Raiders of the Lost Ark
April 5, 2004
The firemen manning the two fire trucks dispatched to the Western Wall on July 28, 1981 were still wondering what they were supposed to do there when they were suddenly told to return to the station. Yehuda Meir Getz, the rabbi of the Western Wall, had ordered the fire trucks and was also the one that hastily canceled the order after he discovered that all the firemen on the way to the Western Wall were Arabs. He feared that his plans - to dig under the foundations of the Dome of the Rock in order to find the site of the Holy of Holies, and the place where the Temple artifacts had been concealed - would be discovered too soon.
The firemen had been assigned a secondary role in the project: to pump out hundreds of cubic meters of muddy water from the huge tunnel, chiseled eastward. Getz, along with workers from the Religious Affairs Ministry, had cleared the opening secretly during work aimed at uncovering the full length of the Western Wall.
Rabbi Getz managed to keep the secret for only a few weeks. A violent confrontation broke out in the tunnel, which according to the Western Wall rabbi's calculations, led to Ein Itam: the spring through which impure priests went to immerse themselves on their way from Beit Hamoked on the Temple Mount outside the walls. The Muslims discovered the breach and dozens of them slid down through openings in the Temple Mount area to the tunnel located near the Western Wall plaza. Getz and the yeshiva students who were alerted to the site rushed to block the way of members of the Waqf (Muslim trust) with their bodies. At the end of a turbulent day, with the Temple Mount at the epicenter of international attention, then prime minister Menachem Begin, minister of police Yosef Burg and police commissioner Shlomo Ivstan ordered that the opening that had been made in the wall on the eastern side be resealed.
That was the only time since 1967 that governmental officials had tried to tunnel eastward underneath the Temple Mount. At the time, it was officially announced that the huge tunnel under the structure of the Dome of the Rock had been discovered by chance during preparation of a niche for a holy ark at the Western Wall. Only years later did two members of the committee appointed by the government to investigate the affair disclose that the story about the niche for a holy ark was merely a cover-up for the real story.
Archaeologist Meir Ben Dov and the coordinator of the ministerial committee for Jerusalem affairs, Ephraim Shilo, discovered that the tunnel had been opened deliberately, but in order to prevent public relations damage to the state, this essential finding was left out of the final conclusions of the report they authored. Years later, Rabbi Getz explained that he had been motivated by an intense desire to find the lost Temple artifacts, first and foremost the Ark of the Covenant.
The book about Getz, who was involved extensively in kabbala and for whom the Western Wall tunnels were a second home, is being published almost eight years after his death. In the volume, which was commissioned by the family, Getz is described as he was: an enterprising man of many talents, a philanthropist (who gave charity in secret), a man with a spiritual approach to life, an army officer and a mystic both in action and dress - with a black robe and white headdress, a prayer book and Bible in his pocket and pistol on his hip. He was among the first to settle in the renewed Jewish Quarter after the Six-Day War. Of his 11 children, most live in Judea and Samaria. One son, Yair, was killed in Samaria in the mid-1980s when the car he was driving was hit by a truck driven by an Arab. Getz was convinced that he had been murdered for nationalistic reasons. Another son, Avner, was killed in the battle for the Old City in the Six-Day War.
Volberstein reveals extensive excerpts from Getz's diaries, just a small proportion of which had been made public before. She presents numerous testimonies, such as that of Naftali Kidron, formerly an engineer in the Religious Affairs Ministry, according to which the source of the rabbi's almost total devotion to the project to uncover the Western Wall was his intense desire to find the Temple artifacts.
Getz, who served for many years as rabbi of the Western Wall on behalf of the Religious Affairs Ministry, clung ardently to his plans to find the Temple artifacts, refusing to relinquish his program even after the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, advised him to stop. The Lubavitcher Rebbe warned Getz that anyone who found the Temple artifacts was placing his life in danger, although he did make it clear that finding the artifacts used in the Temple would bring Jewish redemption closer. Rabbi Getz, writes Volberstein, "decided to be the atonement for the Jewish people, to search for the Temple artifacts and to do whatever he could to speed up the redemption. However, he was waiting for the right moment to open the tunnels in the easterly direction."
