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The Jewish Quarter of Yerushalayim’s Old City

How It Came About

When the Roman Emperor Hadrian captured Yerushalayim during the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 CE, he was determined to erase all traces of Judaism from the city.  He rebuilt Yerushalayim in the style of a Roman colony, stationed a Roman military legion there, and renamed it Aelia Capitolina – a name it retained for the next five hundred years.  Throughout this time, it was illegal for Jews not only to settle in Yerushalayim, but even to enter it.

Nevertheless, the Jews did not forget their holy city.  A Christian pilgrim who visited Yerushalayim in 333 CE relates,1Harris, Rendel. “Hadrian’s Decree of Expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem.” The Harvard Theological Review, vol. 19, no. 2, 1926, pp. 199–206. JSTOR, Accessed 19 Feb. 2020. “There are two statues of Hadrian and not far from the statues there is a perforated stone to which the Jews come every year, and anoint it, bewail themselves with groans, and so depart.” Historians believe that the pilgrim is describing the scene on Tisha B’Av, the one day of the year when the Jews were allowed to come near the location of the destroyed Beis Hamikdash and mourn its absence.  Another Christian source2Harris, Rendel. “Hadrian’s Decree of Expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem.” The Harvard Theological Review, vol. 19, no. 2, 1926, pp. 199–206. JSTOR, Accessed 19 Feb. 2020. relates that Jews paid a special tax for permission to enter Yerushalayim once a year.

Under the Romans

During these five centuries, Eretz Yisrael was ruled by the Roman Empire.  In 395 CE, the Roman Empire was divided into two – Western, with its capital in Rome, and Eastern, with its capital in Constantinople.

While the Western Roman Empire remained mostly pagan, Eastern Roman Empire had become increasingly Christian since the reign of Emperor Constantine (306–337 CE), who had granted Christianity legal status and outlawed persecution of Christians.  Emperor Constantine himself converted to Christianity, as did his mother, Empress Helena.  Later, in 380 CE, Emperor Theodosius, declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Upon the division of the empire, Eretz Yisrael fell under the dominion of the Eastern Roman Empire, and thus under Christian rule.

Under the Byzantines

After the split, the Western Roman Empire weakened and declined, until its ultimate fall to Barbarian invaders in 476 CE.  The Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire, continued to exist for another thousand years.  Under the Byzantines, Yerushalayim was turned into a Christian city and a site of religious pilgrimage.  Many Christians made their homes in Yerushalayim and built large, imposing churches.

While the predominant religion in the region had changed, the hostile attitude towards Jews remained the same.  In addition to economic restrictions, Emperor Justinian (527–565 CE) enacted laws prohibiting Torah study and other mitzvos, such as public recitation of Shema.  Many years later, Rav Yehuda’i Gaon of Sura (757–761 CE) wrote in one of his teshuvos,3Quoted in History of the Jewish People: From Yavneh to Pumbedisa, by Meir Holder, Mesorah Publications 1986, page 254. “They [the Byzantine authorities] had issued a decree of sh’mad against the Jews of Eretz Yisrael, forbidding them to read the Shema and even to pray; but they were allowed to congregate on Shabbos morning for the purpose of ‘reciting poetry and hymns’; they would insert portions of the Scriptures, the Kiddush, and the Shema secretly.”

Subject to such persecution, the Jews yearned to throw off Byzantine rule.  Thus, in 614 CE, when the Persian Empire went to war against the Byzantines and sought to conquer Yerushalayim, Jews took the Persian side in the conflict.

Some sources claim that as many as 20,000 Jewish soldiers participated in the Persian siege and eventual conquest of Yerushalayim from the Byzantines.  Once the city was in their hands, the Persians repaid the Jews for their help by appointing a Jew, Nechemia ben Chushiel, as the governor of Yerushalayim.  His rule, however, only lasted for three years.  Perhaps influenced by the local Christian population, the Persian rulers executed Nechemia ben Chushiel and expelled the Jews from Yerushalayim.  A few years later, in 628 CE, the Byzantines reconquered Eretz Yisrael from the Persians, massacred many Jews, and once again ensured there would be no Jewish presence in Yerushalayim.4Malamat, Abraham; Ben-Sasson, Haim Hillel. A History of the Jewish people. Harvard University Press, 1976. Page 362.

