Grooms Request “Ashes from the Temple Mount” for their Chuppah

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Reut Vilf

Moving custom taking root among grooms in Israel

This Sunday marks the day that the First & Second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed, which began on the 9th of Av. 
The tragic events, which constitute one of the most significant tragedies in the history of the Jewish nation, does not only find expression once a year during the fast of the 9th of Av, but throughout the year during various events that constitute daily life: in prayer, in the Grace after Meals, when building a new home, and beneath the chuppah during the wedding ceremony. 
According to a custom which originated with the Yemenite Jewish community, a pinch of ash is placed on the groom’s head during the chuppah, when the destruction of the Temple is recalled. The source of this custom is rooted in the Book of Psalms, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, May my right hand forget her skill. Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!” (Psalm 137; 5 - 6) Even at the happiest moment in one’s life, when a couple unites in marriage and embarks upon building a shared life together, they recall that Jerusalem has yet to be fully rebuilt and as such, their joy is not complete. This is one of the most meaningful ceremonies in the Jewish tradition, alongside the widespread custom of breaking a glass under the chuppah, expressing a similar sentiment. 
During the last few months, a new trend has been gaining momentum. Young grooms are visiting the Emek Tzurim National Park, site of the Temple Mount Sifting Project, requesting ashes that were removed from the Temple Mount, site of where the destroyed Temples once stood.  
“It is no coincidence that much of the earth from the Temple Mount is colored grey, since it includes ash from the massive fire that raged there during the destruction of the Second Temple,” explains the archaeologist Zachi Dvira, who launched the Temple Mount Sifting Project, which sifts earth illegally removed from the Temple Mount by the Muslim Waqf in the late 1990’s. According to Dvira, “This phenomenon is familiar to other archeological excavations in ancient Jerusalem. All the layers that accumulated after the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE) are of a grey texture, and when one reaches the layer of dirt that has a natural texture like terra rossa, it is a sign that it predates the destruction of Jerusalem from the First Temple period (586 BCE.) In the case of the Temple Mount, following Herod’s expansion towards the beginning of the Common Era, the site has remained a ‘closed box’ that hasn’t had additional dirt added from the outside. The ashes found in the upper layers of dirt on the Temple Mount are apparently the ashes from the destruction of the Second Temple.”
Ohad Tal (35), a resident of Nehusha, says, “When I got married, I put the ash on my head. It was really important to me! When I worked in the Kotel Tunnels I met many types of people and one of the things that I discovered there was that the subject of the Temple Mount is a painful one for so many. I knew that on my wedding day, when I say ‘If I forget you, O Jerusalem’, I want to be very connected to this idea and this was my way to do so, with the very ashes from the destroyed Temple on my head”. 
Yishai Rosenbaum (35), a secular Jew from the community of Oranit, also used ashes from the Temple Mount and shares that “One of the things that was really important to me on my wedding day was the custom to place ashes on one’s head. Throughout the chuppah, the immortal verse repeated in my head, ‘If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither’. I think if on my wedding day, this specifically was on my mind, it shows to what extent I am remembering the destruction of the Temple, precisely on this day which is supposed to be the most happy and meaningful day in my life. I traveled to the Temple Mount to put ash on my head and show that despite the destruction, there is happiness, there is revival, and there are good things.” According to him, “There are people that object to saying ‘mazal tov’ immediately after the glass is broken under the chuppah, because that moment is meant to commemorate the ongoing pain felt over the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Yet, I say that one should definitely say mazal tov immediately after, because precisely on this occasion, you are remembering the destruction and hoping for it to be rebuilt, on the holiest day of your life.”
It turns out that this unique custom has found a place among the Karaite community.

“In my past, I worked in the sifting project in Emek Tzurim, and when I got married, I decided to take ashes from there,” says Neriya Haroeh (33), a resident of Moshav Matzliah, which belongs to the Karaite community. “We have an ancient custom to use ashes during the wedding ceremony. By the Karaites, there is a very strong element of mourning the destruction of the Temple. We, for example, don’t only fast on the 9th of Av, but also on the 7th of Av and the 10th of Av, because those are the days on which the destruction began and finished.” He adds that, “There is a custom by us not to break a glass under the chuppah, rather, instead, we place ashes on the head of the groom and bride. What symbolizes the destruction more than the ashes from the actual destruction of the Temple? For me, this was the strongest way to connect to the destruction of the Temple. Despite the fact that at the moment we are building a house within the nation of Israel, we know that the situation is not ideal and not complete.”
Harel Avrahami, director of the Temple Mount Sifting Project on behalf of the City of David Foundation, which operates and funds the project under the management of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, says, “During the past year, over 50 grooms have come to the Emek Tzurim National Park for this purpose.” 
More than 200,000 people have participated in the Temple Mount Sifting Project, sifting and washing off the remnants of a grey dust, as they search for archeological finds from the earth originating on the Temple Mount. However, only a few are aware of the importance of this dust. The sifting process includes an initial dry sifting carried out by the site staff and long-term volunteers. Afterwards, the material from the dry sifting is put into pails and brought into the sifting tent where it is soaked in water. Visitors to the site are the ones who carry out the most important stage of identifying finds, which is wet-sifting, where the remaining dust that is stuck to the stones and finds is washed off. Arrowheads, coins, jewelry and seals are among the finds that have been discovered over the years by children who came with their families to the Temple Mount Sifting Project. 
“With the understanding that the dirt that we have contains large quantities of ash from the destruction of the Temple, grooms started to come to the sifting site on their wedding days in order to take a ash to use under the chuppah, before the words ‘If I forget thee O Jerusalem’ are recited,” Dvira says, noting that over the last decade the practice has become more widespread. 
Similar to the practice of remembering Jerusalem through the use of ashes during the chuppah, there is another custom practiced in connection with funerals. Once the body of the deceased has been purified as a preparation for burial, it is customary for the children to place a little ash on the closed eyes of the deceased, while reciting the verses “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” (Genesis 3:19) and “Joseph shall put his hand upon thine eyes,” (Geneis 46;4). Dvira shares that he himself chose to do this with ashes from the Temple Mount when his mother, Hila Zweig, z”l, passed away a number of years ago. 
Zachi Dvira and Dr. Gabriel Barkay, who is co-founded the sifting project, have received numerous requests over the years from various entrepreneurs to sell this unique earth from the Temple Mount, and they have always responded with a resolute no. “We do not see ourselves as the owners of this earth. This is the property of the nation of Israel, and in fact, also of the entire world, and we allow anyone who would like to visit the sifting site and take samples of the ashes, to do so.”, they say. 
One of the most famous works of Jewish philosophy, The Kuzari, written by Rabbi Judah HaLevi in the year 1140, concludes with the following words:
“Someone who awakens love for this holy place in another's heart definitely is worthy of receiving reward, and he is bringing the event that we are hoping for closer as it is written: 'Thou shalt arise and have mercy upon Zion, for the time to favour her, yea, the set time is come. For thy servants take pleasure in her stones and embrace the dust thereof' (Psalms 102:14). This means that Jerusalem can only be rebuilt when Israel yearns for it to such an extent that they cherish her stones and yearn for her dust.”
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