History of the Gates of Mercy - Part 4: The Meeting Place of What?
Updated: Nov 23, 2019
(Note: This series is my translation of a series of articles written in Hebrew by research fellow of The Open Gate Rabbi Pinchas Abramowitz. For the original article published on the Hebrew Temple Mount News site click: https://har-habait.org/articleBody/30817 )
Shir HaShirim Rabba is an important rabbinic midrashic work from the 6th century CE. It is essentially a compilation of earlier rabbinic exegetic material on the Song of Songs. In it (Parasha B), the ‘Priest’s Gate’ is mentioned as one of the gates in the wall of the Temple Mount that had not been destroyed and was visible still to the author of the exegetical teaching. The Midrash records the following rabbinic teaching:
“‘Behold, this one stands behind the wall’ - [this verse teaches that the Divine Presence still stands] behind the western wall of the Holy Temple. Why is this? For the Holy One Blessed Be He has sworn that it would never be destroyed. And the Priest Gate and the Huldah Gate have never been destroyed [and will remain standing] until the Holy One Blessed Be He renew them.”
“The Priest’s Gate” is a term mentioned many times in letters from the Geonic period (approximately 6th to 11th centuries CE) as a designated place of prayer. The Geonic figure Ben Meir writes in a letter:
“...and our prayer concerning you are abundant, and concerning your precious elders on the Mount of Olives facing the Hall of the Eternal… and at the Priest’s Gate.”
And in another one of his letters:
“And upon our return to our lands we taught your praises upon the Mount of Olives facing the Hall of the Eternal and at the Priest’s Gate.”
Another Geonic figure Shlomo ben Yosef HaKohen (1025 CE) mentions this gate as well in a letter he penned in Jerusalem to Ephraim ben Rabbi Shemarya the head of the Jerusalemite Jewish community in Fustat (Ancient Cairo) where he describes the gate as the meeting place of the rabbinic figures in Jerusalem:
“Where are thine brothers children of Jerusalem the Rabbinic groups whom in the Priest’s Gate convene.”
It would appear that he is referring to a group of rabbinic figures who designated this gate as the place of prayer [and perhaps of their learning.] Ratifying this is the list of prayers written for each gate of the Temple Mount found in the Cairo Geniza which even mentions this gate first.
The Eastern Gate as a Jewish Meeting Place and their Banishment
The Jewish Karaite Salmon ben Yerucham of the Geonic period records that one of the gates of the Temple Mount functioned as a designated meeting and prayer place for the Jewish Jerusalemites but was disbanded by the Arab rulers.
In his explanation of the verse “What is to be gained from my death, from my descent in the Pit?” (Psalms 30:10) he writes (translated from the original Arabic):
“And as it was by the grace of the God of Israel that the Romans were removed from her [Jerusalem] and the kingdom of the Ishmaelites appeared and granted permission to Israel to enter and live there and the Temple Courtyards were given to them [the Jewish communities] and they would pray there for years. Afterwords it was told to the Ishmaelite king that they conduct debauchery and wild behavior and drink wine and become drunk and curse. And he commanded to banish them to a single gate of all its gates - there we prayed and were not prevented to visit other gates. And this is how it went for years. And they continued to do evil and he who banished us rose again and banished us from that gate.
This banishment from the last gate of the Temple Mount and its desecration by the Arab overlords is mentioned by Salmon ben Yerucham again in his explanation to the verse “Jerusalem has become among them a thing unclean” (Lamentations 1:17):
“They have made the eastern gate into a building of filth.”
And in the lamentation of another Karaite exegete:
“Instead of the Levites gatekeeping in the east; now graves of the wicked, valleys of excrement and latrines.”
The ‘Guide to Jerusalem from the Cairo Geniza’ written in the Geonic period in Arabic and translated by Yosef Breslevi similarly describes:
“‘The Eastern Gate’ that in our multitude of sins has today been made into… and has become defiled.”
