iced over, making the ascent to the mountaintop impossible. The few petrol heaters quickly consumed the little bit of stored fuel and the meager supply of food was quickly depleted.
The Israeli army came to the rescue. At the whirling sound of a helicopter outside, the students ran out to find a liberal supply of food and fuel being dropped. It lasted through the first snowstorm. This was repeated immediately after the second snowstorm as well.
In spite of the severe conditions, the yeshiva thrived. In those early days before the Western Wall had a paved plaza, the students regularly walked the short distance and prayed at the Wall amidst rubble, often being the only ones constituting the solitary minyan there. The hasmadah and limud haTorah blossomed as a beautiful flower, with the core of those students becoming some of today’s leading rabbis, their names widely recognized and honored.
With what can only be called the hand of G‑d, thousands of irreligious Jewish youths were magnetically drawn to the Western Wall after 1967 in search of spiritual fulfillment. The youths would often initiate conversations with those praying around them, and the noble students of Yeshiva Toras Yisrael were more than glad to share their Torah knowledge. The yeshiva students, aspiring to fulfill the mitzvos of harbotzas Torah and hachnosas orchim, invited the youths for a meal, for lodging, and for a Shabbos. At all hours, Rabbi Goldstein would return from praying at the Western Wall with a dozen or more hungry hippies, who expressed great interest in the religious intensity of those around them. Rabbi Goldstein’s accumulated learning and wisdom beckoned as a beacon of light in a dark storm. The yeshiva ultimately kept its doors and its kitchen open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
This mass migration to the Western Wall, with passage through Yeshiva Toras Yisrael, was the first tidal wave of baalei teshuvah in Israel. Rabbi Goldstein was at its helm. In addition to teaching and closely monitoring his advanced students, he gave of himself to the curious and the interested. Both Rabbi and Rebbetzin Goldstein turned their days into nights and their nights into days in their holy work of harbotzas Torah.
The yeshiva had an unusual magnetism that brought intellectually and spiritually hungry youths through its open doors daily. The yeshiva later changed its name to the Diaspora Yeshiva. Being on Mount Zion, near the tomb of King David, a grand melaveh malkah was held every Motzei Shabbos that drew hundreds and even thousands of guests. An old minhag was reactivated at the tomb of King David. Friday’s Minchah and Kabbalas Shabbos were scheduled before the z’man and accompanied by musical instruments. At the z’man, the guitars, flutes, and drums were put away and then the Shabbos was received with an intensity that is hard to portray. Everyone present could practically feel the participation of King David himself playing his harp. The musically inclined students had an opportunity to develop and apply their talents. A musical band was organized. It became famous as the Diaspora Yeshiva Band, whose music is amongst today’s Jewish classics.
The yeshiva grew with a special blessing from Above. A kollel was established to absorb the married students. Special courses were given so that the students would master shechitah, safrus, and b’ris milah. An impressive number of students in fact chose to become professional rabbonim, shochtim, sofrim, and mohalim. Several students remained within the yeshiva to teach Torah to the next generation. A girls’ school was added. A community was organized in Metzad on the West Bank where over 55 yeshiva families reside. With more than 800 students, boys and girls, ranging from preschool to kollel, the yeshiva has established its own special place in the world of Torah.
We have lost Gush Katif and all the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip with their shuls and yeshivas. Me’aras HaMachpelah is threatened. If we do not wake up to the attrition that we are allowing, we will continue to lose holy places that are precious to Jews around the world.
The Diaspora Yeshiva is in the line of fire. If the Vatican succeeds in its attempts to position itself on Mount Zion, the glorious work of the Diaspora Yeshiva and its hundreds of students may, G‑d forbid, be extinguished. Rabbi Mordechai Goldstein, its rosh yeshiva, has been fighting the Vatican’s efforts for years.
Every possible exertion must be made to stop the continuous loss of our holy places. The battle of Mount Zion must be joined by every G‑d-fearing Jew around the world. Dovid HaMelech’s resting place must not be allowed to fall into non-Jewish hands. 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. Rabbi Tannenbaum can be contacted at email@example.com.