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Thinking Torah

Rav Alex Israel -



Parshat Reeh

Kedushat Makom / Holy Ground





Our parasha focuses upon the notion of "The Place." God will select one site, a singular location, at which the divine service, the Korbanot (sacrifices) may be offered. When the Torah wishes to refer to the place of the Mikdash, it uses the term "Hamakom asher Yivchar Hashem" - the place that God will choose.


Why only one place? Why not many locations?


And then there is the interesting combination of definition and its absence: On the one hand, the notion that there will be a definitive place is affirmed. And yet, no place in particular is specified; Jerusalem is never mentioned by name. This combination of the unknown place, together with the assurance that such a place will indeed be chosen creates a strange and unsettling combination. These discordant strands are a combination that I have not yet fully managed to probe.


In these few lines, however, I wish to discuss this notion of "place," and the transition from a state of transience and impermanence to a situation in which there is a fixed central location, a permanent home for the Shechina (divine presence).




The idea of God's presence generating a holiness of PLACE (Kedushat Makom) is something to which we are introduced in Sefer Shemot.


Moses at the burning bush:


"Remove your shoes from your feet, for the PLACE on which you stand is HOLY" (3:5)


The people at Mount Sinai:


 "Cordon off the mountain and sanctify it" (19:23)


Interestingly, with Moses, the holy ground invites him to an encounter with God. At Sinai, in contrast, the nation is restricted from ascending the mount. And yet, at the conclusion of Matan Torah:


"after the sound of the Ram's horn they may ascend the mountain." (19:13)


The Kedushat Makom is temporary; it vanishes at the moment that God's manifest intensity departs from the vicinity. In other words, both at the burning bush and at Mt. Sinai, it is God's presence that generates a territorial sanctity. In one circumstance man is invited to join God; in the other, man is restricted from advancing due to the intensity of the holiness. And yet, in both cases, the sanctity of place, the kedushat Makom is impermanent and transitory. As God leaves, the kedusha leaves as well. There is no residual kedusha.


Similarly with the Mishkan. As the Israelites travelled through the desert there were many locations at which the Mishkan was set up. There were many sites at which there was a Kodesh Kodashim. And yet, there is no residual kedushat makom at any  given location in the Midbar. As the Mishkan was dismantled and the camp disbanded, the kedusha disappeared leaving not a trace.




"You shall not act as you have acted here, every man as he pleases, because you have not yet come to the resting place (Menucha) and allotted land (Nachalla) that the Lord your God is given you. When you cross the Jordan and settle in the land … then you must bring everything that I command you to the place that the Lord your God chooses to establish His name…" (Devarim 12:8-11)


Sefer Devarim anticipates a chosen place in Eretz Yisrael that will become the singular and exclusive location of all Korbanot.


Now again, maybe this is a chiddush, a shift, an innovation. After all Sefer Shemot 20:21, in reference to the sacrificial altar, states:


“IN EVERY PLACE (Bekhol Makom) where I cause my name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you.”


God’s altar, His presence can be in EVERY PLACE. And yet now we hear of a singular place; a MAKOM that God chooses. What is qualitatively different about "the place that God chooses?"




Here I turn to a Mishna in the opening chapter of Megilla (9b):


"The only difference between Shilo and Jerusalem is that in Shilo, Kodshim Kalim[1] and Maaser Sheni may be eaten as long as one is in sight of Shilo, however in Jerusalem, they must be eaten within the city walls … The sanctity of Shilo is fully released (after its destruction) whereas the sanctity of Jerusalem is never released."


Let us give some background here. What is Shilo? Shilo is the place that the Mishkan stood from Joshua's time (Joshua ch.18) to the time of Samuel (I Samuel ch.1-4.) Durng this period of approximately 300 years, the Mishkan stood – with stone walls – but otherwise identical to the desert Mishkan.


Our Mishna deals with Kodshim Kalim – sacrifices that may be eaten outside the Temple precinct, and Maaser Sheni – the Second Tithe – which follows the same restriction. These foods are holy and therefore must be eaten in proximity to the Temple, but how close? What is "proximity?" The Mishna tells us that for Shilo all one needed was that one could see the Temple. As long as one was visually connected to the Temple, even if one was quite a distance away, one would still be permitted to eat the sacred food. However, In Jerusalem, one had to eat within the city walls.


In other words, it is the very PLACE Jerusalem that defines the Kedusha. Hence the second detail of the Mishna, namely; Jerusalem NEVER loses its sanctity. In Shilo, a place where the Temple stood for over 300 years, a significant period, once the Temple fell, the sanctity disappears totally without trace. How so? Because in Shilo, the sanctity is dependent solely on the Mishkan's presence there. Once the Mishkan is gone, God's presence is gone. Like Mt. Sinai, there is nothing left. Hence, ones consumption of sacred food is not contingent upon the physical proximity, but rather my PERSONAL EXPERIENTIAL connectedness – via my visual senses – whether I can see the Mishkan.


