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Community Blog Tish‘ah be-Av: Struggles with Sacred Space

By Rabbi Arthur Green
rabbi art green

A chapter from Green’s Judaism for the World: “Reflections on God, Life, and Love,” forthcoming from Yale University Press in October 2020.

Tish‘ah be-Av is upon us again.

Oy! What a complicated day! We try to sort out memories of the distant past, feelings about the present, and fears for the future—but they all seem to fall back in on each other, no matter which way we turn. The First Temple was destroyed because prophetic warnings were ignored; Jeremiah laughed at self-assured Jerusalemites who were sure that God would never allow His Temple to fall. Heikhal Y-H-W-H, “God’s own Temple!” (Jer. 7:4), he hears them say, over and over again. But down it went; there was no mercy, either from heaven or from the Babylonian armies. The Second Temple went down as a result of baseless hatred, Jews turning against one another.1 Rebels to the end must have viewed someone like Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Zakkai as a spineless compromiser. These end-time visionaries were struggling against realists of all sorts, whom they must surely have disdained. In both cases, we were a small power that ultimately fell victim to greater powers’ interests. “Trust not in princes,” as the psalmist (146:3) said. Where does all that leave us today, when we dare to contemplate the present and the future? How is it possible not to notice elements of all of these ancient scenarios playing themselves out again?

Like so many American Jews, I first learned the power of Tish‘ah be-Av in the context of a Zionist/Hebraist summer camp—in my case Ramah of the mid-1950s. In those heady days of Zionist enthusiasm, there was much talk of the yishuv, the resettlement of Jews in the Land of Israel, as a bayit shlishi, a third Jewish “home,” but using a word that also meant “Temple.” Perhaps, some argued, we should fast just half a day on Tish‘ah be-Av, turning the latter half into a time of celebration. The notion of weeping over a destroyed Jerusalem made no sense at that point, as we saw the city and the country living through an era of intense rebuilding. Our exuberance at Jerusalem’s renewal seemed like a proclamation that the forced exile of Israel was at an end. True, the city was still divided by barbed wire and the rifle nozzles of opposing armies. We did not have the Old City or the Temple Mount. I recall one of my teachers in those days saying that this fact itself was an act of God, because possession of those holy sites would so deeply divide the Jewish people. A rather prescient remark! “He prophesied without knowing what he was prophesying,” the rabbis say.2 But it still felt as though at least half of Tish‘ah be-Av should be turned toward celebrating the miracle of the return to Zion and the building of the Land. We were innocent, then, of the memory that Shabbatai Zvi had already tried the trick of transforming this day into celebration, an act that was a key symbol of his soon-to-fail messianic movement. So too had we not yet heard Gershom Scholem’s warnings—issued after a lifetime of studying Shabbatai—against Zionism playing the messianic card, one that can be terribly painful to retrieve. We therefore muddled along, most of the adult role models still doing the full-day fast, but not quite able to explain successfully why they had chosen to do so.

Then came 1967—a week of elation and relief, followed by fifty years of muddle, obfuscation, and intentional moral blindness. On the one hand, we now possessed all of Jerusalem. Har ha-bayit be-yadeynu—“The Temple Mount is in our hands!” became the great rallying cry of that victory. But what, exactly, were we supposed to do in the wake of that conquest? Pushing Arab residents out of their homes and neighborhoods hardly seemed to be the noble act for which we had all been waiting for two thousand years. Nor did parades and proclamations of a “unified” Jerusalem, when you couldn’t fail to notice that there was hardly any sense of such unity among the holy city’s diverse population.

To understand the magnitude of the Six-Day War’s effect on the Jewish psyche, we have to turn to ‘olam and shanah, two of the ground concepts around which this book is structured: sacred space and sacred time. The spatial and temporal realms are two key dimensions (along with nefesh, sacred person) in which religions seek to concretize their notions of holiness, or particular divine presence. In his book The Sabbath, my teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel famously described Judaism as a religion that gave primacy to sacred time over sacred space.3 Shabbat was his main focus there, but the implications of this prioritization extend far beyond it. It touched on the relative absence of Jewish contributions to creativity in the plastic arts, especially architecture, in contrast to the two dominant religious cultures amid which Jews had lived. It explained why the synagogue was not built to have quite the same awesome aura of sacred space as the cathedral or the grand mosque. On the side of time, it exposed its readers to the hasidic notion of the festivals as mikre’ey kodesh, moments that “call forth holiness” in the lives of Jews.4 Surely part of this notion of holiness in time is derived from one of our tradition’s most profound and simple insights: that the two daily changes of light, dawn and dusk, are sacred moments, calling out to be celebrated, once by sacrifice, and now in prayer.

