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Aug022019

A Holy Hideout

Selections from the diary of - the Kosel’s Rabbi Meir Yehuda Getz about his burning desire to uncover the hiding place of the Aron and the Rebbe’s letter advising him against it.

Our story begins toward the end of the era of the first Mikdash, in the period after the Jewish people abandoned the Torah and the Beis Ha’Mikdash. Yoshiyahu the king “did the proper thing in the eyes of Hashem” and destroyed the altars for idol worship and purified and renovated the Beis Ha’Mikdash.

In the course of a maintenance inspection, Chilkiyahu the Kohen entered the Holy of Holies and, to his amazement, discovered that the Sefer Torah, written by Moshe Rabeinu, which lay next to the Aron, was open to the section of the curses.

Chilkiyahu ran in a fright to Shafan the scribe, realizing that this symbolized the calamity to come. They both went to inform Yoshiyahu the king. When the king heard this, he rent his clothes and ordered them to seek G-d’s message from Chulda the Prophetess, and not to Yirmiyahu the Prophet. This is because “women are compassionate,” and he hoped that a woman would relay the bad news in a gentle way and would even pray for them that the decree be annulled.

Despite this, Chulda prophesied with harsh words and told Chilkiyahu and Shafan, “Thus says Hashem, I will bring evil to this place and to those who dwell here, all the things read by the king of Yehuda.”

Yoshiyahu understood that the decree had been sealed and the destruction of the Mikdash was a matter of time. He called for the priests and told them to remove the Aron from the Holy of Holies and hide it in the underground tunnels that Shlomo built for this purpose, as it says, “And he said to the Levites… put the Aron HaKodesh in the house that was built by Shlomo ben Dovid King of Israel.”

This story appears in the book of Melachim and Divrei Ha’Yamim and in brief in the tractate Yoma, 52b, which deals with the service of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur in the Holy of Holies. There, the Gemara adds that together with the Aron, the jar of manna, the bottle of Anointing Oil, Aharon’s stick that blossomed and the box that the Plishtim sent with a gift for the G-d of Israel, were also hidden.

In the Talmud Yerushalmi (tractate Shekalim 6:1) it cites an individual view that the Aron was exiled to Bavel, but the Rabanan held the view that the Aron was hidden and even cited the place of the opening of the tunnel – in the Lishkas Dir HaEitzim (Chamber of the Wood). The Gemara relates, “A story with a Kohen with a blemish who was standing and chipping wood in the Chamber of the Wood and saw that this [part of the] floor was different than the others. He came and said to his fellow, come and look at this floor which is different than the rest. He hadn’t finished what he was saying when his soul left him and they knew with certainty that there is where the Aron was hidden …”

Ever since the Aron was hidden, thousands of years ago, many have tried to locate it but were unsuccessful.

RABBI GETZ ON THE TRAIL OF THE ARON

Rabbi Meir Yehuda Getz was a young, dynamic rabbi when he moved to Eretz Yisrael from Tunisia in 1949. He was appointed as the rav of Kerem Ben Zimra in the Upper Galil and quickly turned the place into a flourishing place of Torah.

The Upper Galil drew him into the world of kabbala and he spent nights studying kabbala. For Kabbolas Shabbos he would leave the town, ascend a mountain, and welcome the Shabbos with a special tune.

With the outbreak of the Six Day War, his son Avner fell in the battle for Yerushalayim and R’ Getz decided to follow his son’s destiny to Yerushalayim. He parted from his life’s work in Kerem Ben Zimra and settled in the Old City of Yerushalayim. The Religions Minister knew of his talents and appointed him Rav of the Kosel and holy places in Eretz Yisrael. He was revealed in the public eye as a colorful personality, and his command of seven languages (Hebrew, English, French, Yiddish, Arabic, Romanian and Ladino) helped connect directly with public figures and diplomats from all over the world who visited the Kosel.

The Rabbi Getz of the daylight hours was a dignified public personality, but there was another Rabbi Getz of the night. Every night, he woke up at 11:30, went to the mikva, and then to his shul in the Kosel tunnels which is the closest one can get to the Holy of Holies. He would remove his shoes, sit on a rug, and cry bitterly for the exile of the Shechina and the destruction of the Beis Ha’Mikdash.

