It is quite a complicated subject but below are the highlights:
What’s the Truth About…Har HaBayit? By Ari Z. Zivotofsky
(His caveat: This article is not taking a position on the propriety of ascending Har HaBayit nowadays. If, however, one chooses to ascend, he must be careful to restrict himself to certain areas and to immerse properly in a mikvah prior to going. Furthermore, one must adhere to the laws relating to mora mikdash, showing awe and reverence for the Beit Hamikdash, and should ascend under the guidance of an expert in the topic.)
MISCONCEPTION: Many religious Jews do not visit Har HaBayit (the Temple Mount) today. This is because we are all presumed to be in a state of tumat met (ritual impurity due to “contact” with the dead), and a tamei met is prohibited from ascending Har HaBayit. (Since the removal of tumat met requires the use of the ashes of a parah adumah, which are currently not available, every Jew is presumed to be in this state of impurity.)
FACT: Although individuals with certain forms of ritual impurities are barred from all of Har HaBayit, a tamei met may enter the peripheral areas of Har HaBayit surrounding the central holier region that included the Temple compound. Thus, although we currently lack the means to remove tumat met, this is not really a deterrent for ascending Har HaBayit. Those who refrain from ascending do so because of other halachic or political concerns or because of archeological uncertainties.1
BACKGROUND: Halachah recognizes different levels of kedushah (holiness) that relate to both time and place...A similar hierarchy [to the Shabbat example] is relevant to the sanctity pertaining to space.
The sanctified areas in Jerusalem correspond to the Israelite desert encampment (Tosefta, Keilim 1:10; Sifri, Naso 11; Rambam, Beit Habechirah 7:11; see Aruch Hashulchan Ha’atid, Beit Hamikdash 14:17, 36:7). Three concentric levels of sanctity existed in the encampment: the innermost area called Machaneh Shechinah, the Divine Camp that contained the mishkan (Tabernacle); Machaneh Leviyah, the encampment of the Levites that surrounded Machaneh Shechinah, and Machaneh Yisrael, an area beyond Machaneh Leviyah where the rest of the Jews encamped. When the Jews settled the Land of Israel these “camps” were represented by the following sanctified areas: the Azarah (Temple Courtyard), which started at Sha’ar Nikanor (the Nikanor Gate) and included the Beit Hamikdash building and the altar (Machaneh Shechinah); Har HaBayit (Machaneh Leviyah) and the rest of Jerusalem (Machaneh Yisrael)...
A person experiencing one of these states of tumah who ascends Har HaBayit does not incur the penalty of karet but is guilty of violating a negative prohibition, for which he should receive lashes (Rambam, Biat Mikdash 3:8). In order to remove these types of tumah, one must wait a requisite period of time, immerse in a mikvah and wait for the sun to set.9 During the period between immersion and sunset the individual has the status of a tvul yom, and is permitted on Har HaBayit but can go no further than the Ezrat Nashim (Women’s Courtyard) (Rambam, Biat Mikdash 3:5-6 and Beit Habechirah 7:17).10
In summary, the generally accepted halachot are as follows: a tamei met may ascend Har HaBayit, but may only proceed as far as the Cheil. Those in a state of tumah hayotzei megufo are barred from the entire Har HaBayit; once such a person becomes a tvul yom, he is permitted on most of Har HaBayit.
All of the above regulations were in effect during the time of the Temple. The question is, Are they applicable today?...
Even though the mikdash is today destroyed due to our sins, one is obligated in its reverence just as when it was standing. One should not enter except where he is permitted, and should not sit in the Azarah and not act with levity opposite the Eastern Gate. … Even though it is destroyed it still possesses its holiness (Beit Habechirah 7:7).
Opposing Rambam, Ra’avad (Beit Habechirah 6:14) opines that since the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed, the original sanctity of the area is no longer in effect and therefore the punishment of karet no longer applies. Some understand Ra’avad as disagreeing with Rambam only with respect to the actual punishment of karet; according to this reading, he concurs with Rambam in that the restrictions pertaining to Har HaBayit still stand—or at the very least, he is uncertain as to whether these restrictions still apply and therefore does not permit entry ab initio. Others are of the opinion that Ra’avad permits free entry to all of Har HaBayit.14
Today, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and many rabbis forbid Jews from ascending Har HaBayit, and thus no shul or other Jewish structure is found there. Some rabbis do permit entry (the number of religious Jews who visit is increasing, but is still quite small). But, seemingly, Jews did not always avoid the area.15 It is reported that with the Muslim conquest in 638 CE, the Jews were permitted to build a shul and beit midrash on Har HaBayit. Ben-Zion Dinburg,16 a former Israeli minister of education, marshals numerous obscure sources to demonstrate that a shul existed on Har HaBayit between the seventh and eleventh centuries. Rabbi Shlomo Goren (Sefer Har HaBayit , chap. 26) finds evidence of a Jewish presence on Har HaBayit even before the Muslim conquest. Meiri (1249-1315; Shavuot 16a) wrote that he heard that in his time there was a widespread custom to ascend Har HaBayit. The Radvaz (1479-1573; 2:691) assumed that the rock in the Dome of the Rock is where the aron kodesh stood and he calculated how far one must be from that point; he then permitted entry to the rest of Har HaBayit. Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tuketchinsky (d. 1956), writing pre-Six-Day War (Ir Hakodesh Vehamikdash, sec. 5, pp. 80-81), observes that in the time of the Beit Hamikdash there were shuls on Har HaBayit. Furthermore, he says that in our pre-Messianic period, when we get permission to build (and the ability to do so), there is plenty of available space on Har HaBayit on which a shul can be built...the remains of numerous Second Temple period mikvaot have been found in close proximity to Har HaBayit. Although their precise purpose is unclear, it has been reasonably suggested17 that they were used by the hordes of people who were in a state of tumat met and tumah hayotzei megufo but who nevertheless wanted to ascend to the areas of Har HaBayit accessible to one with the status of a tvul yom.
