When Rav Hillel Moshe Meshil Gelbstein (Reb Meshil) arrived in Eretz Yisroel in 1869, he set about solving a great puzzle. Why were the Jews of Yerushalayim ignoring a seemingly explicit mitzvah of the Torah?
Shortly after the story of Korach, the Torah commands the Kohanim and Levi’im to guard the Mishkan: Hashem said to Aharon, You and your sons and your father’s house with you… And your brothers also of the tribe of Levi… shall guard your charge, and the charge of all the tabernacle…And they shall join you and guard the charge of the Mishkan of the congregation for all the service of the Mishkan, and a stranger shall not come near to you(Bamidbar 18:1-4).
What was the purpose of these guards? Based on the medrash (Bamidbar Rabba ibid), Rashi explains that their job was to prevent unauthorized people from entering the Mishkan. In Moreh Nevuchim (3:45) the Rambam offers a similar explanation, explaining that the guards prevented impure people and onenim (someone whose deceased relative has not yet been buried) from coming inside. Based on the Sifri Zuta, the Rambam (Bais Habechirah 8:4) adds yet another explanation: “Guarding the Bais Hamikdosh is a positive commandment, and applies even when there is no concern of enemies or thieves. For its guarding is only out of respect for it; for a palace with guards is not the same as a palace without guards.”
Although the Sefer Hachinuch explicitly writes that this mitzvah does not apply nowadays, writing, “It is practiced by Kohanim and Levi’im at the time the Templeexists,” other Rishonim are not so clear-cut on this point.
There is no record of anyone being concerned about performing this mitzvah until 1869, when the tzaddik and mekubal, Rav Hillel Moshe Meshil Gelbstein (1834-1907), a thirteenth generation descendant of the holy Shaloh and a chosid of Kotzk, the Chiddushei Harim, and the Tzemach Tzedek, arrived in Eretz Yisroel from Bialystok. He devoted the rest of his life to enhancing the glory of the Kosel and the kivrei tzaddikim in order to raise the Shechinah from the dust and hasten the coming of the Moshiach.
Until his time, davening at the Kosel was sporadic; people generally went to daven there at times of need. Within a year after his arrival, Reb Meshil became the first to establish minyonim for Minchah and Maariv at the holy site, and every Yom Kippur he set up an awning that stretched from the Kosel to the opposite wall to protect worshippers from the blazing sun. At the same time, he began researching the subject of Shemiras Hamikdosh and corresponded about the topic with a number of gedolim. He argued that it should certainly apply if its purpose was to keep out unauthorized people. In a letter to the Aderes, he argued that he himself almost inadvertently entered Har Habayis when he first moved to Yerushalayim and was still unfamiliar with its streets.
“It is as clear as the sun in the sky,” he writes in his sefer, “that according to the Sifri and Rashi the mitzvah of guarding applies today as well. There is a Torah obligation, if we had the possibility in our hands, to establish guards at the entrances and exits to warn such people that impure people and zorim may not enter.”
In his reply to Reb Meshil, Rav Avrohom Bornstein of Sochatchov (Avnei Nezer, Yoreh De’ah 449) began by saying it was not his prerogative to issue a ruling that applied to the whole of Klal Yisroel. In general, however, he agreed that the basic mitzvah of guarding the Mishkan potentially exists even in our day. On the other hand, he continued, there were technical objections to doing this in practice. According to the Rambam, the Kohanim who guard the Mikdosh do so as an avodah that requires purity and bigdei kehunah, both of which are unavailable nowadays. As for the Levi’im, he continued, the Rambam (Klei Hamikdosh 3:10) rules that it is a Torah prohibition for a Levite of one group to perform a task assigned to another group. The Levites whom Shmuel and Dovid assigned to sing are prohibited from guarding, and vice versa. Since modern Levites do not know to which group their ancestors belonged, in practice, they are forbidden to guard the Mikdosh in our times.
Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Ta’am Vare’ach, Bamidbor) adds that today’s Levi’im are unfit for avodah due to their inability to definitively verify their lineage.
Rav Yechiel Michel Tikotchinsky (Ir Hakodesh VeHamikdosh vol. 4:4) suggested four other reasons why the mitzvah of guarding the Mikdosh does not apply in our time. 1) The principle mitzvah is to guard within the Bais Hamikdosh. 2) The Sifri and Rambam say, “For a palace with guards is not the same as a palace without guards,” but today there is no palace at all. 3) Even if the mitzvah was to guard the location of the Mikdosh, what honor is there in guarding a place that Hashem’s glory has left and where non-Jews enter without restriction? 4) The mitzvah only applies to the whole tribe of Levi or upon the entire Jewish people. Therefore, it does not apply today when there is no central representative of either.
Although most gedolim conclude that there is no formal mitzvah to guard the Mikdosh in our time, the Minchas Elozor of Munkatch (Olas Tamid page 223) conceded that even so, it would be proper for the Bais Din of Yerushalayim to warn people against entering its precincts.
Kollels at the Kosel
Reb Meshil’s research into the topic of guarding the Mikdosh culminated with his sefer, Mishkenos Le’avir Yaakov printed in 1888, wherehe concludes that the mitzvah of guarding the Mikdosh still exists. Since it impossible to guard the Mikdosh from within due to impurity, he wrote, we should establish guard posts at various locations outside.