Rabbi Yisrael Avichai, one of his disciples, describes it as a very moving scene. “I saw a tzaddik sitting on the ground and crying and asking for the Geula of the Jewish people.” After he finished reciting Tikun Chatzos, he would sit and learn kabbala until dawn.

It was that selfsame powerful yearning for the Geula that triggered within him a strong desire to find the Aron that is hidden in the tunnels of the Har Ha’Bayis. He was sure that such a revelation would greatly inspire the Jewish people and even bring the Geula. Perhaps he was also inspired by the citation from the Ramban that it is possible that the Jewish people will carry forth the Aron “upon the construction of the Bayis or in the future wars that will face Melech Ha’Moshiach.”

On 21 Sivan 5734/1974, he started a group to study the structure of the Mikdash in collaboration with Torah scholars who were knowledgeable in this field, along with archaeologists and engineers. On the very first day, he brought up the need to reach the tunnels of the Har Ha’Bayis in order to find the exact location of the altar.

It is known that when they built the Beis Ha’Mikdash, they built it as arches over arches so that if something tamei was buried deep in the ground, the impurity would not travel upward due to the space between levels. The entire Har Ha’Bayis is made of tunnels over tunnels except for one place, the place of the altar which needed to be connected directly to the ground and not over empty space. For this reason, maintained R’ Getz, if they were able to penetrate to the underground tunnels of the Har Ha’Bayis and identify the one place where there are no tunnels, they would know where the altar had been placed. He even suggested extracting earth samples from the ground and performing chemical testing to detect the zinc limestone compound from which the altar was built. “If zinc is found in a certain place,” he said, “we would know the place of the altar and this would be tremendous progress for us.”

During those years, the Religions Ministry began to unearth the Kosel along its length by digging a tunnel from the Kosel plaza in a northerly direction. The digging was done clandestinely so as not to arouse Arab and international opposition.

The digging revealed a locked gate in the bottom part of the Kosel, opposite the assumed location of the Holy of Holies.

R’ Getz was very excited by this shocking discovery and shared his excitement with one of the members of the group, Mister Rafi Eitan.

“As the digging of the tunnels progressed,” Eitan was later quoted as saying in the book by Simcha Raz, Rav of the Kosel, “I met nearly every day with R’ Getz. I learned the structure of the Mikdash with him and its measurements. We came to a conclusion about the location of the Mikdash and the location of the Holy of Holies. When we reached the place where, according to what we studied, should be the gate from which the Kohanim went out to immerse, we estimated that if we made an opening in the wall in the east, we would be able to get further along in the tunnel and reach the Holy of Holies, but we waited for a favorable time to make the opening. ”

Eitan revealed that at first, the plan was for the opening to break through on the level below where the work was being done to unearth the Kosel. “That was so that it should not become public knowledge. We planned on entering and seeing the tunnels and advancing in the direction that we calculated was the site of the Holy of Holies. We calculated  that without tools, just with the aid of a fine chisel we would be able to perforate the walls of the tunnels that were made of thin chalky limestone. We thought that in this way, we would be able to advance quietly, discover the hidden places in which the Kohanim hid the vessels of the Mikdash, and reach the spot where the Aron is hidden.”

Eitan was not the only confidant of R’ Getz. A few members of the Religions Ministry and students of R’ Getz were in on the plan.

Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu related that one day, he went to the Kosel and saw R’ Getz bringing engineers with powerful metal detectors, and R’ Getz explained to him that he decided to use modern technological means to search for where the Aron was hidden.

“Rabbi Eliyahu said to him: Do you think that Shlomo Ha’Melech, who was the wisest of men and who wrote, ‘There is nothing new under the sun,’ did not know that one day, they would try to discover the hiding place? Nothing will help; you cannot be smarter than the one who was the wisest of all men.”

R’ GETZ SHARES HIS PASSION WITH THE REBBE

R’ Getz was well aware of the mishna in tractate Shekalim that tells of the bitter fate of the Kohen who tried to discover the Aron, but in his great yearning for the coming of Moshaich, he was ready to give up his life for this lofty goal.