Jewish Presence in Eretz Yisrael

Throughout the years of persecution, which saw many Jews fleeing Eretz Yisrael for safer locales, there remained a relatively small but significant Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael.  In his History of the Jewish People: from Yavneh to Pumbedisa, Meir Holder writes,5Meir Holder. History of the Jewish People: From Yavneh to Pumbedisa. Mesorah Publications, 1986. Pages 253-254.

That the Jews clung desperately to the land of their fathers goes without saying.  Some two centuries after the Destruction – in spite of Trajan and Hadrian, the Bar Kochba revolt and its disastrous sequel – we still find R’ Yochanan stating that “The major part of the [agricultural] land is in Jewish hands.”6Jerusalem Talmud, Demai 2:1. Although R’ Elazar disagrees, it is significant that such a disagreement could even have taken place.  Nonetheless, by the time the Moslems conquered the Land, it is almost certain that only a very small portion of the Land still remained under Jewish ownership, after the long period of vicious taxes and persecutions of the Byzantine regimes.

In the beginning of the 7th century CE, the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael was centered in the northern city of Tiveria.  Though poor and struggling, the Jewish community maintained a yeshiva and was the home of the Baalei Hamesorah – a group of Torah scholars who systematized the nekudos and taamei hamikra and compiled the authoritative version of the text of the Tanach that included them.  To this day, we use these Tiveria scholars’ version of the Tanach.7Philip Ginsbury and Raphael Cutler. Phases of Jewish History. Devorah Publishing, 206. Page 150.

After the Byzantine Empire reconquered Eretz Yisrael from the Persian Empire, things appeared hopeless.  A return to Yerushalayim seemed like a distant dream, and the future of the Jewish community, and Judaism as a whole, was uncertain.  The Byzantine persecution only intensified, and Emperor Heraclius attempted to force the Jews under his rule to convert to Christianity.8Rabbi Berel Wein. Echoes of Glory: The Story of the Jews in the Classical Era 350 BCE – 750 CE. Shaar Press, 1995. Pages 292-294.

Moreover, the center of Torah learning at the time was Bavel, under the rule of the Persian Empire, which treated the Jews benevolently and granted them a great deal of autonomy.  The Persians and the Byzantines were constantly clashing militarily, and with the Persian Empire weakening, the Jews were concerned that the Byzantine Empire would prevail and conquer Bavel, thereby bringing its persecution to the centers of Jewish learning.

Muslims Enter the Stage of History

New hope arrived, unexpectedly, from Arabia, where the new religion of Islam was spreading quickly among the Arab tribes.  Established by Mohammed in 622 CE, Islam became the predominant religion on the Arabian Peninsula within a decade.

After Mohammed’s death in 632 CE, the father of one of his wives, Abu Bekr, assumed the leadership over the Arab tribes united under Islam.  Abu Bekr proclaimed himself caliph – the supreme religious ruler – and led his newly-minted army out of Arabia, on a conquest of non-Muslim lands.

Historians differ on whether the Muslim conquest was motivated by religious or economic reasons.  Likely, it was a mixture of both.  Israeli historian Moshe Gil writes,9Moshe Gil. A History of Palestine: 634-1099. Cambridge University Press, 1992. Pages 12-13.

[T]he Muslims viewed their war as a war of the End of Days, the realization of an apocalyptic vision… There is little doubt that… while it might not have been the chief cause, it was certainly one of the remarkable and principal determinants in the Arabs’ success in their series of offensives against the Byzantines and the Persians.  They invaded the territories of these two kingdoms in Asia and Africa with the brazen determination to carry out the Prophet’s orders and ultimately to impose the mastery of the new religion on the entire world.  This religious fervor turned the Muslim into a courageous fighter, contemptuous of death… Whoever falls on the way is promised a place in Paradise, and shall there enjoy the most sumptuous pleasures of this world.  This belief proved that it could turn the dispersed masses of the Arab tribes, who were occupied with constant feuding amongst themselves, into a single, relatively united camp.

