Although Har Hazeisim is one of the oldest, largest, Jewish cemeteries in the world, much of it is suffers from shocking neglect due to its vast size and its close proximity to a hostile Arab population that has little respect for Jews, living and dead. Indeed, some of the oldest tombs dating from the time of the first Bais Hamikdosh are situated right inside the Arab Hashiloach village where many are used as barns and sheds. Fifty-one kevorim have been identified from this ancient period. Further up the mountain are the kevorim of Chagai and Mala-chi. The site’s plethora of famous graves represent a cross section of gedolim including the Ramban, the Ohr Hachaim Hakodosh, Rav Menachem Men-del of Shklov, the Ben Ish Chai, and Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel of Slabodka. At present, the mountain is covered with about seventy thousand graves.
A Holy Place
The first time we find Har Hazeisim mentioned in Tanach is under tragic circumstances as King Dovid flees from Avshalom. He went up the ascent of Har Hazeisim and wept as he went up (II Shm-uel 15:30). But Chazal attach the mountain to a much earlier time. Commenting on the verse, “The dove came to him at evening time and behold, an olive leaf was torn in its mouth (Bereishis 8:11), the medrash (Bereishis Raba 33:6) states, “From where did she bring it? She brought it from Har Hamishcha (another name for Har Hazeisim), for Eretz Yisroel was not flooded in the mabul and the trees were not uprooted.”
Just as the olive branch that ended the flood came from this mountain, so we will see later that Tanach and Chazal find an intimate connection be-tween Har Hazeisim and the final redemption.
Chazal ascribe special sanctity to this mountain, telling us that before destroying the first Bais Hamikdosh, the Shechinah first spent three and a half years on Har Hazeisim hoping that Yisroel might repent. “Because they did not repent the Shechinah said — I will go and return to My place” (Eicha Rabbah).
The Parah Adumah was burnt on Har Hazeisim facing the Bais Hamikdosh and part of its ashes were kept here (Tosefta Parah ch. 3). The scape-goat of Yom Kippur was led here across a special bridge during its journey to the desert, and on erev Pesach two plowing oxen on Har Hazeisim signified to the people of Yerushalayim when it was time to burn their chometz.
Due to its connection with the Shechinah and its proximity to Har Habayis, Jews have always regarded Har Hazeisim as a holy place of prayer and geulah. Sefer Chassidim (page 168) writes how Jews used to have a special ceremony there that was reminiscent of the hakafos of the Bais Hamikdosh.
“Rav Hai used to come to Yerushalayim from Bavel every year for Sukkos, for they used to circle Har Zeisim seven times on Hoshanah Rabbah and say Tehillim according to an order Rav Hai arranged for them,” he writes. “In front of Rav Hai walked Kohanim dressed in royal garments and coats, the people walked behind him, and he walked in be-tween [the two groups leaving] one hundred amah distance on both sides, before and behind. After the repast, Rav Hai laughed. The repentant murderer [discussed earlier in Sefer Chassidim] saw that Rav Hai was joyful and asked him, ‘Rabbi, why did you walk alone when you were circling Har Hazeisim?’ Rav Hai answered, ‘Because I come up every year to circle Har Zeisim on Sukkos. I purify myself on Hoshanah Rabbah, [and] Eliyahu walks with me — therefore we keep distant from those before and be-hind us and he speaks with me. I asked him: When will the Moshiach come? And he answered: When they circle Har Hazeisim with Kohanim. I took all the Kohanim I could find to do the circling, hop-ing that between [all of] them it would be so [that there would be at least one Kohein]. But Eliyahu told me: Look, all the Kohanim that you see are dressed in coats and walking proudly, but not one is from the seed of Aharon except one who is walk-ing behind them all who is despised and rejected by them. He is walking in inferior clothing, desires no honor, and makes himself like nothing. He is lame in one leg and missing an eye. [Eliyahu] said: This is a true Kohein from the seed of Aharon.”
“Rav Hai Gaon said: ‘This is what made me laugh!’ That out of all of those people, not one was a Kohein except for that physically flawed person!” It would appear that because this genuine Ko-hein was unfit to serve in the Bais Hamikdosh due to his physical disabilities, he was also not qualified to bring about the geulah through his circling of Har Hazeisim.
Place of Redemption
Indeed, the Tanach explicitly tells us that the final geulah will begin from Har Hazeisim, stating, His feet will stand on that day on Har Hazeisim… and Har Hazeisim will split… and half the mountain will move northwards and half of it southwards… (Zechariah 4:4). The Targum (Shir Hashirim 8:5) explains further: “At the time of techiyas hameisim, Har Hamishcha will split and all the dead of Yisroel will emerge from be-neath it. Even the tzaddikim who died in exile will come via tunnels beneath the earth and emerge from beneath Har Hamishcha. The wicked who died and were buried in Eretz Yisroel will be thrown out as a person throws a stone in a sling.”
Regarding those buried outside Eretz Yisroel the Tar-gum continues: “Hakodosh Boruch Hu will make them tunnels below and they will travel in them until they arrive under Har Hazeisim in Yerushalayim. Hakodosh Boruch Hu will stand over it and it will split, and they will rise from it.”
