In a few days we will commemorate the date of destruction of the Temple, which falls on Tisha B’Av.

The tragic event, which was one of the most significant events in the Jewish people’s existence, finds expression not only once a year in the fast of Tisha B’Av, but throughout the year in a variety of events in daily life: in prayer, in grace after meals, in building a new home, and during the wedding ceremony under the huppah.

According to a custom that originated in the Yemenite Jewish community, a pinch of ashes is placed on the groom’s head during the wedding ceremony, at the stage where the destruction of Jerusalem is recalled. Even at the highest point of a person’s joy, at the moment when he unites with his partner and establishes his home, he remembers that the building of Jerusalem is not yet complete. This is one of the most meaningful ceremonies in the Jewish tradition. The idea is to express the fact that any goal that we aim for, and any success we achieve, is always a means to a higher goal, and not the summit of our aspirations.

During recent months, a new phenomenon is increasing, in which young bridegrooms come to the Emek Tzurim National Park looking for small amounts of ashes from the Temple Mount – from the place where the destroyed Temple stood.

“Not for nothing is the dust from the Temple Mount gray, because it includes ashes from the huge fire that broke out at the site during the destruction of the Second Temple,” explains archaeologist Tzachi Dvira, who initiated the Temple Mount sifting project, located at the Emek Tzurim National Park.

“In fact, this phenomenon is known from all the excavations of ancient Jerusalem. All the layers that built up after the destruction of the Second Temple are of this gray texture, and when you come to layers of earth with a natural texture, such as red terra rossa soil, this is a sign of an ancient time prior to the destruction of the First Temple,” he adds.

According to Dvira, “In the case of the Temple Mount after the expansion by Herod, the site was left as a ‘closed box’ in which no more earth fill was introduced from outside. The ashes found in the upper earth layers on the Temple Mount appear to be the ashes from the destruction of the Second Temple.”

Ehud Tal, (35), a resident of Nehusha, recounts: “When I got married, I put the ashes on my head. It truly burned within me! When I worked at the Kotel tunnels, I was exposed to many kinds of people, and one of the things I discovered there was that the subject of the Temple Mount is a raw nerve for everyone. It’s an emotional point that makes people happy and sad. It was clear to me that on my wedding day when I said, “If I forget thee, Jerusalem” – I want to be the most connected to this point and this moment, and this was the way for me – through the ashes on my head.”

Yishai Rosenbaum, (35), a secular Jew from the town of Oranit, who also took ashes from the Temple Mount, recounts that, “one of the things that was really important to me on my wedding day is the custom to put ashes on your head. All through the wedding the eternal verse was echoing in my head, ‘If I forget thee Jerusalem – may my right hand forget [its strength].’ I think that if on my wedding day I was occupied with this matter, it shows how much I remember the destruction of the Temple on the day that is supposed to be the happiest and most meaningful day of my life. I traveled to the Temple Mount to put ashes on my head and to show that despite the destruction there are joyful occasions, there is rebuilding, there are good things. According to Rosenbaum, “There are those who are opposed to saying ‘mazal tov’ right after breaking the glass because it is a reminder of the destruction of the Temple, but conversely I say that we should say mazal tov immediately after breaking the glass, because precisely on an occasion like this you remember the destruction and look forward to the rebuilding on the holiest day of your life.”

It turns out that this special custom also has a place among Karaite communities:

“In the past, I worked at the Temple Mount sifting project at Emek Tzurim and when I got married, I decided to take ashes from there,” recounts Neriah Hareh (33), a resident of Moshav Matzliah, which belongs to the Karaite community. “We have a long and ancient custom of using ashes in the wedding ceremony. Among Karaites there is a very strong element of mourning the destruction of the Temple. For example, we not only fast on the 9th of Av but also on the 7th of Av and the 10th of Av – because those were the days when the destruction began and ended.” He also recounts that, “we have a custom that of not breaking a glass under the huppah but rather instead of that putting ashes on the head of the groom and the bride. What more symbolizes the destruction than the ashes that were actually burned? For me, it was the strongest way to connect to the destruction of the Temple. Despite the fact that at that moment we are building a home in the people of Israel, we know that the situation is not fixed and not complete.”