One of the most fascinating testimonies in the book is that of Eitan. "As the excavation of the tunnels progressed," says Eitan, "I met with Rabbi Getz almost daily. Together with him, I studied the structure of the Holy Temple and its dimensions. We drew conclusions as to the location of the Holy Temple and the Holy of Holies. When we arrived at the spot that according to our studies was supposed to be the gate through which the priests set out in order to immerse themselves, we assumed that if we made an opening in the wall to the east, we could move forward and eventually reach the Holy of Holies. But we waited for the right time to make the opening. We told no one about it because we preferred to keep the secret to ourselves, so that if - heaven forfend - it were discovered, the responsibility would not fall on the government or its leaders. That is why Begin, who knew about the excavations along the Western Wall, did not know about our plans to make the opening to the east."
Eitan reveals that the opening was planned at first for the floor under the level where the excavation to uncover the Western Wall was being carried out at the time, "and in this way, it was not supposed to be discovered at all. We planned to go in, see the tunnels and move ahead in the direction in which we estimated that the foundations of the Holy of Holies would be found. We were of the view that without heavy tools, using a delicate chisel, we could chip away at the soft limestone walls. We thought that in that way, we could advance quietly and secretly to discover the hiding place where the priests had concealed the Temple artifacts and arrive at the spot just under the Holy of Holies, the place where the Ark of the Covenant was hidden."
Eitan was not the only one privy to Getz's secret. A number of Religious Affairs Ministry officials and students of the rabbi were also aware of his plan. He consulted with Avraham Hanan, described in the book as a man "with supernatural powers" of insight. Many years ago, before the archaeologists had drawn their maps, Hanan marked on a map the route of a tunnel from the direction of the southern wall area, northwest to Solomon's Stables inside the Temple Mount. The excavators indeed discovered a tunnel along the route that Hanan had marked, but refrained from entering the Temple Mount. When Getz began to serve as rabbi of the Western Wall and the project reached a more advanced stage, Hanan designated the spot where in his view the Temple artifacts were buried. Getz was convinced that the Ark of the Covenant was buried in the same spot.
Catalyst for the Messiah
The Ark of the Covenant, which has not been seen since the destruction of the First Temple, was perhaps the most important of artifacts in the Temple, defined as the principal seat of the divine spirit. Some believe that it is still hidden in the tunnels excavated by King Solomon under the Holy of Holies. The tractate Shekalim of the Mishna states: "There once was a priest (in the time of the Second Temple) who while working in the Temple noticed that the part of the floor was different from other parts (and realized that at that spot there must be an entrance to a subterranean passage). He told another priest, but barely had he finished speaking before his soul expired, and it was clearly known that that was where the Ark was hidden."
Jewish sources say that the Ark will be discovered a short time before the coming of the Messiah. Nachmanides wrote that the Ark would be discovered "during the construction of the Temple or in future wars before the coming of the Messiah king." Rabbi Getz also believed that finding the Ark and/or Temple artifacts would serve as a catalyst for the coming of the Messiah. At first, he sought only to find the place at which the altar had stood, thousands of years ago.
The rabbi had two signs for the location of the site of the altar. The first was that the altar had been placed on level ground. However, the Temple Mount is made up of numerous tunnels, one atop another. If level ground, different from the rest of the surrounding ground, could be found, it would serve as proof of the site of the altar. The second sign was that under the place of the altar, where the sacrifices were brought in the time of the Temple, the floor was made of a mixture of zinc and plaster.
"If even a speck of zinc is found," stated the rabbi, "we will know where the altar stood and that will advance us considerably."
In July of 1981, that small niche for a Holy Ark was carved into the wall in the extension of the Western Wall, opposite the spot where Rabbi Getz believed the Holy of Holies was located. Immediately after the excavations began, an opening was created and the huge eastward tunnel carved into the rock under the Temple Mount was discovered. Its dimensions were impressive - 28 meters long and six meters wide. The floor of the tunnel was covered with a great deal of water and mud. "I immediately approached the place and I was seized by an enormous excitement. For a long time I sat, unable to move, with burning tears pouring down my cheeks. I finally gathered up strength and entered. I sat on the steps and said Tikkun Hatzot [midnight prayers] as is our custom."
