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The hundreds of worshippers who came to the Western Wall plaza on the fast of Tisha B'Av to mourn the destruction of the Temple did not even look at the handful of Temple Mount Faithful who were quarreling loudly with policemen at the Mugrabi Gate. Gershon Salomon, the leader of the movement, once again wanted to pray on the mount, and the policemen, obeying the orders of the political leadership, once again prevented him from doing so. This ritual repeats itself on every holiday and special occasion.

But 10 days earlier, on the eve of the Rosh Hodesh (first day) of the Hebrew month Av, the police enthusiastically helped thousands of Jews encircle the Temple Mount gates. The participants represent a much broader section of the religious Jewish public than the Faithful. This group largely still obeys the rabbis who, for halakhic reasons, still forbid Jews from entering the Temple Mount, but nevertheless want to express a Jewish connection to the mount.

During this ceremony, which has taken place every Rosh Hodesh eve for six years, Jews circle the Temple Mount while singing, praying and blowing shofars and trumpets. They do this next to the gates of the mount, outside the walls, and inside the alleys of the Old City. The police allocate substantial manpower to safeguard this event, sometimes hundreds of policemen, but they do so gladly: Encircling the gates attracts a large religious Jewish population that otherwise would try to ascend the Temple Mount, if not for prayer - which the government has forbidden - then at least for a visit.

"The police," explains a senior police officer, "cannot and do not want to forbid Jews from visiting the Temple Mount. They have no problem with visits by tourists, hikers, 'ordinary Jews,' or the few religious Jews. What they fear most is the breaching of the halakhic prohibition that has prevented most of the religious public from ascending the mount since 1967."

The police are following the many halakhic rulings that have been published lately, which contravene the prohibition against ascending the mount. "I don't know how we'll handle thousands or even tens of thousands of religious Jews if they start coming to the mount every week," admits the senior officer. "We're afraid of what such mass visits, even if they are entirely innocent and not a form of protest, will do to the Temple Mount. We don't know how the Muslim public will react to a change in the human landscape there. We may soon have to deal with a major change. We won't be able to prevent it - the right to free access to the mount to members of all religions is anchored in the Protection of Holy Sites Law."

Three months ago, religious Zionist rabbis published a declaration breaking the 40-year-old halakhic taboo and allowed Jews to ascend the Temple Mount. The dozens of signatories included Rabbi Haim Druckman, head of the Bnei Akiva yeshivas; Tzefania Drori, the rabbi of Kiryat Shmona, and Avi Gisser, the rabbi of the settlement of Ofra.

These are members of religious Judaism's central stream. The halakhic ruling, which aroused fierce debate not only with the ultra-Orthodox but even within religious Zionism itself, has already led to change: Some days, hundreds of Jews come to visit the mount, in place of the dozens who came before the declaration.

Last Monday, for example, on the eve of Tisha B'Av, about 300 people came, including some of the rabbis who published the declaration and many of their students. The police divided them into five groups of 60, and attached police escorts to each group. The members of the Muslim Waqf looked on indifferently. It was on the Jewish side that riots almost broke out. One of the ultra-Orthodox worshippers at the Western Wall pointed at the sign that Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Western Wall rabbi, posted based on the instructions of the supreme ultra-Orthodox halakhic authority, prohibiting anyone from ascending the Temple Mount because of its sanctity. "Reform Jews," he hurled at religious Zionists waiting to enter.

This was another example of the profound debate between religious Zionists and ultra-Orthodox Zionists regarding the role of the State of Israel. But in spite of this debate, even after the religious Zionist rabbis' declaration, the most important national-religious poskim (arbiters of halakha) and the major ultra-Orthodox halakhic leaders agree that the prohibition against entering the Temple Mount should remain. Former chief rabbis Avraham Shapira and Mordechai Eliyahu agree with this stance. Entering the Temple Mount "is a grave act liable to bring about the destruction rather than the building of the Temple," says Shapira, and "anyone who ascends the mount today is violating a prohibition whose punishment is karet" - death through divine intervention.

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, the greatest opponent of ascending the Temple Mount among the nationalist rabbis, even declared: "Regarding the Temple Mount, we are like Neturei Karta," an ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionist sect. Meanwhile, the debate within religious Zionism has kept the rabbis' declaration from being published again, as opposed to the original plan.

The opposite approach, which led to the controversial halakhic ruling, considers sovereignty an essential tool to bring the Jewish people close to the Temple Mount again. According to this viewpoint, the de facto abandonment of the Temple Mount to the Muslims and the absence of a significant Jewish presence there is interpreted - even by part of the Jewish public - as surrender of the mount. The undermining of the symbols of Jewish identity on the Temple Mount, the ongoing destruction of antiquities, and Muslims' organized denial of the Jewish link to the Temple Mount and the Temple also led to the publication of the revolutionary halakhic ruling.

At the basis of the ruling forbidding entry to the mount lies the halakhic determination that all Jews are considered "tameh met" - impure because of contact with a Jewish corpse, even second- or third-hand. During Temple times, the ashes of a red heifer would be mixed with special water called "mei hatat." Several drops of this mixture was enough to purify a person. But for lack of ashes from the extinct red heifer, all Jews are considered tameh met, and therefore are forbidden to enter the Temple Mount.

Ostensibly, entry could be permitted to large parts of the present Temple Mount compound, since the Temple covered only a small percentage of it. However, since the precise boundaries of the Temple and the Holy of Holies inside it are not known, most of the poskim barred access to the entire compound, based on the rule of "mora mikdash" (awe of the Temple). In other words, anyone who does not fear treading on sacred ground while impure is violating a serious prohibition, even if it turns out that he tread only in places permitted.

The rabbis now permitting entry to the mount believe they can define precisely the areas where entry is permitted, mainly additions built during the time of King Herod.

Meanwhile, even after the publication of the declaration and the visits by the rabbis, the revolution has been delayed. "It's not a button that you press and everything changes," explains Rabbi Yisrael Rosen, a well-known religious Zionist rabbi. "For 40 years, the public has been hearing that approaching [the mount] is forbidden. Now they have to change diskettes, internalize, approach gradually. It's a process of awareness."

Until the public "changes diskettes," encircling the gates has been becoming very popular. On the eve of Rosh Hodesh Av, 5,000 people came. Even rabbis such as Eliyahu and Aviner, who forbid entry to the mount, participated, because they believe that by doing so they can reinforce the public's connection with the mount without transgressing the prohibition against entering it.

Boaz Yaakobi, the director of the encircling event, who himself does not refrain from ascending the mount, explains, "At every event, festival and special occasion, every Jewish person makes a blessing and hopes for the Temple to be rebuilt. This is not just a longing, but a desire by many generations to construct a real building where we offer sacrifices and eat parts of the meat as a mitzvah."

Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, the head of the Temple Institute, who also does not refrain from ascending the mount and participates in encircling the gates, published a manifesto on the eve of Tisha B'Av this year calling on people to arise and actually build the Temple. Ariel, questioning the seriousness of those who mourn the destruction of the Temple, he asked: "Is the Temple dead that we mourn it?

"From the day that the foot of an Israeli soldier tread on the Temple Mount," he says, "the Torah obligates every Jewish man and woman to arise and build a Temple. There is no mitzvah in the Torah 'to mourn the Temple.'"