“Nowadays, Hashem has given the Jews favor in the eyes of our pious king, may he be exalted, and in the eyes of his ministers, so that Jews are permitted to live near the gates of Har Habayis, about fifty amah distant,” he wrote. “Therefore, it is obvious that there is a mitzvah de’oraysa to establish a special house for Kohanim and Levi’im in every street leading to the gates, where they should constantly stand at the courtyard entrance and warn Jews not to enter the makom Hamikdosh.“
“It is also obvious that there is a mitzvah to rent a special house next to the Kosel for Kohanim and Levi’im where they should constantly stand to warn Jews not to insert their hands into the crevices of the Kosel,” he added.
This last statement was based on his opinion that that it is not only forbidden to enter the Har Habayis beyond the Kosel, but also a Torah prohibition to insert one’s hands into the holes and cracks of the Kosel. The first rov to publicly speak of this idea was Rav Yeshaya Bardaki (1809-1863), a great 19th century leader of the Perushim community of Yerushalayim who avoided going to the Kosel and when he did go there, was very careful not to approach it closely lest he inadvertently place his hands between its stones. However, he did not warn others to worry about this chumrah.
Reb Meshil wrote extensively about the topic and his opinion was shared by a number of gedolei hora’ah including the Maharil Diskin and Rav Eliyahu Dovid Rabinowitz-Teumim (the Aderes). However, most gedolim pasken that the Kosel has been shown to be outside of the Har Habayis and therefore one is permitted to place his finger between the stones.
He also insisted that the Kosel had the status of a shul, writing, “The place next to the Kosel that is set aside for prayer does not have the status of a town square where people pray occasionally… It is a mitzvah to honor and elevate the place to the fullest extent at least like a shul.” He fought for the glory of the Kosel area, trying to persuade the government to allow the erection of a partition between the davening area and surrounding houses, “for I saw there with my eyes a permanent toilet of a gentile attached to the Kosel, woe that our eyes saw such a thing.” He also introduced the custom of placing a sheet as a mechitzah between men and women.
In tandem with his suggestion to guard the Mikdosh, Reb Meshil began a valiant project to establish batei medrash at the Kosel. His initial goal was to establish a minyan of G-d fearing talmidei chachomim for Shacharis, Minchah, and Arvis, and at least ten Kohanim duchening there every day, in addition to many oil candles. He also attempted to buy courtyards in the vicinity to use as batei medrash where Yisroelim, Levi’im, and Kohanim would learn the halachos of Kodshim at the closest place possible to the Makom Hamikdosh.
“For at present,” he complained, “people from all corners of the world are present in Yerushalayim and daven everyday before the Kosel, but because they are praying outdoors in the open, their minds are confused from the heat in summer and the rain in winter. Therefore it is correct that there should be a bais hamedrash.“
Although his idea gained support from some leading rabbonim of Chevron and Yerushalayim, Rav Shmuel Salant and the head of the Vaad Haklali (Jewish Council of Yerushalayim) did not agree. Reb Meshil turned to private sources, raising the sum of 270 Napoleons, a stupendous sum for those times, and negotiated to rent three courtyards in the Mugrabi neighborhood at the right side of the Kosel area to establish three batei medrash, one for nusach Ashkenaz, one for nusach Arizal, and one for nusach Sefard. The money was already deposited in the accounts of the Arab owners of the courtyards when they backed out of the deal. Reb Meshil continued his negotiations and it is said that Baron Rothschild even secured the agreement of the Turkish authorities, but at this stage, the heads of the Sephardi community begged him to drop the idea, fearing that its pursuance might sour Jewish- Arab relations in the city. It seems that then, as now, many Arabs did not look kindly upon Jewish attempts to establish sovereignty over the vicinity of Har Habayis.
The Importance of Kivrei Tzaddikim
Rav Meshil also encouraged improving the conditions at Kever Shimon Hatzaddik and Kever Rochel. In his sefer, Ohr Zarua Latzaddik, he explained his goals: “To establish there a group of those who seek Hashem through constantly studying Torah and pure avodah day and night, and to build near the tomb a large, elegant beis medrash, and a mikveh and a courtyard around, and small houses within to live and eat in.”
He then explained the importance of spending time at kivrei tzaddikim.
“It is impossible to achieve yiras Shomayim and reach the point of truth (nekudas ha’emes) except through two means,” he wrote. “One is by cleaving to the true tzaddikim who live in the generation. In Eretz Yisroel, if the tzaddikim hide themselves, this is impossible except by cleaving to the tombs of the tzaddikim, prophets, tanna’im and amora’im, to sit there permanently for a few weeks and be occupied in Torah and avodah. Even though the Shechinah has not departed from the Kosel, who can be sure he is worthy to approach the holy place without the help of the neshomos of the tzaddikim, to reach the point of truth and yiras Hashem?”
Reb Meshil was a man ahead of his time. Although his dream of establishing botei medrash at the Kosel and kevorim failed, nowadays, his ideas have culminated in success. Whoever wants to, can spend as much time as he pleases studying and davening in comfort at the Kosel and the kevorim of Rochel Imeinu and Shimon Hatzaddik. But unfortunately, his principal goal of speeding the Moshiach’s arrival in his time still awaits its fulfillment.