The Chatam Sofer’s Profound Analysis On The Temple Mount – The Highest Place On Earth Physically And Spiritually

What location reigns as the pinnacle of the Earth’s Altitudes? Should we go to the Himalayas for a taste of the world’s summit, or does the zenith of our planet is the Temple Mount?

Ok, my readers will already know that this is not really a serious question.

But the Gemara in Kiddushin (69a) appears to present a straightforward assertion: Eretz Yisrael is elevated above all other lands, with the Beit Hamikdash standing as its pinnacle. This conclusion is drawn from verses such as Yirmiyahu 23:7, which speaks of Hashem bringing the Jews/Hebrews up from the Land of Egypt, and Devarim 17:8, instructing one to rise up and go to the place Hashem will choose in the case of an unresolved Halacha question (as similarly deduced by the Sifri on this verse).

However, this Gemara raises puzzling questions.

Yerushalayim (Jerusalem), though a hilly city, is roughly 2,500 feet above sea level—a significant elevation but considerably lower than the towering Mount Everest, which reaches about 29,000 feet. Visitors to the Kotel (Western Wall) might also observe that ascending to the rest of the Old City from there involves a strenuous climb up a substantial staircase.

The highest point on Har Habayit (Temple Mount) is approximately 2,430 feet, and yet, upon reaching Damascus Gate, the elevation rises to 2,550 feet—120 feet higher. Addressing these challenges, the Chatam Sofer, in his Responsa II, Y.D. 234, posed additional questions that led him to a radically different interpretation of the aforementioned Chazal.

Not really the Temple Mount, but a mount.

In the labyrinth of ancient texts, the Chatam Sofer embarks on a linguistic journey, scrutinizing the Sifri’s assertion: “From here [we see] that the Beit Hamikdash is higher than all of Eretz Yisrael.”

Yet, the words ‘from here’ spark a curious dilemma for the Chatam Sofer. Why, he wonders, do we need verses to declare one place higher than another when such measurements seem tangible? And doesn’t the world map, with its towering peaks, challenge this assertion?

Adding another layer to the puzzle, the Chatam Sofer draws attention to Psalms 133:3, where the oil flowing from Aharon’s head is likened to “the dew of Chermon that descends on the mountains of Tziyon.” Here, the Chatam Sofer contends that Yerushalayim cannot claim the pinnacle of Eretz Yisrael, as Mount Chermon stands as a celestial witness to a different narrative.

Undeterred, the Chatam Sofer, based on Kabbalah, unravels a profound truth — the elevation of Eretz Yisrael and Yerushalayim transcends mere altitudes; it’s rooted in housing the foundation stone of the world. Drawing on Chazal’s wisdom from Yoma 54b, he paints a cosmic picture: “The Holy One threw a stone into the sea, and from there the world was founded. Why is it called Even Shtiya? Because the world was founded (nishtat) from it.”

Imagine, he beckons, a round globe before us, its very essence stemming from a singular point. Regardless of the direction, it’s not just a rise in stature but a tangible elevation, akin to standing at a focal point where the horizon bends to the viewer’s gaze.

The Sifri’s puzzle deepens as it grapples with the command, “You shall get up and go up.” Could a beit din from Mount Chermon pose a higher challenge? Here, the Sifri crafts an answer: the Beit Hamikdash is not elevated merely above sea level but stands as the paramount foundation stone of the world.

In harmony with the Chatam Sofer, the Maharal offers a similar melody. To him, Eretz Yisrael and the Beit Hamikdash aren’t just geographic; they transcend, perched atop the globe due to their sanctity. “Eretz Yisrael is holier than all lands, and the Beit Hamikdash is holier than all Eretz Yisrael,” he declares, a hierarchy where sanctity takes precedence over physical altitude.

In the eloquence of these sages, the landscapes of Eretz Yisrael unfold not in physical heights but in spiritual crescendos, where the sacred foundation echoes louder than the world’s geographical intricacies.

The Chatam Sofer’s Reasoning on the Temple Mount

First, the Chatam Sofer analyzes the wording of the Sifri that says, “From here [we see] that the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple) is higher than all of Eretz Yisrael.” The words ‘from here’ seem difficult, the Chatam Sofer queries, as one could measure for oneself which places are higher than elsewhere. Why do we need verses to tell us that one place is higher than another place?

In addition, he asks, it is clear from world maps that there are higher places on our planet. The Chatam Sofer also proves that Yerushalayim is not the highest point in Eretz Yisrael from the verse of Tehillim (133:3) that compares the oil flowing from Aharon’s head onto his beard to “the dew of Chermon that descends on the mountains of Tziyon.” Rashi explains that just as dew flows from Mount Chermon to the lower mountains of Tziyon, so oil flows down from Aharon’s head to his beard. Because of these three difficulties, the Chatam Sofer explains that the elevation of Eretz Yisrael and Yerushalayim stems primarily from the fact that they house the foundation stone of the world.

As Chazal (Yuma 54b) say, “The Holy One threw a stone into the sea and from there the world was founded. Why is it called Even Shesiya? Because the world was founded (nishtas) from it.” “Consider,” he explains. “What would happen if we had a round globe before us and knew that the globe was founded from one place [on its surface] and spread from there and became round, and all mouths turn to there and derive their sustenance from there and it is the true center of that globe.

Without doubt, from whatever direction one turned to it would be an elevation. Not only an elevation in terms of the status and greatness of the place, but an actual elevation like someone standing at his location and seeing that the horizon round him is lower and deeper..”

