Holy of Holies – Where is It?

One of the great mysteries of modern times is identifying the exact location of the Bais Hamikdash on the Temple Mount. Because Herod built his new Temple plaza four times larger than the size of the original Bais Hamikdash and barely a remnant of the Bais Hamikdash remains, identifying the location of any of its structures is a monumental task. Indeed, in his very first responsa, Rav Yaakov Etlinger (5558/1798-5631/1871, chief rabbi of Altona, Germany) writes that a powerful reason we cannot build an altar and offer sacrifices is that we have no way of knowing the altar’s exact location (Teshuvos Binyan Tziyon).

Nonetheless, there is one place on Har Habayis, which, according to long tradition, is known with absolute certitude.


During the sixteenth century, someone asked the Radbaz (Rav David ben Zimra, chief rabbi of Egypt, responsa 691) to delineate the limits of Har Habayis beyond which it is forbidden to enter. He wrote an answer that remains a keystone of Har Habayis research. He begins by stating that there is absolutely no doubt regarding the location of the Kodesh Kodoshim, which he identifies as therock sited in the middle of the Dome of the Rock erected by the Moslems during the seventh century CE, about sixty years after they conquered Yerushalayim.

Indeed, an ancient tile on the dome’s wall still bears the message, “This dome was built by the servant of G-d Abd al-Malik Ibn Marwan, emir of the faithful, in the year seventy-two.” (The Moslem year 72 is equivalent to 4451/691).

“It is clear,” the Radbaz writes, “that the Even Shesiyah is under the dome they call El-Sakhrah.”

He then proceeds to correlate this with the sources.

“You might ask,” he queries, “that the Mishnah says, ‘There was a stone therefrom the days of the prophets named Shesiyah, that was threefingerbreadthsabove the ground and the aron was placed on it.’ Yet now we asked them and they say that it is three man-heights higher than the floor of the dome… I already wrote regarding this in a responsa that they dug the floor of the Bayis many times to reveal its foundations and therefore it [the floor] is much lower than it was before. Proof to this is the Mishnah says many times that Har Habayis was higher than Yerushalayim, and now it is the opposite.”

After offering two more suggestions why the floor was dug up, he concludes, “At any rate, there is no doubt that this stone under the dome is the Even Shesiyah on which the Ark stood in the Kodesh Hakodoshim on the west side.”Due to this consideration, he calculates that one is forbidden to approach closer than eleven amah to the dome because the courtyard wall extended eleven amos west of the Kodesh Hakodoshim.

This opinion of the Radbaz is based on long tradition. At the beginning of the fourteenth century, for example, a talmid of the Ramban visiting Yerushalayim wrote, “The kings of Yishmael built a very magnificent building on the Even Shesiyah.” And in one of his letters backto Italy during the fifteenth century, Rav Ovadiah of Bartenura reports, “I sought the place of the Foundation Stone where the Aron Habris was placed, and many people told me it is under a tall and beautiful dome which the Arabs built in the Temple precinct.”

Going further back, the sefer Nistaros d’Rashby ascribed to Rabbi Shimon barYochai writes as follows: “The second king who rises from the Yishmaelim will be a friend of Yisrael and fence their breaches and the breaches of the sanctuary, and dig Har Hamoriah and make it flat, and build for himself there a place to bow on the Even Hashesiya as it says, ‘Place your nest in the rock’ (Bamidbar 24:21).”

Similarly, the Medrash (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 30) states,“Rabbi Yishmael says, ‘In the future, the sons of Yishmael will do fifteen things in Eretz Yisroel at the end of days. These are as follows… And they will fence the breaches in the walls of the Bais Hamikdash and construct a building in the sanctuary.”

So it is no surprise to find Rav Michel Tukichinsky writing in his sefer, Ir Hakodesh Vehamikdash (vol. 4 page 7)that “the tradition of all of us and of other nations is to call the long, high rock found in the Omar Mosque (Dome of the Rock) by the name of Even Hashesiyah.”

There  are  many  different  versions of how the Moslems identified this holy spot. According to one Moslem legend, Abu Bachar, a Yemenite Jew who had been converted in the days of the first Caliph, accompanied the soldiers of Omar, the second Caliph, when they conquered Yerushalayim, and showed Omar the estimated location of the Even Shesiyah. Other Arab sources claim thatOmar found a stone on Har Habayis and to find out if it had any significance sent for the Jewish sages; they informed him that there was a stone on the location of the Kodesh Kodoshim.

On the other hand, the Christian historian Eutychius wrote in 4638/876 that the bishop of Yerushalayim showed Omar the stone that marked the location of the Kodesh Kodoshim.


The oldest source recording the Jews’ veneration of this spot dates back to 4093/333. For hundreds of years after Bar Kochba’s rebellion, Jews were generally barred from entering Yerushalayim except for once a year on Tisha B’Av.

