History of the Gates of Mercy - Part 2: The Gateway of Redemption?
(Note: This series is my translation of a series of articles written in Hebrew by research fellow of The Open Gate, which I belong to as well, Rabbi Pinchas Abramowitz. For the original article published on the Hebrew Temple Mount News site click: https://har-habait.org/articleBody/30780 )
In the last part we investigated various Jewish testimonies attesting to the religious importance of the Gates of Mercy (the Golden Gate).
But where did the name ‘Mercy’ come from? And why were they designated as a place of Jewish prayer? The answer has had a major effect on the gate's architecture.
In the book of Ezekiel (11) the prophet of the same name stands at an "eastern gate of the house of the Eternal that faces east” and he sees a vision of the Divine Presence leaving its place in the Temple and passing to the mountain to the city’s east (Mount of Olives):
“And the Cherubs lifted their wings and the Ofan angels before them and the Glory of the God of Israel upon them from above: And the Glory of the Eternal lifted up from upon the inside of the city and stood upon the mountain that is to the city’s east.”
In his later prophecies Ezekiel sees the building of the final Temple. And as he stands, yet again, next to the eastern gate of the Temple, he sees the Divine Presence returning to its place in the Temple through that eastern gate (43):
“And he [Ezekiel’s angelic guide] guided me to that gate, a gate that faces the eastern way: And behold! The Glory of the God of Israel comes from the eastern way and His voice [is] as the sound of much water and the land was lit from His Glory: ...And the Glory of the Eternal comes to the Temple by way of the gate that would face the eastern way:... And behold! The Glory of the Eternal fills the Temple.”
This prophecy is, in fact, one of the oldest Jewish traditions to the return of the Divine Presence through an eastern gate.
The tradition identifying this eastern gate with the Gates of Mercy can be found in a multitude of sources and in various versions and because of these traditions the coming of the Messiah became connected to this gate.
The Book of Zerubbabel is an apocalyptic composition that describes the future of Israel in the End of Days. The book is written as the word of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, the famous member of the Davidic lineage mentioned in the Ketuvim as critical in the ingathering of the Jewish exiles at the beginning of the Second Temple period. The vast majority of scholars put its writing about a thousand years later in the Muslim conquest of the Land of Israel (approximately 638 CE).
It describes in great detail the return of the Shechina and the coming of the Messiah and his entourage to Jerusalem:
“And the Eternal’s Messiah and all Israel after him went out and stood before the gates of Jerusalem before the Mount of Olives and the Holy God stood at the mount’s head… And the exiled of Jerusalem went up to the Mount of Olives and looked upon Zion and Jerusalem and were joyous.”
‘The gates of Jerusalem before the Mount of Olives’ is an eastern gate that is affixed in the wall of the Temple Mount, and in this period of history it is safe to assert that the reference is to the Gates of Mercy - most probably the only gates visible in the eastern wall of the Temple Mount at this time.
The coming of the Davidic Messiah through eastern gates is similarly described in the Midrash of Song of Songs (Zuta):
“‘Peaking through the windows’ - this is the Messiah, for when he arrives the eastern gates open for him, as it says: ‘Who has awakened from the east, etc.” And why does he arrive from the east? Rather [he comes] from where the day rises, and the Messiah is a descendant of David who his compared to the sun… [Thus] it says ‘before him a double gate’ - these are the eastern gates. ‘Will not be closed’ - these are the southern gates.”
‘The Travels of Rabbi Petachiah of Ratisbon’ describes the journey of Rabbi Petachiah, the student of Rabbeinu Tam, to Jerusalem (circ. 1180 CE), and also describes a tradition among the Jews of the Land of Israel concerning the return of the Shechina by way of the Gates of Mercy:
“And in Jerusalem there is a gate and they call it the Gates of Mercy, ....And there is a tradition among the Jews that through this same gate the Shechina was exiled and through it she will return. And it is directly facing the Mount of Olives and the Mount of Olives is slightly lower than it and whosoever stands on the Mount of Olives sees it [the Mercy Gate]. ‘And His feet will stand on that day upon the Mount of Olives,’ ‘Every eye will see the return of the Eternal to Zion’ by way of that same gate, and they [the Jews] pray there.”
This tradition is actually mentioned in Islamic sources as well. The Jerusalemite judge Mojir A-Din (1495) writes about the sealing of these gates in an earlier period and that they will be unsealed in the future but solely at the coming of the Islamic Messiah. His words are almost identical to those of a Karaite Jew, Moshe HaLevi (1654), but in the Jewish version HaLevi connects the tradition to the Jewish Messiah:
“The Gates of Mercy facing the Mount of Olives on the east flank are sealed with a stone fence and will not be opened until the eyes of Israel are opened with the future Redemption.”
As we will show in the coming articles, this eschatological significance has had a profound effect on the gate's closure and subsequent sealing as well as the creation of the graveyard just outside them.