At a certain point, he decided to ask the Rebbe for advice. In his diary, he wrote what his question was:

“… my question regarding an important matter that I am involved in. Behind the place of the Kapores and the Holy of Holies, we discovered a closed gate that, according to my estimation is where the Kohanim went out to immerse if they were impure (on a lower level, about nine meters below the level of the Har Ha’Bayis today), … to open it and search inside for two purposes: 1) to discover the location of the altar, and 2) to discover the location where the Aron was hidden according to what it says in the mishna in Shekalim (and self-sacrifice is needed for this…).

“The question is, is it proper to approach this work after we overcome all sorts of obstacles, engineering and mainly political …”

The Rebbe responded (in a letter of Rosh Chodesh Elul 5736) unequivocally. After a blessing relating to some of the other topics he wrote about, “May you relate good news in all the matters of which you write,” the Rebbe writes, “including and most importantly that the plan to dig out under the Beis Ha’Mikdash, the tunnels etc. was canceled, and even any remote possibility.”

At the end of the letter, the Rebbe wrote by hand, “With respect and blessing to protect the Holy that they not touch it or any possible part, and even a possibility of a possibility, since it is ‘of the One who warned about the Mikdash’ that you fear, and with success.”

Again, the Rebbe referred to the topic in the letter of 22 Teves 5737, thanking him for the “good tidings” that all work and digging where there is “any concern or a possible concern, of contact with the Holy and the Mikdash has stopped.”

BREAK IN THE GATE

Following this answer from the Rebbe, R’ Getz abandoned the idea. Some years passed until that fateful day, 20 Tammuz 5741.

R’ Getz founded his shul near the closed gate. It was very narrow and the Aron, that was pressed up against the Kosel wall, took up a large part of the width of the room, with only a small space left for passage.

On 18 Tammuz, R’ Gets sat with the engineer and proposed an idea. Since the depth of the wall of the Kosel is about 80 centimeters, and since most likely, the wall that sealed off the gateway was made of stones that extended deeply inward, it would be possible to carve into these stones and place the Aron in that space without anything happening.

On 20 Tammuz, they began chipping into the wall. As soon as they started cutting in they saw that their estimate of the wall’s thickness was mistaken. The sealing wall was only 20 centimeters thick and as soon as they began chipping away at it a hole was opened through which they could see the entire giant tunnel carved into stone running eastward, in the direction of the Har Ha’Bayis. The measurements were impressive: 28 meters in length and 6 meters wide. In the dim light of the tunnel, you could not see till the end. The floor of the tunnel was full of water since, 500 years earlier, the Ottomans built supporting walls made of thin limestone in order to create water cisterns in the tunnel.

The overseer of the work called R’ Getz about the discovery of the tunnel. R’ Getz was very excited when he went to the tunnel. His dream had come true!

In his diary he wrote, “Before I was able to rest a bit at home, I was called urgently by the overseer of the work to come immediately to the Kosel. He told me about the amazing discovery of the large hall behind the Kosel. With the opening of the ancient gateway from which the Kohanim who became impure went out after their immersion, that is exactly where the steps going down to the large chamber were discovered.

“I immediately went over to the place and was overcome with tremendous excitement. I sat there for a long time at a loss, with hot tears streaming from my eyes. I finally mustered the strength and entered with awe and love. I sat on the steps and said the Tikun Chatzos, as per our custom. After I calmed down somewhat, I focused on action.

“Together with the engineer who had been called to the scene in the interim, we concurred that the first wise move would be to empty the water, because the Moslems used it as a water pit which is why they closed the tunnel. Second, to close the opening of the pit (which is the floor of the Har Ha’Bayis). It seemed like a shame to me to do so, but for security reasons we could not leave it open. Further instructions would follow after those actions were completed.”

The discovery of the tunnel engendered great excitement for R’ Getz, and when the director of the Religions Ministry, Mr. Gedalia Schreiber, arrived in the afternoon, he was also excited by the discovery. R’ Getz told him, “We found a tunnel under the Holy of Holies, an enormous space.  All signs indicate that this hole will lead us to the approximate location of the Holy of Holies. If we could just advance a little further inside, we would reach the Foundation Stone where some of the Mikdash treasures should be located. According to kabbala, the moment these treasures are found, Moshiach will come.”

R’ Getz did not want to make such a significant move without the full support of the chief rabbinate of Israel. He urgently called for the two chief rabbis to come, Rishon L’Tziyon Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi Shlomo Goren. He asked them to give him a psak din in writing about whether it was permissible to enter this tunnel under the Har Ha’Bayis.

