Pilgrimage exists within various religions all over the world. With a short introduction to Jewish pilgrimage, I will start the “Roots” section of my blog. Why Judaism first? Just because I study it these days at the university and recently had to make a short presentation in one of my classes.
Roots of Jewish Pilgrimage
Jewish pilgrimage roots can be found in the Torah or the Hebrew Bible also known as the Old Testament. It seems that the first pilgrimages that Jewish people made were to the First Temple also known as Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. It was an obligation to visit it three times a year for the main religious celebrations and sacrifices during Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. When the First Temple was destroyed in the 6th century BCE it was rebuilt as the Second Temple and stayed the holiest place of devotion and pilgrimage destination for Jewish people up until the 2nd century BCE, when it was destroyed again. An interesting fact is that the requirement mentioned in various passages of the Hebrew Bible such as Exodus (23:14-17, 34:18-23), or Deuteronomy (16:1, 9-10, 13, 16-17) was for males only. However, according to The Jewish Encyclopedia, even though females, kids, older or sick people were excluded from the obligation, they could and did accompany husbands and fathers to Jerusalem. After the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, pilgrimages were officially called off as obligatory.
Modern-day Jewish Pilgrimage
In the modern-day, Jewish people still practice pilgrimage and here are three main destinations (see also Yivoencyclopeadia):
1) Eastern Europe
Eastern Europe’s cemeteries and former death camps, for example, Auschwitz and Treblinka are pilgrimage destinations for many Jewish people. It is also popular to visit graves of famous Rabbis, such as scholar Eliyahu ben Shelomoh Zalman (the Gaon of Vilna, in Vilnius, Lithuania), or Ḥayim Soloveichik of Brest Litovsk in Volozhin, Belarus. All these places were inaccessible to visit during the soviet regime in Eastern Europe, however, traveling became possible after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
2) Graves of sages
Hasidic Jews have a tradition to visit their sages. One of the most popular pilgrimages these days is to the Rabbi Nachman of Breslav grave in Uman, Ukraine. The annual pilgrimage known as Rosh Hashana kibbutz is taking place since the early 19th century. It is a popular destination due to the words of the Rebbe Nachman: “If someone comes to my grave, gives a coin to charity, and says these ten Psalms [the Tikkun HaKlali or “General Rectification” or “General Remedy”], I will pull him out from the depths of Gehinnom!” or in other words, your sins will be forgiven. He also told his followers to practice hitbodidut which is a form of meditation during which you should talk to God in solitude, out loud and openly, as if conversing with a close friend. Therefore, the Rosh Hashana kibbutz is a symbolic purification for the pilgrims.
As much as Rosh Hashana is mostly celebrated by men in Uman, women have their own time for a pilgrimage to the Rebbe Nachman grave. Women from all over the world gather in Uman during Rosh Chodesh Kislev and perform their own rituals and prayers. One of them is praying during chatzot halayla, the night’s midpoint, “a magical, sweet, and powerful time,” as one of the leaders in Breslav describes it, “to dance, to sing, and to cry” (full article on Breslov.org website, also see Tabletmag.com for more impressions).
Both women and men, after practicing the out-loud acknowledgment of their wrongdoings, their flaws, and their weaknesses, say “Tikkun HaKlali” – the 10 Psalms requested by Rebbe Nachman to be heard at his grave. The 10 Psalms include number 16, 32, 41, 42, 59, 77, 90, 105, 137, 150 from the Book of Psalms. You can read more about the whole ritual on Breslavpedia website.
3) The Holy Land
Many Jewish people who live outside Israel are visiting their Holy Land. The main destination in Israel is, of course, the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The Western Wall is the most sacred site in Jewish religion because it is a part of the Second Temple. Furthermore, according to the Rabbinic tradition, the Second Temple was built upon foundations laid by the biblical King Solomon for the First Temple. Different as it was in Biblical times the place to gather for festivals, nowadays the Western Wall is a place to pray and cry for the lost Temples and the hardships connected to them and the Jewish nation. There is a tradition to leave a note with a prayer in the cracks of the Wall and it is believed that those prayers will come true. The notes are gathered and buried on the Mount of Olives twice a year.
Another interesting Jewish pilgrimage site in Israel is Mount Meron where the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is situated. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai is an author of Zohar – the main book of the mystical Torah, also known as Kabalah. It is an annual pilgrimage on his passing away on the 33rd day of Omer or Lag b’Omer. One of the traditions of this celebration is that 3-year-old boys are getting their first haircut there following what Rabbi Issac Luria did to his son after he revolutionized Kabalah teachings. More on Lag b’Omer traditions on Chabad.org website.
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