The first people brought in on the secret were the then director-general of the Religious Affairs Ministry, Gedalia Schreiber, and the two chief rabbis, Shlomo Goren and Ovadia Yosef. Goren was excited by the discovery as was Getz. He viewed the huge tunnels as a primary means to locate the precise location of the Holy of Holies, the area of the Holy Temple to which all but the High Priest on the Day of Atonement were forbidden entry, on pain of death.
Agreement on the matter would decide once and for all in the dispute among the rabbinical authorities concerning this major issue. It would also make it possible to define for the general public the boundaries of the area where one could be permitted to enter the Temple Mount, thus abolishing the sweeping prohibition imposed by most authorities on halakha (Jewish religious law) on Jews entering any part of the Temple Mount. Relaxing the prohibition might create yet another and perhaps even more complex problem in the relations between religion and state: All Israeli governments have prohibited Jews from praying on the Temple Mount (as opposed to visiting it). Relaxing the halakhic prohibition on entry to the Temple Mount would considerably widen the circle of those seeking to pray there.
The floor of the tunnel was covered with mud and water, which were removed by hand. The circle of those privy to the secret grew. Among them was Israel Radio reporter Moti Eden who, says Volberstein, participated in the work of uncovering the tunnel. "At night, after my work at the radio station, I came to the tunnel and using hoes and wheelbarrows, helped with the difficult work of cleaning out the tunnel," recalls Eden, today Channel One's reporter in the north.
Seven weeks after the discovery of the tunnel, news about it was broadcast on Israel Radio. Reporters from all over the world streamed to the site. In late August, on a Friday night, Arabs brought water hoses and very powerful lighting into the tunnel through one of the openings in the floor of the Temple Mount. Getz, who feared the entry of Arabs into the tunnel and the Western Wall plaza, ordered the opening that had been made be boarded up. But just a few hours later, Muslims reentered the tunnel.
Getz was immediately alerted to come to the site from his home in the Jewish Quarter. His wife called students from the Ateret Cohanim yeshiva to come and ran after him. Seeing her husband standing almost all alone facing a group of Arabs holding tools, sticks and hoes, she ran back to the plaza where the worshipers were praying and cried, "Hurry! The rabbi is in mortal danger!"
The story ends with the political echelons ordering the opening to the tunnel sealed with reinforced concrete. Rabbi Getz wrote in his diary: "I will now retire from the project with a bitter taste in my mouth. I have never felt the humiliation of Judaism that I felt today in our own sovereign country. I pray that this is the end of the exile ... The media is going wild and self-hatred is rife. However, I must refrain from revealing secrets even to this diary and therefore I will not react or respond to those that condemn us."
On the evening of September 3, 1981, Getz added in his diary, "I felt during the Tikkun Hatzot prayers closer to the prayers of my forefathers when they saw the flames arising from the house of our Lord at the time of its destruction with their own eyes. The sound of the blows, of the Arabs inside the tunnel. Their every shout pierces my wounded heart. With all intensity, the cry left my mouth, 'Gentiles have entered your sanctuary, defiled your Holy Temple, but I must remain strong and must not break down, for I must continue even if I am all alone.'"
In September 1995, three days after completing the construction of the Beit El yeshiva for the study of kabbala, Rabbi Getz passed away. In the Western Wall tunnels, there remains to this day the synagogue that he built, just opposite the spot where the Holy of Holies is assumed to be. Torah classes and prayers are still held there.
Getz was a personal friend of numerous public figures, among them Brigadier General (res.) Yossi Ben Hanan and Ma'aleh Adumim Mayor Benny Kashriel. He was careful not to go up on the Temple Mount, but his formal title, "rabbi of the Western Wall and the Temple Mount," testified to his heart's burning quest.