But in Jerusalem everything changes. The Kedusha is suffused into the city itself, into the bedrock. The eternal chosenness of a place for the Shechina gives a permanence, a fixture to the Temple. The Kedusha is now indelible, unmoveable. It is sunk into the hills and soil upon which Jerusalem stands.




Why is it necessary to have a permanent place? What may be gained by this permanence? Moreover, we may ask, how is it that we say that Jerusalem is chosen for all time, if the Temple was destroyed, and the people exiled, twice? Maybe the Kedusha is not permanent?


And yet, our greatest poskim insisted that Jerusalem was forever chosen. Why? I will suggest a few theories:


1. God's permanent presence:


"And why do I say that that in the Temple and Jerusalem, the original sanctity is eternal, however as regards the rest of Eretz Yisrael as regards Shmitta and Maasrot (Tithes) the sanctity is lapsed? - Because the sanctity of the Temple and Jerusalem is contingent upon the Divine Presence (Shekhina), and the Shekhina never abandoned (the Temple and Jerusalem) …" (Rambam Hil. Beit Habechira 6:16)


In other words, Kedusha is created by God's presence. Hence when God left Mt. Sinai and Shilo, the Kedusha as a consequence ceased to exist. But God has never abandoned his Temple, his city! God is still there! God's Temple, even in its destruction remains a magnet for God's presence.


[Interestingly, not all Rishonim agree with the Rambam. The Raavad disagrees with the Rambam and is of the opinion that once the Temple is destroyed it is void of Kedusha. And yet, interestingly even the Raavad holds that Jerusalem has some special status in that now that Jerusalem has "chosen" pedigree, every other place in the world may not serve as a sacrificial site other than the Temple mount. And so, one still has to account, according to the Raavad, for some residual quality that gives Jerusalem its eternal role and status.]


2. Rediscovering Jerusalem:


"The (Temple) Altar is on a precise location and that location is never to be adjusted … and it is a widespread tradition that the place upon which King David and Solomon built their altar at the threshing floor of Aravna (see II Samuel ch.24) was the very site upon which Avraham built the altar upon which he bound Isaac; the selfsame site upon which Noah built and altar when he emerged from the Ark and that was the same altar upon which Cain and Abel offered their korbanot, and it was there that Adam HaRishon offered a Korban when he was created, and from that every site, he was created. The sages said: Man (Adam) was created from the place of his atonement." (Rambam Hil. Beit Habechira 2:2)


Why did God choose Jerusalem? Why is Jerusalem eternally special? When God "chose" Jerusalem, he was simply revealing the site upon which the most auspicious moments of religious world History had taken place. Jerusalem is the place from which mankind was formed, the place upon which the first sacrifice was made, (and the first murder,) the same place at which God renewed his covenant with Noah, Noah realising that despite destruction there was hope for the future, and the lace of Abrahams' ultimate act of dedication o the Almighty.


Jerusalem is not special because God chose it. God chose Jerusalem of all places BECAUSE it is the most significant place upon the globe!


Here it is almost as if the place has its own independent significance. It is not simply sacred by virtue of God's presence. "This is none other than the House of God; This is the doorway to Heaven." (Bereshit 28:17)




Throughout, our parsha talks about this "place that God will choose." Why is it important to have a place for all time? Is it good for us? And what exactly does this mean, when God can take the place away if we misbehave; "due to our sins, we were exiled from our land?" After not experiencing Jerusalem as a place of korbanot for almost 2000 years what is the importance of Yerushalayim as this "Chosen city?' Is it simply the notion of a capital city, where all the people gather for State occasions, or is there indeed a sense that as we approach the walls of Yerushalayim, we feel a sense of the presence of God; we come "to present ourselves before the sovereign Lord, the God of Israel" (Shemot 35:19)


"Who may ascend the Mountain of God

And who may stand in his Holy place?

Those with clean hands,

Strong of heart,

Who have not taken an oath deceitfully,

Or sworn falsely,

He will carry away a blessing from God,

And righteousness from the God, his deliverer,

This is the generation who seek Him,

Those who desire Your presence; Yaakov. Selah!

Gates! Lift up your heads!

Up high! Gateway of the World

Let the King of Glory enter…" (Tehillim 24)



Shabbat Shalom






[1] Sacrifices of a lighter sanctity that may be eaten outside the Temple precinct, but within certain limits eg. Korban Pesach.

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