The two rabbis spent hours examining the matter and in the end, paskened that according to the Rambam, the tunnels that opened to the Azara (temple courtyard) are holy and the those that opened to the Har Ha’Bayis (temple mount) are not holy (as far as the holiness of the Mikdash, but did have the sanctity of the Har Ha’Bayis). Since the opening of this tunnel was outside of the Har Ha’Bayis, it did not have the sanctity of the Har Ha’Bayis.

They restricted this ruling somewhat because there are poskim who hold differently. According to the latter, the tunnel might have the sanctity of the Har Ha’Bayis, which is why R’ Ovadia Yosef paskened that “Clearly and undoubtedly, this tunnel that was discovered in the Kosel facing the Beis Ha’Mikdash, is a very important place to pray, also in light of the fact that it is a deep tunnel under the Har Ha’Bayis, close to the Holy of Holies. It would be fitting to pray chapter 130 of Tehillim there, ‘Shir Hamaalos, from the depths I call to you, G-d,’ and all the other prayers that are said from the depths as explained in the Arizal’s Shaar HaKavanos, regarding the ten ‘depths’ written in the Sefer Yetzira. However, it is possible that as long as we have not located all the openings of the tunnel, men should immerse in a mikva upon entering this tunnel.”

ADVANCING, IN UTMOST SECRECY

R’ Getz called the opening that had broken through the Kosel the “Shaar Ha’Kohanim,” relying on tractate Middos which describes the underground tunnels that enable a Kohen who became impure to exit the Har Ha’Bayis immediately.

The huge pit was discovered to be flooded with mud and rank water. R’ Getz realized that the normal process of digging a drainage hole would not help in this instance. After firemen who were called in to pump out the water were discovered to be Arabs, they were sent back to their station. The tunnels were closed for prayer and visiting for a month and a half, in the course of which people from Kibbutz Sdei Eliyahu were mobilized for the job of drawing out the water, which was found to be highly problematic due to engineering and electrical problems.

The Religions Ministry had to resort to emptying the pit manually. Pail after pail, trip after trip. R’ Getz stopped by every hour to check on how things were progressing. He documented every meter in his diary, expressing his excitement and anticipation for the success of the dig.

Throughout this time, R’ Getz tried to keep the discovery a secret. Aside from the few who had to know because they were emptying the water, the secret wasn’t told to anyone. Since government approval was needed to dig in this sensitive area, he spoke to his longtime friend Rafi Eitan, and asked him to obtain the government permit.

Eitan consulted with Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and deputy prime minister Yigal Yadin, and both approved the activities at the site, but expressed caution and said that at this point in time, it was preferable not to inform PM Menachem Begin. They said that if and when the matter was discovered and a worldwide commotion ensued, it would be better if the prime minister could say he did not know about it.

THE REBBE’S RULING

We have no information as to whether R’ Getz communicated with the Rebbe about the sudden discovery, but exactly at that time, at the farbrengen of Shabbos Parshas Devarim, Erev Tisha B’Av, the Rebbe spoke at length about the place where the Aron was hidden away.  After a detailed analysis of the wording of the Rambam, the Rebbe concluded emphatically that according to the view of the Rambam, the tunnel where the Holy Ark was hidden away was sanctified with the holiness of of the Holy of Holies, exactly like the above-ground Holy of Holies in the Beis Ha’Mikdash!

In other words, at the very time that R’ Getz was planning to uncover the passageways that extended from the large underground chamber that was discovered, based on the ruling that the tunnels were not sanctified, the Rebbe issued an unequivocal ruling that the tunnel where the Aron was hidden away is not like the other tunnels, but has the legal status of the Holy of Holies, the holiest place in the world, where it is prohibited for anyone to enter!

The Rebbe derived this from the fact that the Rambam, which is a work devoted exclusively to halacha, writes that “when Shlomo built the Bayis and he knew that it would eventually be destroyed, he built a place within it to hide away the Aron, below in the deep and twisted hidden recesses, and Yoshiyahu ordered that it be hidden in the place that Shlomo built.”

