Jerusalem – pilgrimage in modern times

Every year, tens-of-thousands of Jews  visit the Kossel on Pesach, Shavuos, and  Sukkos. But does the mitzvah of aliyah  laregel (visiting Yerushalayim on the  three Regalim) apply in our time when  the Bais Hamikdosh is lying in ruins? Are  these visitors fulfi lling the Torah’s command,  Three times a year all your males  shall be seen before Hashem your G-d in  the place He chose? (Devorim 16:16).

When Did the  Mitzvah Start? 
Just as we are questioning whether the  mitzvah of aliyah laregel exists nowadays,  so the Ramban (Ibid 16:9) asks  when this mitzvah began in the fi rst place.  Was there a mitzvah to visit the Mishkon  on the three regolim, or does the mitzvah  of aliyah laregel only apply to the Bais  Hamikdosh 

Examining the sources, we find something  intriguing. On the one hand, the  Gemara (Makos 10a) says that there was  no aliyah laregel in the days of the Mishkon.  Dovid Hamelech was happy when he  heard people complain: “When will this  old person [Dovid] die! Then Shlomo,  his son, can come and build the Bais Habechirah  and we will fulfill the mitzvah  of aliyah laregel!” This intimates that until  Shlomo built the Bais Hamikdosh the  mitzvah of aliyah laregel did not exist.

On the other hand, Tanna D’Bei Eliyahu  (end chapter 8) describes how Elkana  traveled to Shiloh four times every year,  “three times according to the Torah and  one time that he accepted upon himself  voluntarily,” deliberately choosing different  routes each year in order to persuade  as many people as possible to be oleh regel  to Shiloh. He did this “until all Yisroel  were oleh and Elkana gave merit to  the whole of Israel and educated them to  observe mitzvos.” This indicates that the  mitzvah of aliyah laregel existed in the  days of Mishkon Shiloh before Shlomo  built the Bais Hamikdosh.

The surprising answer is that both alternatives  are correct. The mitzvah of  aliyah laregel depended on where the  Mishkon was sited. When it stood in the  more important site of Shiloh, there was  a mitzvah of aliyah laregel (see Ramban,  Devorim 26:2), and Elkanah was anxious  to persuade people to fulfill the mitzvah.  After the Mishkon moved to the less  prominent sites of Nov and Givon, the  mitzvah of aliyah laregel ceased. Thus,  people yearned for Shlomo to build the  Bais Hamikdosh so that they would be  obligated once again to be oleh regel.  Both Shiloh and Yerushalayim were  chosen as Hashem’s abode in the world.

The Diaspora 
Just as planes flying to Eretz Yisroel for  Yom Tov are packed to capacity, so in the  days of the second Bais Hamikdosh Jews  came up to Yerushalayim not only from  every corner of Eretz Yisroel but from the  Diaspora as well. The three regolim were  an opportunity for Klal Yisroel to reunite.  Chazal showed great concern for Jews  coming from far away and did everything  possible to ensure them a comfortable  journey and a timely arrival. Perhaps their  most drastic measure was to decree leap  years “for the Jews of the Diaspora who  had left their places [to arrive for Pesach]  and had still not arrived” (Sanhedrin 11a).

Adding an extra Adar provided plenty of  extra time for the Jews to arrive well before  Pesach. The Yerushalmi (Rosh Hashanah  3) derives this extraordinary practice  from the verse, Speak to bnei Yisroel  and say to them… these are My mo’adim  (Vayikra 23) – arrange the mo’ados so  that all Yisroel can observe them!” To  ensure that every Jew arrives in time, the  Torah instructed us to go to the extreme of  altering the calendar.

The number of Jews arriving in Yerushalayim  was enormous. Shortly before the  Churban, King Aggripas, last king of the  Jews, counted the crowd by collecting one  kidney from every korban Pesach and  reached a total of a million two hundred  thousand kidneys. Since no less than ten  people shared each korban Pesach, the  city was packed with well over two million  Jews. Philo, a Jewish philosopher who  lived in Egypt at that time, reports that  masses of Jews traveled to Yerushalayim  not only for Pesach but on every regel.  “Thousands of people from thousands of  towns arrived at the Bais Hamikdosh for  every chag,” he wrote, “by land or by sea,  from east, west, north, and south…”

On a more somber note, Josephus (Wars  VI 9:3) notes that due to Klal Yisroel’s enthusiasm  for aliyah laregel, hundreds of  thousands of them were trapped in Yerushalayim  at the time of the Churbon. 

“The number of those carried captive  during this whole war was estimated at  ninety-seven thousand,” he writes, “while  the number of those who perished during  the whole siege was one million and  a hundred thousand. Most of them were  of the same nation but did not belong to  the city itself. They had come up from all  over the country to the Chag Hamatzos,  and were suddenly shut in by an army.”

In Our Day 
The medrash (Shir Hashirim Raba  8:11) tells us that Jews continued coming  to Yerushalayim even after the Churban:  “Even though the Bais Hamikdosh was  destroyed, Yisroel did not stop coming  there three times a year.” Does this prove  that the mitzvah of aliyah laregel still exists  in our time? Not necessarily.

