Both the Holy Qur’an and the Holy Bible stress the religious importance of an annual pilgrimage to a sacred location (Hajj in Arabic, Hag in Hebrew). In Bible days the Hebrew word Hag was pronounced Haj, so the Biblical week long festival of Haj Sukkot is now (September 21-27, 2021) being celebrated by Jews worldwide.
The Qur’an states: “So keep the three Haj (Pilgrimage) days and seven fasts when you return.” (2:196) and the Torah states: Three times a year all your men are to appear before the God of Israel. (Exodus 34:23)
The first time Hag/Hajj is mentioned in the Torah is in that famous scene when Prophets: “Moses and Aaron went in and told Pharaoh; ‘Thus says the LORD God of Israel, Let my people go, that they may hold a feast for me in the wilderness.'” [Exodus 5:1] The feast must be a pilgrimage; or there is no need for Pharaoh to let the Jewish people go into the wilderness.
The verb translators render as “feast” is yakhuggū (יחגו) which is cognate to the Arabic “yuhajjū” (يُحَجّوا) so the verse should be rendered in this context as: “And afterward Moses and Aaron went in and told Pharaoh; ‘Thus says the LORD God of Israel, Let my people go, that they may hold a Hajj/pilgrimage feast for me in the wilderness.'”
Few Jews today realize that for more than 1.000 years, while Jerusalem’s First and Second Temple–Bait ul Muqaddas/Beit HaMiqdash stood, the week long Jewish festivals of Hag/Haj Sukkot and Hag/Haj HaMatzah were celebrated as a Hajj, a pilgrimage festival.
In the centuries after the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed; pilgrimage ceased. Today the overwhelming majority of Jews outside the Land of Israel live in Protestant countries where pilgrimage plays little or no role in religious life. Thus, it is very hard for most Jews to feel the tremendous spiritual uplift that can occur to pilgrims on the long path to, and amidst the mass tumult of, a uniquely holy and sacred place.
We can however see in the Muslim Hajj, some of the spiritual uplift that occurs when large numbers of people from all over the world travel to one holy place and join together in a traditional religious ceremony. Muslims in turn, can see some similarities, especially during Haj Sukkot, with the ancient Jewish practice of Haj ceremonies.
The Torah states, “Celebrate Haj Sukkot for seven days after harvesting the produce of your threshing floor and your winepress. Be joyful at your festival—you, your sons and daughters, male and female servants, Levites, foreigners, orphans and the widows who live in your towns.
“For seven days celebrate the pilgrimage festival to the Lord your God at the place the Lord will choose…Three times a year all your men must appear before the Lord your God at the place He chooses: at the Haj of Matzot, the Haj of Weeks, and the Haj of Sukkot. (Deuteronomy 16:13-16)
Haj Sukkot was chosen by Prophet Solomon as the best time to dedicate the First Temple in Jerusalem. (1Kings 8:2). Haj Sukkot was so important during the centuries when Solomon’s Temple stood that the holy week of Sukkot was often called simply “the Haj” (1 Kings 8:3; 8:65; 12:62; 2 Chronicles 5:3; 7:8) because of the large numbers of Jews who came up to the Temple in Jerusalem.
On each of the first six days of Haj Sukkot it was traditional to circle the Temple alter while reciting psalms of Prophet David. On the seventh day of Sukkot the custom was to circle the Temple alter seven times. As the Oral Torah says: “It was customary to make one procession around the altar on each day of Sukkot, and seven on the seventh day.” (Mishnah Sukkah 4:5).
Each of the seven circles done on the seventh day is done in honor of a prophet; Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David, all of whom both Jews and Muslims revere. Muslims will see some similarities and some differences between the Jewish Haj and the Islamic Hajj.
For example Islamic tradition urges one who goes on Hajj to remember his or her parents and other close relatives who have passed away with pious prayers; and make-up for them if they could not fulfill their obligations for hajj. And Jewish tradition has a special service on the last day of Haj Sukkot and Haj HaMatzot called Yizkor; to remember parents and other close relatives who have passed away with pious prayers.