Thus, the new religion brought the previously warring Arab tribes together and fused them into a powerful army.  At the same time, continues Professor Gil,

The Bedouin, devoid of any religious inclination, were the mainstay and composition of the Muslim battalions, and they could only learn about Islam from hearsay.  All they asked for was material gain and the worldly goods they saw around them… Simply speaking, they merely looked for opportunities to plunder and pillage the subdued populations.

Be that as it may, the Muslim army forged forward.  After Abu Bekr’s death two years later, in 634 CE, his successor, Caliph Omar (Umar in some sources), continued the quest to conquer the world.  Moving northwest and achieving victory after victory, Omar’s army was soon facing the full might of the Byzantine forces at the Valley of Yarmuk in Transjordan.

After six days of intensive fighting, on August 20, 636 CE, the Muslim army achieved a decisive victory at Yarmuk and made its way across the Jordan River, into Eretz Yisrael.

The Muslim army, led by Commander Abu Ubaidah, laid siege to Yerushalayim in November 636 CE.  At the time, Yerushalayim was ruled by the Byzantine Patriarch Sophronius.  As the Muslim army approached, Sophronius fortified the walls of Yerushalayim, leaving the Muslims no way in.  However, they managed to cut Yerushalayim off from the rest of the world.

The Jews of Eretz Yisrael waited with bated breath for the outcome of the siege.  Likely, there were Jews who joined the Muslim army and participated in the siege.

Contemporary accounts differ on the details, but the siege lasted between four and six months.  When the supplies in Yerushalayim became depleted, Patriarch Sophronius agreed to negotiate surrender, giving the Muslims victory without the spilling of any blood.

Caliph Omar’s Dramatic Entrance into Yerushalayim

One of Sophronius’s conditions for surrender was that he would only hand over the city to Caliph Omar himself.  Professor John Gray10John Gray. A History of Jerusalem. Robert Hale and Company, London, 1969. Page 219. describes Omar’s arrival to Yerushalayim, based on Greek historians’ records, as follows: “Riding from Syria on his camel down the Jordan Valley, he appeared with his ragged retinue on the Mount of Olives, where he was met in fear and trembling by the urbane Patriarch Sophronius, who conducted him round the Holy City.”

A 9th century Christian chronicler, Theophanes of Constantinople, offers the following description of the surrender:11F. E. Peters. Jerusalem: The Holy City in the Eyes of Chroniclers, Visitors, Pilgrims, and Prophets from the Days of Abraham to the Beginnings of Modern Times. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1985. Page 190.

Sophronius, the leader of Jerusalem, obtained from Umar a treaty in favor of all the inhabitants of Palestine, after which Umar entered the Holy City in camel-hair garments all soiled and torn, and making a show of piety as a cloak for his diabolical hypocrisy, demanded to be taken to what in former times had been the Temple built by Solomon.

As no eyewitness accounts of the surrender have been preserved, different historians, biased by their own religious and political views, speculate about why and how this event unfolded.  They all agree, however, that on entering Yerushalayim, Caliph Omar asked about Har Habayis, or the place where Shlomo Hamelech’s Temple had stood.

We can only speculate about why Omar was interested in seeing Har Habayis, but clearly, he was aware of its existence and knew about the destroyed Beis Hamikdash.  There are many conflicting versions of what happened next, along with many interpretations, which vary depending on the religion and agenda of the writer.  All agree, however, that Jews were involved in this visit to see Har Habayis.

Yitzchak ben Yosef, who visited Yerushalayim in 1334 CE, tells the story as follows:12F. E. Peters. Jerusalem: The Holy City in the Eyes of Chroniclers, Visitors, Pilgrims, and Prophets from the Days of Abraham to the Beginnings of Modern Times. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1985. Page 191.