The Rebbe raises a number of questions and concludes that the Rambam is teaching us that in the original construction there were two locations built for the Aron, one revealed in the Holy of Holies and one concealed under the Holy of Holies.  Therefore, the decision by Yoshiyahu in anticipation of the destruction slated to take place a few generations later, was not an act of despair and resignation but was part of the original plan, that when the time came, the Aron should be housed in the alternate underground Holy of Holies. This means that despite the destruction of the first and second Bais Ha’Mikdash, the Aron is and has always been in its designated place that was part of the original construction, the actual Holy of Holies, albeit the subterranean version.

THE SECRET GETS OUT

R’ Getz, who was unaware of the Rebbe’s chiddush, continued with his work. During the process of cleaning the tunnel, he discovered openings in the ceiling of the tunnel. He was concerned lest an attack be perpetrated through one of these openings and he immediately ordered that they be closed temporarily. That same day, 17 Av, they were closed.

The digging progressed. A month of secrecy and silence. However, leaks began to reach the public as is the style of Israeli politics. The archaeologists were opposed, the Arabs suspected something was happening underfoot of the Har Ha’Bayis, and in the meantime, Teddy Kollek, the mayor, who was very opposed to digging, announced to Kol Yisrael that it was taking place.  A team of reporters gleefully descended upon the Kosel tunnel digging and on 27 Av 5741 the story was blown wide open in the media.

That night, R’ Getz recorded an entry in his diary at midnight: The director just showed up with journalists from Kol Yisrael who were leaked the information about the discovery of the tunnel.  They claim that Teddy Kollek wants to send the police after me tomorrow for supposedly digging under the Har Ha’Bayis.

The next morning, a news item announced that a tunnel was discovered under the Har Ha’Bayis and the rabbi of the Kosel thought that perhaps, under one of the side entrances, it would be possible to find the Mikdash vessels.

In Rabbi Getz’s diary he wrote at 7:30 that morning: Just as I feared, the top news item is about the discovery of the tunnel, and it was conveyed in highly dramatic fashion which can incite the Arabs and create a firestorm. We await developments.

The matter accelerated like an avalanche. A media and political commotion ensued which led, after a series of government sessions, to the decision to stop the digging temporarily.

A week after the break was sealed with boards on 4 Elul, the Moslems took advantage of the quiet in the Kosel tunnels and set out to seal off the place and attack anyone working in the tunnels. At 2:00, dozens of Arabs were lowered from the floor of the Har Ha’Bayis into the pit. They smashed the boards that were used to seal off the opening, and they brought building materials to seal off the pit from the inside. The frightened police fled and R’ Getz, who feared for the lives of all those praying at the Kosel, remained alone in the area. Dozens of bottles and metal bars rained down, and even an enormous rock that nearly crushed him to death was pushed through an opening that was dug open overhead.

Once reinforcements were called in, the people from Ateret Kohanim joined him in the fight.  After a relatively brief altercation, the police showed up and started making arrests. Rebbetzin Esther Getz z’l, who was in the plaza during the riot, ran to her husband and begged him to save himself and run for his life. R’ Getz said, “Your son Avner was killed here. I too, your husband, will fall here.”

The result of the shameful event was emotionally very difficult for R’ Getz and he was sent for treatment and tests. He wrote in his diary, “Many friends from various groups came to encourage me … I saw the government in all its weakness and disgraceful, total capitulation and I pin no hopes on them. My entire support is our Father in heaven. Even the British put on a proper face, but our government has always caved in throughout, to our shame and humiliation.

“I felt … similar to what my forbears felt as they themselves saw the flames rising from the House of our G-d during the destruction. Every pounding of the Arabs within the tunnel apparently closing the wall off from inside with thick cement, each of their shouts, is like the piercing of a sword in my wounded heart… However, I must be strengthened and not break because I need to continue my job, even if I stand alone in the breach.”

At midnight, as usual, R’ Getz returned to the area facing the Holy of Holies. He sat on a rug and put ash on his forehead in the entrance to the “Shaar Ha’Kohanim,” and began to recite the Tikkun Chatzos with heartrending cries.

The conclusion of this whole episode is that although the Holy Ark was not uncovered, the Rebbe assured us that it is not just hidden away in some hidden crevice deep in the earth, but that it is in its proper place that was part of the original construction, i.e. the underground Holy of Holies.

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