Most poskim rule that even if Eretz Yisroel  retained its sanctity (the Rambam’s  ruling), nonetheless, there is no longer a  mitzvah of aliyah laregel. At most, it has  the status of a minhag. While discussing  whether there is any obligation to live in  Eretz Yisroel, Rav Moshe Feinstein also  mentioned the mitzvah of aliyah laregel  (Igros Moshe Y.D. 3:122):

“Regarding the mitzvah of re’iyah [aliyah  laregel] also,” he wrote, “it is simple  and clear that this applies only when the  Bais Habechirah is built, even if we say  that the mitzvah of appearing there does  not depend on bringing a re’iyah sacrifice.  Although people close to Eretz Yisroel  had the custom of visiting Yerushalayim,  this happened in the time of the Geonim  as a mere remembrance and a longing for  the building of Tziyon and Yerushalayim  through the Moshiach whom we constantly  await.”

On the other hand, a minority of poskim,  including the Chasam Sofer, the Seby Chemed, and the Pe’as Hashulchan,  are of the opinion that the mitzvah of aliyah  laregel persists in our time.

“Fortunate are Yisroel who fulfill this  mitzvah in every generation with great  joy,” the Sedei Chemed writes. “Every  year, they travel from all corners of the  earth far and near, and are unconcerned  about the great expenses and the difficult  journey. Those who cannot afford to go  by carriage and horses travel on foot, (Tehillim  102:15): For your servants have  desired her stones and favored her dust”  (Eretz Yisroel 1).

As mentioned earlier, most opinions  hold that at the most, aliyah laregel is only  a minhag. “Just as a dove never leaves its  cote even if you remove its nestlings,” the  medrash says, “so Yisroel never ceased  to do aliyah laregel three times a year  even though the Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed”  (Shir Hashirim Raba 1:63). The  Maharit (1538–1639) explains (responsa  1:114) that we are inspired to do this by  our love of Eretz Yisroel. 

“This is because of chibuv (love) of  Eretz Yisroel,” he writes. “Just as Rabi  Aviyu used to kiss the stone of Akko  based on the verse, For your servants  desired its stones, until today, the masses  of Beis Yisroel have the custom of being  oleh regel to Yerushalayim and seeing  the floor of Har Habayis where the Bais  Hamikdosh stood.”

The custom of aliyah laregel persisted  for many generations. Rav Hai Gaon  used to visit Yerushalayim and circle  Har Hazeisim on Sukkos and the Kaftor  Vaferach (1280-1366) describes aliyah  laregel in the time of the Rishonim (chap.  6): “We and our brothers in the Diaspora  who dwell in Sin and Chamas, Damascus,  Tzuvah, Egypt, and Alexandria have  the custom of going up to Yerushalayim  on chagim and mo’adim. This is because  of agmas nefesh (sadness), that is, to increase  agmas nefesh.

Indeed, the persistent custom of Diaspora  Jews to visit Yerushalayim after the  Churban answers an intriguing question.  Although the rainy season begins immediately  after Sukkos, we delay asking  for rain for a few weeks “so that the olei  regolim can reach their homes in Bavel”  (Ta’anis 10a). If so, asks the Ran (1320-  1376), now that the Bais Hamikdosh was  destroyed, why don’t we start davening  for rain straight away after Sukkos? He  answers that the delay is still relevant  since “people from all the surroundings  gathered together to be oleh regel to  Yerushalayim, as is still done nowadays.”

In modern times, the first mass aliyah  laregel was organized by Agudas Yisroel  at the height of World War II in 1944 as a  sign of solidarity with the martyred Jews  in Europe. The journalist Yisroel Spiegel  wrote that the highlight of the event  was a huge public assembly in the Batei  Machseh neighborhood of the Old City,  from where the crowd descended to the  Kossel. Rav Zalman Sorotzkin cried out  at the time: “Hashem is calling louder  through the cries of calamity heard in  our camp, but to no avail. Therefore, we  must go nearer and approach the gates of  Heaven from where His voice cries: ‘Repent,  repent of your evil ways, Beis Yisroel!’  Perhaps here at the holiest spot in  the world we will merit to hear Hashem’s  voice!”

Nowadays, masses of Klal Yisroel  and gedolei Yisroel visit Yerushalayim  and the Kosel on the shalosh regolim.  Many make the effort of viewing the Har  Habayis at that time. The Yalkut Shimoni  (Yeshayahu 514) writes that after the  Moshiach comes the mitzvah of aliyah  laregel will be practiced more often than  ever:

“Yisroel said: Ribono Shel Olam!  When will you return our glory of going  up three times a year to see the Shechinah?  The Holy One said to them: My  sons! In this world you went up three  times a year. When the final redemption  arrives, you will go up every month as it  says, And it will come to pass that from  one Rosh Chodesh to another, and from  one Shabbos to another, all flesh will  come to bow before me, said Hashem  (Yeshayahu 66:23)

May this happen very soon!

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