The joyful rhythms of horns and drums are familiar sounds to those who walk the alleys of the Jewish quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City. They are the “heralds” accompanying the celebrations towards the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Bar Mitzvah, the passage into adulthood for Jews, 12 for boys, 13 for girls.
The musicians stop outside the prayer area in the holiest place for Judaism, at the foot of the Wailing Wall, the only remaining part of the Second Temple, destroyed by Titus in 70 AD.
In the time of Herod the Great, author of the most impressive extension of the Temple in Jerusalem, the main entrance was on the southern side of the wall, through the Huldah Gate. To see them up close today, one must enter the archaeological park, next to the Kotel and the footbridge leading to the Esplanade of the Mosques, which Jews still call the Temple Mount.
When the foundations of the Al Aqsa Mosque were built, the gate of Huldah was walled up. It consisted of a double and a triple entrance, of which the three arches can still be clearly seen. It was built by Herod the Great, in the first century AD, but was dedicated to the female prophet who in 600 BC foretold the destruction of Jerusalem to King Josiah.
“It is not a certain attribution”, explains Amirit Rosen, a rabbi in Jerusalem. “There are at least three etymologies by which the name of the gate has been interpreted. According to some, Huldah in Hebrew would mean ‘mole’ and would indicate the tunnels dug, in Herodian times, under the Mount to access the interior of the Temple area. According to others, the doors would be dedicated to the prophet Huldah (‘weasel’ or ‘world’ is the meaning of the name) at the place where she would have taught and where she would have been buried. In Judaism, there are seven women considered prophets, but only two are so defined in the Bible: Deborah and Huldah. Huldah appears twice, for a few verses: in the second book of Kings (22:14-20) and in the second book of Chronicles (34:22-28). She lives in the time of King Josiah, the king who fought idolatry and repaired the Temple. In addition, it is during the renovation work that a book of the law, probably Deuteronomy, is found. When the king hears its contents, he groans and tears his clothes as a sign of humiliation, because he realised that everything he has done so far to save his people is not enough: he needs an oracle to interpret that book. The prophetess Huldah is chosen, who announces God’s wrath upon the idolatrous people, a wrath that should have spared the devout king”. The first oracle comes true; the second does not.
“Several authoritative commentators have wondered why the king chose Huldah and not Jeremiah, his contemporary”, explains Rabbi Rosen. “One reason could be their common descent: they were relatives and so it would not have been an affront to Jeremiah, who might not even have been in town at the time. For others, however, King Josiah would have deliberately chosen a woman in order to have a, shall we say, softer prophecy. But it was not so”.
Not many details about Huldah are known from the Bible, other than the fact that she was married to Sallum, the Temple attendant, and that she lived with her husband in the “second quarter” of Jerusalem. Recent archaeological excavations have uncovered some traces of her in the heart of the Jewish quarter of the Old City.
“A part of the outer wall of the neighborhood has been found, which, in the eighth century BC, was enlarged to accommodate the population fleeing from the countryside because of the Assyrian threat”, explains Fr Stefano Vuaran, a Friulian biblical scholar, who dedicated part of his doctorate to the Jerusalem of Huldah’s time. “The reign of Josiah represents the last happy phase of the kingdom of Judah, before its final destruction. The external front sees the decline of Syria, the rise of the kingdom of Babylon and Egypt’s attempt to rise again. Josiah tries to juggle, but died at Meghiddo, due to a political miscalculation. On the home front, the king tries to compact the kingdom with religious reform. He extirpates polytheistic cults, to re-establish the worship of Yahweh in a single Temple in Jerusalem. Huldah certainly lived nearby, because her husband Sallum was a Levite, ‘keeper of the garments’ at the Temple. Huldah was a ‘court prophetess’, not one of the prophets taken from the people, with a distinctly social sensibility”. A few more details about the couple’s life in Jerusalem are, for example, they were certainly wealthy and part of the establishment of the time, can be found in the texts of Jewish commentators. Some describe Huldah as a prophet who taught the elders the Torah, a very rare occurrence even in Josiah's time, a role acquired through her husband’s charitable works.
“There is a tradition that says that Sallum used to stand at the entrance of the city giving drinks to the people coming in. This was a daily charitable act through which his wife could obtain from God the gift of prophecy. This is a beautiful image of role reversal that we are not used to, for here is a man who studies and teaches and it is he, not the woman, who does good works. We are looking at a couple working together with roles reversed, an interesting model”, reflects Amirit Rosen, who belongs to a liberal current of Judaism and leads a community with her husband, Rabbi David. “Something is changing in Jerusalem, albeit slowly and with much effort. Our community, which is called Kehilat Morshet Avraham, has accepted our shared leadership. The story of Huldah teaches us that we can work together and support each other. An ancient promise quoted in a rabbinic work state that the Choen (of the Priests’) Gate and the Huldah Gate were never destroyed and God will renew them”.
The route following the footsteps of Huldah in Jerusalem leads to a final stop, on the Mount of Olives, at the foot of the Ascension chapel. Christians are only allowed to celebrate mass there once a year, because it has been Muslim-owned since the days of Saldin. The complex includes the chapel, a mosque and a crypt with a tomb. One has to ask for keys and permission from the sheikh of the district to access this place sacred to the three religions, thanks to three women. For Christians it is the burial place of Saint Pelagia, for Muslims that of Rābiʿa alʿAdawiyya, the mother of Sufism, and for Jews that of the prophet Huldah. “The crypt has a Crusader structure”, explains Father Stefano Vuaran, “but it was built on the original site of the devotion to Saint Pelagia, who lived in Byzantine times in the monastery built around the church of the Eleona, the church of the Pater noster”.
Such was the veneration for Saint Pelagia that the other monotheistic religions in Jerusalem also appropriated the narrative of a woman’s sacred tomb. When it became the property of the Muslims, the memory of Pelagia was replaced with that of a Muslim mystic, later too the Jewish tradition, which until the 19th century, venerated Huldah there.
Fr Stephen explains, “From a historical point of view, it is impossible for Huldah to have been buried on the Mount of Olives because it was too far from the Temple and a Levite’s wife would never have been transported here. Instead, Huldah’s gates were too close, the area of the tombs from the monarchical period is in front of the city of David”.
In fact, very little is known about the prophet Huldah.
She is a figure who, when interpreted according to a Western literature criteria, seems little more than an extra. According to the Eastern tradition, however, she plays an important role, because the value lies in her function. Huldah announced the destruction of Jerusalem, which was to occur precisely 50 years later. It appears in a few verses and then disappears. Like the word of God, but it is the sign of her power”.
By Alessandra Buzzetti
Tv2000 Jerusalem correspondent