The king, who had made a vow to build up again the ruins of the sacred edifice, if G-d put the Holy City into his power, demanded of the Jews that they should make known the ruins to him.  For the uncircumcised [that is, the Christians] in their hate against the people of G-d, had heaped rubbish and filth over the spot, so that no one knew exactly where the ruins stood.  Now there was an old man then living who said: “If the king will take an oath to preserve the wall, I will discover unto him the place where the ruins of the Temple were.” So the king straightaway placed his hand on the thigh of the old man and swore an oath to do what he demanded.  When he had shown him the ruins of the Temple under a mound of defilements, the king had the ruins cleared and cleansed, taking part in the cleaning himself, until they were all fair and clean.  After that he had them all set up again, with the exception of the wall, and made them a very beautiful temple, which he consecrated to his G-d.

Muslim sources, which tell a similar story, include in it a man named Ka’b al-Ahbar, a Jew who converted to Islam and accompanied Caliph Omar to Yerushalayim.  They claim that Omar consulted Ka’b as to the most appropriate place for prayer on Har Habayis.

Some Muslim sources suggest that Caliph Omar himself participated in clearing the Har Habayis.  Others say that he ordered Jews and Muslims to clean it.  Yet others tell of the defeated Patriarch Sophronius getting on his hands and knees and picking up the garbage.

Garbage Heap on Har Habayis

How did Har Habayis turn into a garbage heap in the first place?

As mentioned previously, Emperor Constantine and his mother, Empress Helena, played a significant role in the spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire.  It is not known whether their motivations were political or religious, but it was these two rulers who were largely responsible for turning Yerushalayim into a Christian city and a pilgrim destination.

Empress Helena visited Yerushalayim and established Christian pilgrimage sites, claiming several locations as religiously significant and building churches and monasteries in Yerushalayim and surrounding areas.

A Muslim historian, Mujir al-Din, wrote in 1496:13F. E. Peters. Jerusalem: The Holy City in the Eyes of Chroniclers, Visitors, Pilgrims, and Prophets from the Days of Abraham to the Beginnings of Modern Times. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1985. Page 195.

Destroyed by Titus, the city of the Holy House was, after the persecution of the Jews, rebuilt little by little.  It remained prosperous until the departure of Helena, mother of Constantine the Victorious, for this city of Jerusalem… Helena … left for Jerusalem in search of [Christian relics] … She had the Temple of Jerusalem leveled down to the ground – it was that which was in the sanctuary – and she ordered that the filth and scourings of the city be thrown on its place.  The place of the Noble Rock was transformed into a stable.  That state of affairs remained until the arrival of Umar ibn al-Khattab, who took the noble city of Jerusalem.

Another source, the Karaite Salmon ben Yeruchim, wrote in the 10th century,14Moshe Gil. A History of Palestine: 634-1099. Cambridge University Press, 1992. Page 67.

[W]hat Edom have done when they destroyed the second temple, for all the days of their stay here [in Jerusalem] they would discard thereupon [the site of the temple] … refuse and all kinds of filth.

It should be noted that while the existence of a garbage heap on Har Habayis is mentioned in both Jewish and Muslim sources, archeologists disagree over what took place on Har Habayis during Byzantine rule.  Some consider the floor mosaic discovered on Har Habayis as evidence of a Christian church that existed before the Muslim conquest, while others believe that this floor mosaic belonged to a Muslim mosque built much later.15Yuval Baruch, Ronny Reich, and Debora Sandhaus. A Decade of Archaeological Exploration on the Temple Mount. The Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, 2018. Available from, Pages 13-14.

Jews Move to Yerushalayim

Once Yerushalayim was in Muslim hands, the question arose as to whether Jews would now be permitted to move to the Holy City.  In response to Christian demands, Caliph Omar had originally agreed that no Jews should be allowed to settle in Yerushalayim.

The Jews, however, were vocal in protesting this policy, and Omar, too, realized that he could benefit from a Jewish presence in Yerushalayim.  What followed was a lengthy negotiation process.  Professor F. M. Loewenberg writes,16F. M. Loewenberg. A Synagogue on Har Habayit in the 7th Century: Dream or Historical Fact? Hakirah, volume 21, summer 2016. Page 256.

