In a stuffy basement off an Old City alleyway in Jerusalem, tailors using ancient texts as a blueprint have begun making a curious line of clothing that they hope will be worn by priests in a reconstructed Jewish Temple - the spiritual center of Judaism destroyed by Roman legions two millennia ago.
The project, run by a Jerusalem group called the Temple Institute, is part of an ideology that advocates making practical preparations for the rebuilding of the ancient Temple on a disputed rectangle in Jerusalem sacred to both Jews and Muslims.
Jews call the site the Temple Mount and venerate it as their holiest place. The Temple itself was destroyed by Roman legions two millennia ago. For the past 1,300 years, the site has been home to Islam's third-holiest shrine, the Noble Sanctuary, including the golden Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
These conflicting claims lie at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and past efforts to upset the status-quo have erupted into violence.
The Temple Institute has made priestly garments in the past for display in the small museum it runs in the Jewish Quarter, but those were hand-sewn and cost upward of 10,000$ each. The institute recently received rabbinic permission to begin using sewing machines for the first time, bringing the cost down and allowing them to produce dozens or hundreds of garments, depending on how many orders come in.
'Conflict over holy space.' Temple Mount, Jerusalem (Photo: AFP)
If you are a descendant of the Jewish priestly class, a full outfit, including an embroidered belt 32 biblical cubits (48 feet, 15 meters) long, can be yours for about $800. "Before, the clothes we made were to go on display. Now we're engaged in the practical fulfillment of the divine commandment," said Yehuda Glick, the Temple Institute's director, at a ceremony marking the workshop's opening last week.
The thread, six-ply flax, was purchased in India, and the diamond-patterned fabric was woven in Israel. The blue dye which the Bible calls ‘tchelet,’ is made from the secretions of a snail found in the Mediterranean Sea, and the red color comes from an aphid found on local trees.
Provocation?The priests, made up of descendants of the Biblical figure Aaron, were an elite group entrusted with the Temple and its rituals, such as sacrificing animals and making other offerings to God. The memory of belonging to that class has been preserved by Jews through the centuries. Their most common family name is ‘Cohen,’ meaning priest.
The Temple Institute and similarly minded believers think those modern priests will soon have to resume the rituals of their ancestors in a rebuilt Temple, and that by preparing their garments they are bringing that day closer.
"The light of God is coming back, and it's happening before our eyes," Glick said. By sewing garments for the temple priests, his institute is "continuing a process that was neglected for 2,000 years," he said.
The Temple Institute does not advocate violent action and says its activities are purely educational. But groups like the institute, however marginal, have played on Muslim fears that Jews plan to destroy their holy sites to pave the way for rebuilding the Temple.
Adnan Husseini, formerly the top Muslim official at the site and now an adviser on Jerusalem affairs to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, called the work of such groups a ‘provocation.’ "If they talk about building the third temple, what does it mean? It means they will destroy the Islamic mosques,” Husseini said. "And if they do, they will make 1.5 billion enemies. It is God's will that this is a place for Muslims to pray, and they must respect that.”
The first Jewish Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians 2,500 years ago, and the second was leveled by the Romans in the year 70. Since then, Judaism's focus has changed drastically, from a Temple-centered ritual of animal sacrifice led by priests to a faith revolving around individual study and piety taught by rabbis.
Most Orthodox Jews see the rebuilding of the Temple as a theoretical event to be undertaken by God when the Jewish people are deemed to deserve it, and Judaism has traditionally forbidden making practical preparations of this kind.
Made to measureBut the small group in this basement, members of a hard-line fringe among Israel's religious nationalists, see that thinking as an excuse for inaction.
"From the moment we see we're ready here, the clothes will be ready and the priests can get to work when the time comes," said Hagai Barashi, an assistant tailor. He wore a Biblical-looking robe, long sidelocks, and a pair of Nike flip-flops.
Temple model, Israel Museum (Photo: Ron Peled)
The first member of the priestly class who came to be measured was Nachman Kahana, a local rabbi. He removed his black jacket, and tailor Aviad Jarufi, a small man in a white robe and horn-rimmed glasses, took out his green measuring tape.
The priestly garments can't be sold off the rack; Jewish Law specifies that they must be made to measure. Yisrael Ariel, the rabbi who founded the Temple Institute, recited a traditional blessing, thanking God for "keeping us alive, and sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this time.”
Ariel, an expert on Temple ritual who was present as a soldier when Israel captured the Old City from Jordan in 1967 is associated with the extreme flank of Israel's religious settlement movement. In the 1980s, he was ranked second on a virulently anti-Arab parliamentary list that was eventually outlawed for racism.
His institute is dedicated to recreating the implements used in the Temple not only as a historical exercise but as a way to prepare for its reconstruction and, if possible, to speed up the process. In its 20 years of existence, the institute has recreated a golden seven-branched candelabra that cost $3 million, as well as harps, altars and containers for incense.
Many of the objects are on display in the institute's museum, which also has a gift shop selling Temple-themed souvenirs like puzzles, balsa-wood models and board games.
There are also posters depicting the Temple in Jerusalem, standing where the Dome of the Rock does now. Many see the institute’s agenda as explosive.
"The more awareness you raise, and the more you stress that Judaism isn't real without the Temple, the more you're encouraging conflict over holy space in Jerusalem," said Gershom Gorenberg, an Israeli historian and journalist who wrote a book about the struggle over the Temple Mount, titled "The End of Days".