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Pilgrimages in Judaism

It is not an exaggeration to say that Judaism was born from a pilgrimage –or more than one. Biblical tradition explains that Abraham, the patriarch, left his homeland in pursuit of a divine promise. His descendants, centuries later, crossed the Red Sea in a similar endeavor, as they longed to reach a land considered holy.

According to biblical narrative, the first temple in Jerusalem was built during the reign of Solomon and completed in 957 B.C. From then on, people made regular pilgrimages to offer sacrifices to God at his altars. In time, three pilgrimages, called Sheloshet Haregalim, were instituted for the three main festivals: Passover (Pesach), the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot) and the Feast of Tents (Sukkot).

On these three occasions, practically the entire people moved to the Holy City. In addition, every seven years there was a jubilee or sabbatical year in which the Hakhek – the assembly of the people of Israel – met.

When the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 A.D. after besieging and sacking Jerusalem, they also prohibited these traditions. In fact, pilgrimages ceased for 1800 years, and only resumed after 1967, following the Six-Day War. Today, Jews flock to the Western Wall, which is the only remnant of the ancient Temple.

Today, Jews from all over the world travel to Israel to celebrate a bar-mitzvah (coming of age for males) or a bat-mitzvah (for females). It is a very important trip, and an occasion for Jewish teenagers to get to know the Holy Land.

In addition, some Jewish traditions recommend making minor pilgrimages to the tombs of major rabbis, such as that of Simon Bar Yochai, in Mount Meron (Israel), or that of Rabbi Yeshaya Steiner in Bodrogkeresztúr (Hungary).

The German Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch wrote, in his exegesis to the Torah on the mitzva of the pilgrimage: “the journey leads to union, the pilgrim realizes the immensity to which he belongs, being an important piece of a much greater whole”.

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