The Priest’s Gate - The Eastern Gate - The Gates of Mercy
Many researchers have equated the ‘eastern gate’ and the ‘Priest’s Gate’ mentioned in the above Midrashic and Geonic sources with the Gates of Mercy. This would mean that it was the Gates of Mercy that were never destroyed with the Temple's destruction and they became the designated prayer place and meeting place for the rabbinic figures that was eventually disbanded. And indeed in many sources the Gates of Mercy are mentioned as a place of prayer similar to the descriptions of the ‘eastern gate’ and the ‘Priest’s Gate.’
However, other researchers believe that the ‘Priest’s Gate’ and the Gates of Mercy are different gates. As a proof they bring the list of the ‘Gateway Prayers’ from the Cairo Geniza which expressly differentiates between the Gates of Mercy and the Priest’s Gate. These researchers offer a few other possibilities as to the location of this mysterious ‘Priest’s Gate,’ including: a smaller gate situated in the eastern wall, the Berkeley Gate in the western wall or the ‘Double Gate’ in the southern wall.
Other Possible Identities of the Gates of Mercy
In the Middle Ages some people began to identify the Gates of Mercy with gates from the Second Temple period.
In the ‘Guide to Jerusalem from the Cairo Geniza’ a connection is made between the Gates of Mercy and the Nikanor Gate which was the eastern gate of the Temple Courtyard:
“And in the eastern wall - and it has two gates which would surely be termed two Gates of Mercy. And there is there the Nikanor Gate within which the High Priest would purify those impure of Zav or Zavah and the leper and would give the Sotah to drink.”
As such, it is clear that the Guide confuses the eastern gate of the Temple Mount - where the Gates of Mercy are - with the eastern gate of the Temple Courtyard - the location of the Nikanor Gate. Although perhaps the reason why this gate may have been called the ‘Priest’s Gate’ is hinted to here as the place where the High Priest would purify the impure. And so perhaps we can see from here that indeed the Guide equates the Gates of Mercy with the Priest’s Gate and erroneously claims that it survived from the Second Temple period.
Rabbi Ashtori HaParchi, author of the Kaftor Va’Ferach book (1323), relates the Gates of Mercy to the Temple period as far back as the First Temple. He attempts to identify it with two legendary gates that King Solomon built to aid grooms and mourners:
“There is in its wall two exceedingly tall gates with domes [or arches] on their exterior and their doorways are of iron and forever closed and the people refer to them as the Gates of Mercy. And the Ishmaelites are accustomed to this and call them Bab A-Rachma. And it would appear that they are those same two gates that King Solomon built in lovingkindness; one for grooms and one for mourners and the excommunicated, as is mentioned in Tractate Sofrim  ‘Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanus said: Solomon took note of a group doing lovingkindness and built for them for all Israel two gates: one for grooms and one for mourners and the excommunicated. On the Sabbath the residents of Jerusalem would gather and ascend the Temple Mount and sit between these two gates in order to perform lovingkindness with one another.’ And perhaps this would hint at a reason as to why they are called the Mercy Gates.” (Kaftor VaFerach 6)
The tradition connecting the Gates of Mercy with the gates of King Solomon mentioned in the Midrashic literature is likewise brought in the lists of holy sites and in the descriptions of various journeys to the Holy Land around the time of Rabbi HaParchi in the mid-Middle Ages. We find this tradition in the journeys of Rabbi Meshulam of Voltera (1481) and Rabbi Moshe Basula (1521) and in Yichus Avot, an important schematic exploration of holy sites in the Holy Land (from the second half of the 16th century). A similar tradition is even brought in Arabic sources - Nasser Khusro (1047) equates the Gates of Mercy to the period of King Solomon already in the 11th century. Mojir A-Din (1495) also relates the building of the Mercy Gates to King Solomon and even writes that this building is the only building on the Temple Mount that is left from the days of King Solomon.
But why has such an important and ancient gate been perpetually closed and a graveyard set outside it? More on these reasons in the coming posts.