Those religious Jews who ascend Har HaBayit today abide by the ruling of Rambam, who states that entering the areas where the Azarah and the Beit Hamikdash itself stood still incurs the punishment of karet.18 However, there is one important aspect of this discussion that has not yet been addressed: the exact location of the historical Har HaBayit (the area referred to as Har HaBayit during the time of the Beit Hamikdash). Where exactly was the historical Har HaBayit located?19 The mishnah in Middot (2:1) states that Har HaBayit was 500 by 500 amot, an area of approximately 62,500 square meters. (An amah is roughly a half-meter.) Today the area referred to as Har HaBayit is a rectangle that is twice as long north-south as it is east-west, covering an area of about 145,500 square meters. Herod had built additions to Har HaBayit in the north and south, creating “spectator” sections for non-Jews. Thus, those who permit entry to the area suggest there are regions in the south (near the El-Aqsa mosque) and north that were clearly added by Herod. If this is correct, then anyone can enter those areas, even one who has not gone to a mikvah. Those who object to ascending Har HaBayit at all assert that there is no way to know with certainty—and archeological evidence can never definitively determine—the precise location of the Beit Hamikdash. Thus, even though a tamei met may technically ascend Har HaBayit, because of the severe punishment (karet) he would face were he to mistakenly enter the Azarah, one should avoid the entire area.20 Therefore some authorities (such as Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef) state that one should not ascend Har HaBayit because we are in a state of tumat met; these authorities agree that a tamei met is not barred from the peripheral areas of Har HaBayit, but they maintain that when one is in a state of tumat met, he should avoid all of Har HaBayit lest he stray into forbidden areas.
Those who rule permissively note that aside from the Herodian additions, there are many areas on Har HaBayit that a tvul yom may enter. The forbidden zone (where a tamei met is not permitted to enter) is a rectangle-shaped area of about 357 amot east-west by 165 amot north-south. Currently, Har HaBayit’s rectangular- shaped compound measures about 500 amot east-west and close to 1,000 amot north-south, thus providing a large margin of error when calculating where one may go.
Some authorities suggest totally avoiding the entire Har HaBayit so as not to potentially violate a different commandment—that of mora mikdash, showing proper awe and reverence for the Beit Hamikdash (Vayikra 19:30; Rambam, Beit Habechirah 7:1-7). This includes (Berachot 54a, 62b; Yevamot 6a-b) not entering Har HaBayit while wearing leather shoes or with a walking stick or purse. Also, one may not spit, have dust on one’s feet, use Har HaBayit as a shortcut or engage in idle chatter while there (Aruch Hashulchan Ha’atid, Hilchot Beit Hamikdash 14: 1-14). Rambam also adds that mora mikdash bars even a ritually pure person from entering the area for no purpose.
In recent years, the question regarding the advisability of ascending Har HaBayit under present circumstances has been addressed in great detail by many leading rabbis. Those who forbid entering the area do so because of the fear of violating the laws pertaining to its sanctity. Advocates insist on extreme caution and intense reverence, but see a value in establishing a connection between the Jewish people and the awesome holiness of Judaism’s most sanctified site. May we be zocheh to the day when there will be a rebuilt Beit Hamikdash on Har HaBayit and all our questions will be answered by those who sit in the Lishkat Hagazit (the Office of Hewn Stone, where the Sanhedrin sat).
This post is for information purposes and the article should be read in its entirety.
I have been ascending the Temple Mount since 1970 in accordance with a specific p'sak by Rav David Chelouche z"l and from shiurim with Rav Shlomo Goren z"l in addition to my own studies and research (see here, and here, for example). So I am glad to be able to upload the above.
See a 2002 "Jewish Action" article by my friend Rabbi Mordechai Rabinovitchץ
Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the Islamic Movement's northern branch, spoke Wednesday afternoon in front of Muslim students at Haifa University and warned them that Benjamin Netanyahu was intending on completing his plan to gain control of the Temple Mount, which he said the prime minister had tried to do during his first tenure...Salah claimed that the government continued constantly to dig tunnels under the Temple Mount and the al-Aqsa Mosque, and that Netanyahu was planning to complete during his current term what he did not complete during his first one – "to dig additional tunnels under al-Aqsa and rebuild the Temple on the Temple Mount."