Describing the Jews’ annual pilgrimage to Yerushalayim, a French traveler from Bordeaux wrote, “There are two statues of Adrianus and not far from there is a stone  with  a  hole  to  which  Jews  come every year and anoint it with oil, mourn, tear their clothes, and go on their way.” This description matches the stone in the Dome of the Rock, which indeed has a round hole and an underground cave. However, you might ask, how was it possible for those Jews to enter Har Habayis and anoint the Even Shesiya?How did they purify themselves from tumas meis without ashes of the Parah Adumah? The surprising answer is that it is by no means certain that such ashes did not exist in the time of the Amoraim.

The Yerushalmi (Shabbos 1:3) mentions that Rabbi Chiya told his talmid, Rav, “If you can eat chulin (regular food) in purity the whole year, eat, and if not, eat [chulin in purity] seven days of the year.”

Commenting that this was in remembrance of the Torah law that a person should be pure during Yom Tov in order to bring sacrifices and eatthem, Rabbi Yehuda Hachassid (Sefer Chassidim 969) adds, “Even though they were impure from the dead and there is no ash of the Parah, he commanded him to eat chulin in purity for seven days each year.”

Clearly, the Sefer Chassidim holds that the ashes of the Parah Aduma no longer existed in the days of Rav. On the other hand, however, many Rishonim including Rashi and the Rosh write that ash of the Parah Aduma existed in the days of the Amoraim. According to their opinion, these people entering the Makom Hamikdash once a year indeedhad the means of purifying themselves from tumas meis.


Despite the wide acceptance of the opinion that the Even Shesiya is located in the Dome of the Rock, this opinion is by no means unanimous. In his sefer Teshuvos Vehanhagos (part 3, responsa) Rav Moshe Sternbuch asks an intriguing question.

If the Kodesh Hakodoshim is indeed sited in the Dome of the Rock as is commonly assumed, why do people davening at the Kosel face straightforwards? Shouldn’t they turn slightly leftward in order to face the Kodesh Hakodoshim towards the left? Afterall, does it not state in Berachos (30a) that even someone inside the Bais Hamikdash should daven facing the Kodesh Kodoshim?

To answer this question, Rav Sternbuch says that it is by no means clear that the Even Shesiya is located in the Dome of the Rock and that there are even proofs to the contrary.

For example, the sefer Bais Mikdash Hashlishi of Rav Shalom Steinberg cites the Gemara (Zevachim 54b), which says that the Mikdash is lower than the highest point in the area, indicating that the whole Mikdash is not located at the Dome of the Rock but rather in the empty space between the Dome of the Rock and al Aqsa Mosque.

In addition, the sefer Emek Hamelech (intr. to chapter 9) cites Rav Moshe Vital, who, based on the writings of the Arizal, offers a kabalistic explanation of why the Makom Kadosh is “bare of all buildings.” This too intimates that the Even Hashesiya is not located under theDome of the Rock. Also, the Maharsha (end of Makkos) writes that the prophecy that “Tziyon will be a plowed field” intimates that nothing will be built there until the final Redemption.

According to them, one must say as above, that the whole Mikdash is not located at the Dome of the Rock but rather in the empty space between the Dome of the Rock and al Aqsa Mosque.


According to the mainstream opinion that the Even Hashesiya is indeed located under the Dome of the Rock, we are left with Rav Sternbuch’s question of why worshippers at the Kosel do not face slightly leftwards towards the Kodesh Hakodoshim. To answer this, it may beworthwhile to examine the wording of the Rambam (Hilchos Tefillah 5:3, based on Berachos ibid):

“What does it mean [to pray] facing the Mikdash? If a person is outside the Land, he turns his face towards Eretz Yisroel and prays. If he is in the Land,he turns his face towards Yerushalayim. If he is in Yerushalayim, he turns his face towards the Mikdash. If he is in the Mikdash, he turns his face towards the Kodesh Kodoshim.”

A plain reading of this text suggests that a person standing directly east of Eretz Yisroel can daven directly eastwards and need not be concerned that Yerushalayim might be to the north or south. In the same vein, it would be perfectly fine for someone in the Kosel plaza to face the Makom Hamikdash even though the Kodesh Kodoshim lies towards the left.

A major objection to this attempted answer is that Rabeinu Yonah says the exact opposite: “Do not say [the Braisa means one must pray] merely towards Eretz Yisroel; rather [it means] towards Eretz Yisroel, and towards Yerushalayim,and towards, the Bais Hamikdash, and towards the Kodesh Hakadoshim.” This intimates that someone davening at the Kosel is obligated to face the location of the Kodesh Kodoshim.

Accordingly, we are left with a halachic enigma. According to the mainstream opinion that the Even Shesiya is located under the Dome of the Rock, why do worshippers at the Kosel daven facing straight ahead instead of turning leftwards to face the Kodesh Kodoshim!

Readers are invited to send in possible solutions.

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