Harel Avrahami, of the City of David, which operates and funds the Sifting Project for archaeologists Gabriel Barkay and Tzachi Dvira, recounts that, “over the past year, more than 50 grooms came to the Emek Tzurim National Park for this purpose.”

“In fact, when we first approached the piles of earth in the Kidron Valley the day after they were dumped there, we found almost no pottery shards or other finds,” Dvira recounts. “But when we returned to them two days later, after ongoing rainfall, suddenly the finds appeared. In the first days of the sifting project, it was also very hard to find anything when we conducted only dry sifting. Not to mention coins. But after two weeks when we found a solution for conducting wet sifting in an economical way that doesn’t require use of a lot of water, suddenly the first coins appeared that we had been waiting for for two weeks. (To date, nearly 6,000 coins have been discovered.)

So far, nearly 200,000 people have participated in the Temple Mount Sifting Project, sifting and rinsing remains of the gray dust from which the archaeological finds are separated, but only a few are aware of the great significance of this dust. The sifting work includes preliminary dry sifting which is done by the site staff and long-term volunteers. This work is dustier, and the dedicated workers are forced to breathe the dust, and finish their work days with their clothes and bodies covered in gray from the dust of the destruction. Sometimes there’s no choice and the work is done wearing filter masks. After this, the dry sifted material is brought in buckets to the wet sifting tent, and soaked in water. The visitors to the site are the ones who conduct the most important task of locating the finds, and this is the wet sifting in which the remains of the dirt attached to the stones and the finds are washed away.

Among the finds discovered over the years by children who came with their families for the Emek Tzurim Archaeology Experience are: arrowheads, coins, jewelry and seals.

“With the understanding that the earth we have includes large quantities of actual ashes from the destruction of the Temple, grooms began to come to the sifting site on the day of their weddings to take samples of the earth and use it in the wedding ceremony before saying, “If I forget thee Jerusalem,” Dvira recounts. He notes that over the past decade, the custom has become popular among all ethnic communities. According to him, “there are even those who use ashes from the concentration camps in Europe.”

סינון עפר בעמק צורים
צילום: אפרת כהן

In contrast to the custom of remembering Jerusalem through ashes during the wedding ceremony, there is another custom associated with funerals. At the end of the purification of the dead body in preparation for its burial, it is customary for sons to place some ashes on the closed eyes of the deceased while saying the verses “From dust you came and to dust you shall return / And Joseph will put his hands on your eyes.” Dvira says that he himself chose to do this with ashes from the Temple Mount when his mother, Hila Tzvig of blessed memory, passed away several years ago. It is possible that other visitors who have taken ash samples also used them for this purpose.

Tzachi Dvira and Dr. Gabriel Barkay – also among the initiators of the sifting project – have received many inquiries over the years from different entrepreneurs who want to market this special earth, and they have always responded with a decisive no. “We do not see ourselves as the owners of this earth, just as in a certain measure we do not see the responsibility for exposing the archaeological remnants as our exclusive responsibility. This is an asset belonging to the people of Israel and in fact, to the entire world, and we make it possible for those who desire to visit the sifting site and receive samples of the earth,” they say.

The book The Kuzari ends with the following words:

One who arouses in the hearts of people love for this holy place is worthy of a reward without a doubt and he brings closer the coming of their hope as it is said, “You will arise and have compassion upon Zion; For it is time to be gracious unto her, for the appointed time is come. For your servants take pleasure in her stones, and love her dust”. (Psalm 102:14-15). This is to say: Jerusalem shall not be built until the children of Israel desire her, the purpose of desire until they will take pleasure in her stones and her earth.