Ascent to Jerusalem for the Three Festivals (Aliyah L’Regel)

When the Temple stood, all males had to appear before the Lord for the three festivals (Exodus 23:14-17, 34:23-24, Deuteronomy 16:16). At what age did they have to come – at 13? 30? Also, did they have to come from the Diaspora? It seems unrealistic in those times that people who lived in Egypt or Babylonia would be able to make such a long trip three times every year. Lastly, was it realistic for so many people to converge on Jerusalem at once?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The obligation applied to all males from the age of 13 and up – which is the age of Bar Mitzvah – when a young man becomes obligated in the commandments. Exceptions were people who were elderly or unwell – or otherwise unable to make the trip (Mishna Hagigah 1:1), as well as a ritually-impure person and the uncircumcised. Another possible exception was someone who did not own land (see Tosafot, Pesachim 3b s.v. “mai’alyah”). There was also an obligation for a father to bring his boys from the age that they could walk holding their father’s hand (Mishna there).

This mitzvah extended to all males who lived in the Holy Land, seemingly as far away as the Euphrates (see Mishna Ta’anit 1:3). Thus, for some it was a long trip to Jerusalem and back, but it was not open-ended. Many Jews lived in Babylonia and Egypt during the Second Temple. Many of them did in fact come, but they were not obligated to do so. The Sages estimated that the farthest a person was obligated to travel was a 15-day journey each way (Mishna there). Needless to say, this will be greatly reduced God willing when the Third Temple stands.

The obligation was not simply to appear in the Temple but to bring a special offering – “the burnt offering of the seeing” (see Exodus 23:15: “they shall not appear before Me emptyhanded,” as well as Deut. 16:16-17).There was also a mitzvah (on men and women) to joyously celebrate the holiday, in part by bringing peace offerings which were consumed in Jerusalem. (This consisted of at least one “holiday peace offering” (based on Exodus 23:14), as well as other peace offerings (“joyous peace offerings,”) according to the needs of the family (Deut. 16:14, 27:7).) Thus, almost the entire nation converged on Jerusalem for the three festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. There was lastly an obligation to stay in Jerusalem the night after the first day of the holiday (see Deut. 16:7, Talmud Rosh Hashanah 5a).

In terms of the logistics of these obligations, it was basically a miracle that practically the entire nation was able to arrive in Jerusalem and stay there for the holiday. The Mishna states that one of the regularly-occurring miracles in Temple times was that no person was ever unable to find lodging in Jerusalem (Pirkei Avos 5:5). And the Mishna there similarly states: “They would stand [in the Temple courtyard] crowded together, yet prostrated themselves in ample space.”

No doubt when this mitzvah returns in the Third Temple, we will witness similar miracles. Those of us who attended the funeral of R. Ovadia Yosef (2013), attended by some 850,000 people (over 10% of the population), will remember that transportation was brought to a halt well outside the city, and people had to trek up the final ascent to Jerusalem on foot. One can only imagine the tremendous logistical challenge the future holiday pilgrimages will pose.

I heard one rabbi comment that today the major highway entering Jerusalem (Route 1) has been widened to four lanes plus a shoulder in each direction. This means we will have ten lanes entering the city for the holidays – as everyone will be coming and no one leaving!

See also this past response about the obligation to visit Jerusalem after the Temple’s destruction – as well as another miracle which occurred in conjunction with the pilgrimage.

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