Many years ago, I published an essay suggesting that this choice of time over space arose in response to the destruction of the Second Temple and the sense of exile that so marked Jewish existence.5 The “palace in time” could be erected wherever Jews found themselves, while sacred space was connected to a place far away, a distant memory. The real Jerusalem, a city that existed on earth, was a place almost no Jews got to visit. It became quite fully joined in the Jewish imagination to an “upper” Jerusalem, a heavenly city dwelling somewhere beyond the clouds, in the realm of myth. The places where Jews lived, scattered about the globe, were profane spaces in their eyes. The locating of divine presence in particular moments, rather than in spaces, simply accorded to the situation of Jews in history, as well as to our self-definition as a community living in exile. That perception did not seem to change very much with the advent of modernity and the decline of oppression as the Jew’s daily lot.

All that did change, almost overnight, on June 6, 1967, with the Israeli Army’s conquest of Jerusalem’s old city, including the Western (no longer to be called “Wailing”) Wall. In 1967, the Jewish people reasserted their faith in sacred space, intimately connected to their claim of permanent ownership of this particular sacred spot. Travel to Israel, with the encouragement of both the Israeli Tourist Office and local religious groups, is now often cast as pilgrimage to the Holy Land, with special emphasis on visits to the Wall. The “Birthright” claim is that every Jew has a right, perhaps even an obligation, to visit and stand in relationship to the Land of Israel, as well as the Jewish state that exists there. The high point of such journeys is a visit to the Wall. The Wall has, on one hand, become semi-secularized, the site of swearing-in ceremonies for the Israeli Army, and lots more. In that context, it is said to belong to the entire Jewish people—except, so it seems, to non-Orthodox Jews who want to pray there. Only the iconoclastic philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz dared call the veneration of the Wall “idolatry,” something contradicting the essential truth of Judaism.6 Most Jews dismissed his view. But I believe that our new situation calls for some rethinking on this subject of time and space.

Secular Zionist thinkers, in the decades leading up to the establishment of the State of Israel, were not focused on the holiness of the Land, except perhaps in a very general and romanticized sense. Their concern was rather with the Jewish people, and the ways in which return to the land (not capitalized here) might be redemptive for them. They indeed spoke of “redeeming” the Land as well, which meant Jewish ownership and cultivation of it. But the true goal was the redemption of the Jewish people from their downtrodden and “unnatural” exilic state. In its earliest formulations, the land was to redeem the people! This had to do with rerooting Jewry in the soil itself, an agriculturally based attachment to earthbound reality, saving them from their prior status as luftsmenschen (detached, rootless, or “airy” people). Later it was the creation of an independent Jewish society, one that included manual laborers and police officers, as well as academics and merchants. Neither of these visions was concerned with holiness, and certainly not with Jerusalem and its Wall. The dream of the former was centered around the fruitful Jezreel valley and the newly drained Huleh swamp. The latter cared most about growing Tel Aviv, the first all-Jewish city, and the urban versions of the “new Jew” that would emerge there.

