Tens of thousands of Jews visited the Western Wall (Kotel) on Monday morning, April 25th for the annual and traditional Birkat Kohanim (Priestly Blessing) ceremony in honor of Chol HaMoed Pesach (Passover). The Kotel Plaza morphed into a sea of humanity, as people stood shoulder to shoulder with each other as far back as the entrance to the Old City.
The special priestly blessing that is held annually on the intermediate days of Passover and Succot evokes great emotion as it recalls the abiding loved that Aharon, the high priest (Kohen Gadol) had for his people, the nation of Israel. Wrapped in their taleisim, (prayer shawls) the Kohanim and Levi'im (descendants of Aharon and shevet Levi) raise their hands and utter the blessing.
The chazzan (cantor) recites the prayer which precedes the Birkat Kohanim. The chazzan then leads the Kohanim in the Birkat Kohanim. He recites aloud the fifteen words of the blessing:
'May G d bless you and guard you.
'May G d shine His countenance upon you and be gracious to you.
'May G d turn His countenance toward you and grant you peace.'" (Numbers 6:24-26)
He continues with "Our G d and G d of our fathers, bless us with the threefold [Priestly] Blessing…"), until he reaches the word "Kohanim"—which he proclaims out loud; officially summoning the Kohanim to discharge their priestly duty. The chazzan then continues, "am kedoshecha ka'amur" ("Your holy [priestly] nation, as it is said...").
At this point, the Kohanim incant a blessing, thanking G d for "sanctifying us with Aharon's sanctity and commanding us to bless His nation Israel with love."
The Kohanim repeat after the chazzan word-for-word. The Kohanim must chant the words of the Birkat Kohanim in a loud voice—but not a shout. It is traditional in many communities for the Kohanim to precede each word with a short melody. The Kohanim must wait for the chazzan to completely conclude saying a word before repeating it.
After the conclusion of the Birkat Kohanim, the Kohanim remain facing the congregation until the chazzan begins the Sim Shalom blessing. At this point they turn around – clockwise again – and only when they are once again facing the Ark may they bring down their outstretched hands. At the conclusion they then (put on their shoes) and file back to their places.
Congregants then said the Shacharit morning services prayer at 8:45 a.m.; the first Blessing was at 9:30 a.m.; the Mussaf prayer was at 10:00 a.m.; and the second blessing, at 10:30 a.m.
The ceremony then included welcoming words from both Chief Rabbis Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau.
Border Police, undercover units and special patrol units were mobilized throughout the Old City and Jerusalem to prevent any terrorist attacks during the large scale event, as was reported by The Jerusalem Post.
The Tazpit News Service reported that hundreds of religious Jews continued their visits to the Temple Mount on Monday as well despite explicit threats made by Jordan the same morning over the issue. Five Jews were removed from the site for violating the strict rules enforced, including the Rabbi of the Technion (Israel Institute of Technology), after 13 others were similarly removed on Sunday.
The Jordanian government issued a harsh statement warning Israel of “serious consequences” to what it described as “the invasion of settler groups and Israeli occupying forces in the Al-Aqsa mosque.”
“Israel’s offenses against worshipers on the holy site are a violation of international laws and conventions and could have dangerous consequences,” threatened Jordanian government spokesman Mohammad Al Momani in a statement to Jordanian media.
Al Momani demanded that “Israeli occupation authorities immediately stop such moves and deny entry to settlers and Israeli forces to the yards of the holy shrine and allow Palestinian worshipers to enter the mosque.”
Non-Muslims are only allowed to enter the contested compound during specific hours and from one gate only, even though the site is holy to both Jews and Muslims. Religious Jews have additional restrictions. They are divided into small groups, are closely supervised by policemen and Jordanian Waqf members during their visit, and have their path and walking pace dictated by the Israel Police. The restrictions include the prohibition of praying or the appearance of praying, bowing, singing, drinking water from fountains, or walking along a path different from that of the group.
According to the police and to Temple Mount right groups, 204 Jews entered the Temple Mount compound during Monday visiting hours. According to Temple Mount rights groups, 78 of the Jews only entered for a very brief time before being escorted out by police forces. Approximately 20 more Jews were not allowed to enter the compound at all.
During the same hours, the police reported that 638 tourists visited the site. Muslims have relatively free access to the site and Muslim visitors are not counted by the police.
“It is a shame and a tragedy that Jews have no freedom of religion and worship on their most sacred site,” Joshua Rabinovich, a Temple Mount visitor, told Tazpit Press Service (TPS).
Meanwhile in the adjacent Jewish holy site, the Western Wall, a group of women associated with the Women of the Wall organization, conducted a first-of-its-kind female priestly blessing ceremony for Passover, despite opposition from the attorney general and Orthodox criticism.
The blessing ceremony was conducted in a small and segregated segment of the Western Wall allocated for egalitarian use and took place without any incidents, despite criticism and loud objections by Orthodox Jews who believe women should not be allowed to conduct a priestly blessing ceremony.
While Israel’s attorney general indeed issued a stern opinion against conducting a female priestly blessing, the women were bolstered by an Israeli Supreme Court decision allowing them freedom of worship to a certain extent.
In the Church of Holy Sepulcher, also located in Jerusalem’s Old City, the Christian Orthodox Palm Sunday parade was conducted under police protection and ran smoothly.
Also on Monday, thousands flocked to the holy city of Hevron for the annual Chol Hamoed (intermediate days) Passover celebrations.
The event featured performances by leading Israeli artists, as pilgrims to the City of the Forefathers take the opportunity to pray at the Cave of the Patriarchs (Mearat Hamachpela) - one of the holiest sites in Judaism and the burial place of the Jewish Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs.
Speakers included Agriculture Minister MK Uri Ariel (Jewish Home); Justice Minister MK Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home); Deputy Defense Minister MK Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan (Jewish Home); MK Oren Hazan (Likud); MK Shuli Muallem-Refaeli (Jewish Home); MK Nurit Koren (Likud); MK Mickey Zohair (Likud); MK Nava Boker (Likud); MK Bezalel Smotrich (Jewish Home); MK Avraham Nagosa (Likud); Chief Rabbi David Lau; MK Nissan Slomianski (Jewish Home); Rabbi Haim Druckman; and Deputy Minister Ayoub Kara (Likud).
(TPS and INN contributed to this article)