Due to such predictions from Chazal and the importance of the mountain, Jews have always yearned to be buried at this holy location. Indeed, until the 15th century, Jews were buried not only on Har Hazeisim but also on the opposite slope directly below Har Habayis. This custom ceased during the 15th century when Yitzchok ben Meir Latiffe of Italy writes: “The cemetery at their side [next to the Shaar Harachamim gates] was taken from the Jews and they now keep a bowshot away from any place close to the Mikdosh.” Some tombstones with clear Hebrew inscriptions still survive below the Har Habayis walls.
With the growing influx of Jews to Yerushalayim in the 15th century, burial on Har Hazeisim increased drasti-cally and most kevorim on the mountain date after that time. Jews began buying more burial land from local Arabs, and during the 17th century fights broke out with Franciscan monks who claimed ownership to some of the land.
As the Ashkenazi community grew at the beginning of the 19th century, so their patience wore thin at needing to pay stiff burial fees to a monopoly that controlled the cemetery, leading to the founding of the first Ashkenazi cemetery in 1856. As new communities formed, new cemeteries were developed ending up in larger plots belonging to larger kollels such as the Perushim and Chabad, and dozens of smaller ones. Today the number of cemeteries has shrunk to a more manageable twelve cemeteries.
For centuries, local Arabs have had little respect for the Jewish graves in their midst. In 1782 we find local rabbis complaining in a letter that “many years ago we built a cemetery on Har Hazeisim and hundreds and thousands of rabbis and great geonim are buried there. But our eyes mourn for them… for they plow wherever a Jewish grave is found… We have had to nullify their decree by paying a huge amount to all the wealthy of the land.” Muslims living near the cemetery, made a lucrative income by demanding protection money or by robbing mourners in broad daylight. On occasion, they would even kidnap mourners and lock them in a smoke filled room, freeing them in exchange for ransom.
An 1867 sefer about Yerushalayim complains of the “continual expense of the community to pay members of the Silwan village… to guard the cemetery on Har Hazeisim near this village… about four thousand thalers.” Similarly, a British consul wrote at the time that “the Silwan village is a nest of robbers. The burly men of the place have long terrorized Yerushalayim. They are expert at climbing over the city walls at night and be-cause the Jewish cemetery is close to their village, they succeed every year through threats and sometimes violence, to extract large sums from the Jews who pay them from their charity funds.”
Other records report the Arab residents of the Shiloach village receiving ten thousand piastres annual protection money in exchange for not damaging the cemetery.
One exception to this sorry record is at the end of the 19th century when the Ottoman authorities displayed extreme lack of consideration to Jewish sentiment in building a new Yerushalayim-Yericho road through the cemetery:
“During past days they have begun constructing a road to Yericho that passes through the cemetery,” the Tzvi newspaper reported in 1889. “Rabbonim and communal leaders were concerned that this might lead to desecration of the graves and Nissim Becher spoke to the town engineer… He replied that the honorable Pasha is not desirable in causing desecration of the dead and neither is he, and he will try to find a solution… It was decided to build three arches above the graves involved, and the earth of the graves will not be moved from its place.”
This was certainly not the case after the 1948 war when Arabs began uprooting tombstones almost immediately and destroyed hundreds of graves, including some from the first Bais Hamikdosh period. In total, about 40,000 of the cemeteries’ 50,000 graves were desecrated. A 1968 letter from Israel to the Secretary General of the UN complained, “In the ancient historic Jewish graveyard on the Mount of Olives, tens of thousands of tombstones had been torn up, broken into pieces or used as flagstones, steps and building materials in Jordanian military installations and civilian constructions. Large areas of the cemetery had been leveled and converted into parking places and petrol-filling stations.”
Nowadays, too, Arab vandalism continues unabated. Gravestones are smashed and desecrated and visitors need to come with armed escorts.
In 2004, MK Natan Sharansky devised a 91million shekel plan to restore and safeguard Har Hazeisim, a sum that may have scared the government from doing anything.
“Many of the graves at the site are neglected and destroyed,” a document of the time complained. “Garbage is thrown there and sewage passes through. Building waste is thrown along the access paths to various sections and the places between them. With no proper security (no guard or inspection system, holes in the walls, and unlocked gates) the place has turned into a nationalist vandalism meeting place. Throughout the cemetery, graffiti and national symbols are spray-painted. With no permanent garbage bins due to lack of maintenance and cleaning services, garbage of visitors piles up… In general, there is an atmosphere of desecration of the dead and despising of Jewish tradition.”
On November 8th last year, a newly formed group, the International Committee for the Preservation of Har Hazeisim (whose membership includes Malcolm Hoenlein, well-known from Yated’s pages) held its first key public forum in Yerushalayim, and we can only pray that the holy Har Hazeisim and its visitors will receive the cherished protection they deserve.
(Sources include: Articles by Eli Shiller at http://www. mountofolives.co.il)