Myth and Ritual in the Halakhot concerning Jerusalem

Meir Bar-Ilan

The aim of this paper is to point out the significance of the school of 'Myth and Ritual' in some of the rabbinic rules related to Jerusalem. Usually, legends about Jerusalem have been treated separately from rules related to Jerusalem, though here the relationship between Halakha and a mythic legend is stressed.

It is well known that Jews in Antiquity believed that Jerusalem is the center of the world, the omphalos, an idea mentioned in the Bible, but elaborated in the Pseudepigrapha and Rabbinic later sources. So far, there has been no indication of Rabbinic ritual parallel to this myth, and consequently the Sitz im Leben of this myth has never been analyzed.

Careful reading of the Halakhot of Ma'aser Sheni, Net'a Rebai, Pesah Sheni, and slaughtering cattle reveals the ties between the myth and the ritual. According to the Rabbinic Halakha on the one hand, and sectarian Halakha (Qumaran and Karaites), on the other hand, it is evident that these Halakhot were dependent on the distance from Jerusalem. That is, according to different rules the distance of a man from Jerusalem established the way he should practice (or should not), these Halakhot. The dependence of the Halakhot on the distance from Jerusalem, measured by a one-day journey from Jerusalem, two days, or three days, and marking them with circles on the map of the Land of Israel reflects the belief in the centrality of Jerusalem in the land (and naturally in the world), and shows the historical reality behind the myth.

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last updated: October 28, 1996