A fragment found in the Cambridge Genizah collection, written at an unknown date, describes the negotiations that allegedly were conducted by Jerusalem’s Jews with Caliph Umar and the Christian patriarch.  Initially the Jews demanded that at least 200 families be permitted to live in Jerusalem.  The Christians who had wanted no Jews in their midst finally agreed, in response to the Caliph’s pressure, to admit fifty Jewish families.  In the end the Caliph gave permission to seventy Jewish families to settle in Jerusalem.

Professor Loewenberg also cites a letter written by Yerushalayim’s Jewish community to the  Egyptian one, circa the 11th century.  He writes,

This letter states that the Jews who accompanied the Arab invaders showed Umar the exact spot where the Temple once had stood.  In return for their help they received a number of concessions, including the right to reside in Jerusalem, the assignment to keep the Temple Mount clean and, perhaps most important, permission to pray on the Temple Mount without interference.

Seemingly, Caliph Omar realized that Jews would take much better care of Har Habayis than the Christians ever did.  Later Muslim sources17Moshe Gil. A History of Palestine: 634-1099. Cambridge University Press, 1992. Page 72. report that once the Muslims built a mosque on Har Habayis, they appointed ten, and later twenty, Jewish servants to keep it clean.  These servants enjoyed special privileges, such as tax exemptions.

Omar might have had another, ulterior motive in allowing Jews into Yerushalayim.  Professor Gil explains,18Moshe Gil. A History of Palestine: 634-1099. Cambridge University Press, 1992. Page 73-74.

[Omar] was certainly aware that it would be more astute to prevent the Christians from being the sole non-Muslims living in this city, whose significance was very obvious to him.  For the Jews’ claim to their prior historical connection with the holy places was in conformity with Muslim tradition … The presence of the Jews in the city would serve to weaken the validity of the exclusive hold which the Christians had achieved in the course of the three hundred years in which they ruled the Holy City … [I]t was worthwhile to draw the Jews closer, to reduce the Christians’ exclusive tight hold on the city, and to lessen the strength of their claims to historical rights in it, for the Christians saw the ousting of the Jews from Jerusalem as a victory and an additional justification for their creed.

Professor Loewenberg concludes,

There are no contemporary Jewish records that describe what happened when the Muslims captured Jerusalem and how the Jews reacted to this event.  We can surmise that they welcomed the arrival of the new rulers because they would initiate major changes in the status quo of the city and of the Temple Mount.  For Jews it would result in a vast improvement in their living conditions.

Image Information:
Description: Colossus of Constantine
Date: 3 August 2007
Author: Jean-Christophe BENOIST
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Image Information:
Description: Jerusalem. Wall mural in the Cardo Maximus of Jerusalem depicts how the Cardo might have looked in the Byzantine period. The three people pictured in the left-hand corner are the former mayor Teddy Kollek, archaeologist Nachman Avigad who excavated the area, and the artist. Note the fresco also includes a painting of a young boy in modern dress (lower right).The Cardo – A Colorful Piece of Roman Civilization in Jerusalem’s Old City
Date: 8 August 2011, 02:28
Source: Mural depicting the Cardo in Byzantine era
Author: brionv from San Francisco, United States
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Image Information:
Title: Evil Merodach, Bab[ylon] Rex – Evil Merodach, King of Babylon
Source: Epitome historico-chronologica gestorum omnium patriarcharum, ducum, judicum…
Publisher: Sumptibus Fausti Amidei, 1751
Date: 1751
Image Information:
Title: The fall of Babylon; Cyrus the Great defeating the Chaldean army
Author: John Martin (1789–1854)
Date: 1819-1831
Source: Wellcome Library no. 20811i

Jews Settle in Yerushalayim

We can only imagine the emotions of the seventy Jewish families from Tiveria who moved to Yerushalayim once they obtained Caliph Omar’s permission.  For the first time in five hundred years, a Jewish community once again existed in Yerushalayim.