The Chatam Sofer goes on to explain that the Sifri was bothered by the verse, “You shall get up and go up,” since isn’t it possible that a beit din might come from the mountain of Chermon, which is even higher? To answer this question, the Sifri deduced that the Beit Hamikdash is higher than all of Eretz Yisrael, not because of its height above sea level, but because of its importance as the world’s foundation stone.

The Maharal (Aggados) offers an explanation very similar to that of the Chatam Sofer. He writes that Eretz Yisrael and the Beit Hamikdash are regarded as lying on top of the globe due to their superior sanctity: “This is because Eretz Yisrael is holier than all the lands and the Beit Hamikdash is holier than all Eretz Yisrael. A holy item is elevated and a physical item is lowly.

Therefore, even if you say that the whole world is like a globe and the globe is equal [in height] from every side, Eretz Yisrael is regarded as high. That is, you should consider Eretz Yisrael as the top of the globe and thus Eretz Yisrael is on the top. “Therefore it says that someone going to Eretz Yisrael is going up, and he is considered as going up even more when he goes to the Beit Hamikdash….”

The objection to that

While the profound insights of the Chatam Sofer and the Maharal shed light on the spiritual heights of Eretz Yisrael and Yerushalayim, an intriguing conundrum lingers concerning the Makom Hamikdash. Rav Ishtori Haparchi, in his groundbreaking work Kaftor Vaferach (ch. 41), the inaugural Hebrew geographical sefer on Eretz Yisrael, raises questions that seem to elude the aforementioned explanations.

According to Kaftor Vaferach, the Makom Hamikdash is not just metaphorically but visibly higher than the rest of Yerushalayim. Citing sources like Pirkei d’Chasidei (Taanis 23a) and Masseches Chagiga (chapter 1, 2a), which speak of Yerushalayim being below Har Hamoriah, the Kaftor Vaferach challenges the spiritual elevation theory. If the Beit Hamikdash were merely higher due to sanctity, how could Yerushalayim be submerged while the Temple Mount remained dry?

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In response, the Kaftor Vaferach weaves a tale of changing times: the Makom Hamikdash was rebuilt over its ruins, concealing ancient roofs beneath new structures. Rav Dovid ben Zimra, known as the Radbaz, delves further into this notion in his Responsa (II 639), addressing the query of whether verses and ancient writings indeed attest to the physical and visible elevation of Temple Mount and the Mikdash over Yerushalayim.

The Kaftor Vaferach contends that the non-Jewish conquests, fueled by animosity, led to the digging of the Bayis’s foundations, eroding its floor. Rainwater, finding its way down Temple Mount, further altered the landscape. Non-Jewish kings, driven by destructive curiosity, dug to expose the Bayit’s foundations, impacting the elevation. Jerusalem’s tumultuous history, marked by destruction and reconstruction, contributed to a landscape of layered ruins. The Mishnah’s reference in Yuma about the stone named Shesiya and its modern counterpart under the Dome of the Rock becomes a poignant testament to this erosion.

Yet, amidst this historical metamorphosis, the Kaftor Vaferach offers a dual explanation for modern Yerushalayim’s ascent over Temple Mount: the lowering of Temple Mount and the elevation of Yerushalayim as it was built upon ruins. Buildings upon buildings, a testament to the city’s layered history, conceal the secrets of the past, rendering the heights of Yerushalayim an intricate tapestry of time and turmoil.

In the echoes of the Kaftor Vaferach’s narrative, the elevation of the Makom Hamikdash and the shifting landscapes of Yerushalayim emerge as a saga of erosion, conquests, and the indomitable spirit of a city built upon its own ruins.

The Burnt House

While the Kaftor Vaferach’s explanations weave a captivating narrative of Yerushalayim’s elevation over Temple Mount, delving deeper reveals complexities that beg further understanding.

Firstly, the notion of Temple Mount eroding to such an extent appears puzzling. King Herod’s artful construction of an artificial plateau for the renovated Beit Hamikdash raises questions about the veracity of the erosion claim. Moreover, the proof drawn from the Even Shtiya, believed by some to be beneath the Dome of the Rock, remains a point of contention among scholars.

The massive staircase leading from the Kotel’s Plateau to the Old City challenges the idea that the elevation is solely a result of post-Churban rubble. The presence of the “Burnt House” near the top of the staircase, accessible by a short flight of stairs, hints at a pre-Churban elevation of part of Yerushalayim over Temple Mount.

In the quest for understanding, a tentative suggestion emerges: just as the Midrash Tanchuma recounts how Temple Mount transformed into a mountain after Hashem’s Presence settled, perhaps its post-Churban sinking reflects a diminished sanctity. This interpretation implies a miraculous elevation awaiting Temple Mount in the anticipated Geulah Shleima (full redemption), akin to its rise after Avrohom’s legendary battle with the Satan.

The prophetic words of Yeshayahu Hanavi echo through the ages, envisioning a future where “the mountain of Hashem’s house will be established at the top of the mountains and raised above the hills. And all nations will flow to it” (Yeshayahu 2:2). In this dynamic vision, Yerushalayim’s landscape becomes a canvas awaiting the strokes of redemption, where the mysteries of Har Habayit and the city’s elevation unfold as chapters in a divine narrative.

May we merit to see the light of Geulah soon.

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Chaim Apsan

Chaim is a teacher and Kabbalah enthusiast. He loves helping Jews connect with true Torah teaching and enhancing their spiritual growth. With a focus on meditation, he guides individuals on transformative journeys of prayer, contemplation, and connection with Hashem. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and kids, and is committed to sharing the wisdom and power of Kabbalah in a genuine way.

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