The ritual slaughter of Qurbani (Korban in Hebrew) Halal/Kosher animals toward the end of all the ritual reenactments comes to teach everyone that: “Their flesh and their blood do not reach Allah, but the devotion from you reaches Him.” (Quran 22:37). This is the same basic understanding that the Hebrew Prophets and the Rabbis gave to the offerings in the Temple of Solomon. “Prophet Muhammad was once asked by his Companions: “O Prophet of Allah! What is this qurbani?” He replied, “It is the Sunnah of your father Ibrahim.” To that I say: Amen.
With the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, the pilgrimage aspect of the week long harvest festivals of Haj Sukkot and Hajj HaMatzot began a gradual decline in the spiritual consciousness of the Jewish People.
Most of the many thousands of Jews from foreign lands outside the Land of Israel; and the tens of thousands of Jews from all over the Land of Israel outside the city of Jerusalem; who used to came each year to celebrate the week of Haj Sukkot and Haj HaMatzot in Jerusalem at Bait ul-Muqaddas, the furthest sanctuary; ceased coming.
Two generations later, after a second major Jewish revolt (132-135 CE) in the land of Israel, the Romans rebuilt Jerusalem as a pagan city filled with idols, That stopped all Jews from coming to the ruined site of the Jerusalem Temple–Bait ul Muqaddas/Beit HaMiqdash.
But even centuries after the destruction of the Temple, and the end of pilgrimage, generations of Jews repeated wonderful tales about pilgrimage experiences in Jerusalem; and at the Holy Temple.
Crowded as Jerusalem was, there always seemed to be enough room to squeeze everyone in. Indeed, every year it seemed a continuing miracle that pregnant woman didn’t suffer a miscarriage, a rain shower never quenched the fire on the alter, the wind never blew smoke from the fire into the crowds of worshipers, and no one was ever bitten by a scorpion or a snake. Most amazing of all, no one complained, “It is difficult for me to find lodging in Jerusalem”. (Pirkai Avot 5:8)
Only a rare outside observer can experience even a small fraction of the spiritual feelings of those who belong to a pilgrimage tradition. One such observer, Mark Twain, wrote: “It is wonderful, the power of a faith that can make multitudes upon multitudes of old, weak, young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining.”
For Muslims, the Furthest Sanctuary is located in Jerusalem. “Glory to He Who carried His servant by night, from the Holy Sanctuary to the Furthest Sanctuary, the precincts of which We have blessed. so that We might show him some of Our signs. Surely He is the All-Hearing, the All-Seeing. (Qur’an 17:1) It is significant that the ruins of the Jerusalem Temple was the site of Prophet Muhammad’s ascension—miraj– up to the heavens.
One might say the destruction of the Furthest Sanctuary center of monotheistic pilgrimage in Jerusalem by the pagan Romans, was five and a half centuries afterward overcome by Prophet Muhammad’s ascension (miraj) up to the heavens, and the soon to be realized removal by Prophet Muhammad of all the 300 idols from the paganized Ka’ba in Makka. The Ka’ba of Abraham
The Prophet Zechariah envisions a future time when God helps all humanity to establish worldwide peace. All the nations in the world may then travel to Makka and Jerusalem to worship God. Then during Haj Sukkot, Jerusalem will welcome both Jews and non-Jews, even including those who were previously Israel’s enemies: “Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem, will go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, and to celebrate Haj Sukkot.” (Zechariah 14:16)
Just as the Ka’ba has always welcomed all Muslims from all the nations of the world, who answer the call: “Call upon the people for Hajj. They will come to you on their bare feet, or riding any weak camel, and they will come to you from every far desert. (Qur’an 22:27).
If we can live up to the ideal that religious pluralism is the will of God. we can help fulfill the 2700 year old vision of Prophet Isaiah: “In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt, and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel will join a three-party alliance with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing upon the heart. The LORD of Hosts will bless them saying, “Blessed be Egypt My people, Assyria My handiwork, and Israel My inheritance.”…(Isaiah 19:23-5)