Caliph Omar granted the Jews an expanse of land southwest of Har Habayis, in the area that continues to exist today as the Jewish Quarter of Yerushalayim’s Old City.  The seventy families immediately built a synagogue and a yeshiva.19Martin Gilbert. In Ishmael’s House: A History of the Jews in Muslim Lands. Yale University Press, 2010. Page 28.  Until today, Jews continue to live, pray and learn Torah in this ancient part of the Holy City.

When the “Night of Bavel” Occurred

We do not yet know, on which date “the Night of Bavel” occurred.  If we can discover the exact date that Nevuchadnezzar succeeded to the throne, we would automatically know when the “Night of Bavel” took place.

We find a clue in the Midrash, when it discusses the fact that the only time we fast at night is on Tisha B’Av.  We also fast at night, of course, on Yom Kippur, but it could not have been Yom Kippur, as that would contradict the verse mentioned in the Midrash that Daniel went to his fast, to seek out compassion regarding the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash.  Yom Kippur night is not the time to mourn the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash.

Was the Night of Bavel, then, on Tisha B’Av eve?

The Feast That Took Place on the Fast

Our sages do not tell us when Nevuchadnezzar was crowned.  However, Divrei HaYamin LeMalchai Bavel – the histories of the Babylonian kings, provides a date.

In the Jerusalem Chronicle it says:

For twenty-one years Nabopolassar had been King of Babylon, when, on 8 Abu [Av] he went to his destiny; in the month of Ululu [Elul] Nevuchadnezzar rturned to Babylon and on 1 Ululu [Elul] he sat on the royal throne in Babylon.20

The above-mentioned Nabopolassar, according to the chronicle, is the father and predecessor of Nevuchadnezzar.

The chronicle clarifies the date of Nabopolassar’s death, and this identifies the date of the beginning of Nevuchadnezzar’s reign to be the 8th day of Av.

Therefore, Belshazzar’s feast, which was on the 70th anniversary of this date, was also on the 8th day of Av, at midnight.  According to Jewish law, that is the night of Tisha B’Av!

Tzafoh HaTzafis, Aroch HaShulchan

Let us revisit the scene that took place in Babylon,
on Tisha B’Av at midnight, 3391 AM. 

It is the 70th anniversary of Nevuchadnezzar’s reign. 
52 years have passed since the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash.

Daniel is wandering the dark roads of Bavel, and his Jewish brethren are on the lookout for him.  Most probably, he is going home after reading the Eichah.

“Hey! There he is! Rabbeinu Daniel, all the bad and harsh prophecies which Yirmiah the prophet prophesied have already come upon us.  The one good prophecy which he prophesied has yet to come about!”

They ask him, “Rabbeinu Daniel, where are you going?”

He is surprised.  Don’t they know? He answers, “To fast, it’s Tisha B’Av, isn’t it!?”

Moments later, the Chaldeans spot him, since they too are on the lookout for him. 

“Hey! There he is! Belteshazzar [Daniel], you are coming with us.  The King has ordered your presence!”

His Jewish brethren call out to him, “Rabbeinu Daniel, where are you going?”

He answers, “To the feast, I guess.  History is about to happen! The prophecy of Yeshaya the prophet is about to be fulfilled!”

What does Yeshaya the prophet foresee for that very night?

“Tzafoh hatzafis, aroch hashulchan – set up the watch, set the table.”21Yeshaya 21:5. This refers to Belshazzar’s feast, for Yeshaya prophesied that Bavel would fall at the time of the feast.

As the verses continues, “And there they come, mounted men – horsemen in pairs!”

“Then each spoke up and said, ‘Fallen, fallen is Babylon! And all the images of her gods have crashed to the ground!”

“That very night, Belshazzar, the Chaldean king, was killed, and Daryavesh the Mede received the kingdom.”22Daniel 5:30–6:1.

We now understand what the Midrash means by the “Night of Bavel”.  We also know the date of the fall of Babylonia.  That was the night on which both a fast and a feast took place, and a most pivotal night in the making of Jewish history.

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