Religious Zionism, represented by the Mizrachi Party, a minority within the Zionist movement almost since its inception, did, of course, have a somewhat different vision. Its most inspiring figure, mystic visionary Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, saw the return to Zion in proto-messianic terms. Before 1967, however, not too much attention was paid to that element within his thought. Opposed by the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate that dominated in Jerusalem, Kook was known mainly for his years as “rabbi of the settlements,” a religious leader who validated the efforts of nonobservant Zionists as being an unwitting part of the divine plan of redemption. The proudest achievement of the religious Zionists was a series of religious kibbutzim established before and after the founding of the state, places where hard work and sacrifice combined with the articulation of Judaism’s highest moral and spiritual values. Politically, the Mizrachi movement devoted itself mainly to defending the sectoral interests of observant Jews, an often-struggling minority in a secular-dominated society.7

Even though Jerusalem became the capital of the newly founded state in 1948, these visions largely held sway. Jerusalem was seen as a city of university professors (in the days when Hebrew University was the university of Israel) and religious fanatics, a place most Israelis wanted to visit only occasionally, as tourists, if at all. It was a city of the past, not the future, which clearly belonged to Tel Aviv, to the kibbutz, and to the efforts at building new communities around Israel’s borders, including the reclamation of the Negev. As transportation improved, many secular politicians and government officials chose to live in greater Tel Aviv and commuted to work in the capital.

All that changed after 1967, as the Jewish people—both within the Land and beyond it—strongly reclaimed the dimension of sacred space. Foremost among holy places was the Wall, but Jerusalem as a whole was increasingly referred to in religious terms (Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold” was a semi-secular expression of this). Now Jerusalem became the city of a different past—not that of Me’ah She‘arim and the ultra-Orthodox way of life, but of ancient Israel, the City of David, and dreams of the Temple Mount. So, too, were Hebron, Safed, Tiberias, and various other traditional sites, some of them only recently rediscovered as sites linked to earlier epochs of Jewish history. The political and religious narratives here are deeply intertwined. The defenders of a Judaism of sacred spaces tend toward the right in their views of Israel/Palestine and are willing to mostly disregard the claims of Arab populations; a Judaism of sacred time has become more Western and liberal in its orientation, interestingly linking Heschel’s theology and his politics. But it would be too simplistic to simply accept that lineup and take up the case for the temporal over the spatial, thus denying the collective voice of the contemporary Jewish people in defining themselves, but also ceding some key elements of our ancient legacy. 

It is true that sacred time is given primacy in the biblical order. The story of Creation climaxes with God’s rest, declaring Shabbat as the first entity to bear holiness. Places are declared holy only later, beginning with Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28. These include Jerusalem, “chosen place” of Deuteronomy and “My holy city” of the prophets, but also Mount Horeb of Exodus 3:5 (“Take your shoes off your feet, for the ground upon which you stand is holy”), a holy place clearly outside the Land. There is hardly any biblical notion of the entire Land of Israel as sacred space. It is, of course, the land flowing with milk and honey promised to our ancestors. But the notion of “Holy Land” is mostly a post-biblical construct.8 

Nevertheless, the intensified presence of Y-H-W-H in particular places is certainly an important part of the biblical worldview. Solomon’s humble introduction to his great speech in dedicating the First Temple stands out as a key statement of the tension in the developing religion of ancient Israel regarding the location of divinity. “Behold the heavens and the heaven of heaven do not contain You. How much less so this house which I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27). Nevertheless, “You will hear in Your dwelling-place in heaven” (8:30) as people pray in this earthly abode that You have chosen. The unique holiness of that spot, and therefore the terrible sin of its defilement, remains central to the message of the prophets, especially resounding in the voice of Jeremiah. The promise of its future restoration plays a major role in the prophecies of Second Isaiah and Ezekiel, as through the mostly Second Temple–period psalms.

Because the rabbinic tradition saw itself as tied primarily to the Torah text, where the narrative takes place prior to the entry of Israel into the Land, much of the post-biblical discussion of sacred space, both in halakhic (“legal”) and aggadic (“narrative”) sources, in fact deals with verses describing the mishkan, the wilderness tabernacle, rather than the Jerusalem Temple. This mishkan was a tented structure that could be disassembled and moved each time the camp of Israel did so, rather than a grand building set into a specifically designated locale. This made for a rather looser notion of sacred space than one might expect. Moses’s encounter with the burning bush at Mount Horeb (later identified with Sinai) best described the experience of standing on holy ground, even though the rabbis made it clear that its holiness, in contrast to that of the future Jerusalem, evaporated once the particular theophany had passed.9

But the verses ascribing holiness to the tabernacle provided ripe homiletical fruit for Jewish preachers as early as Philo and as late as the hasidic masters to internalize or spiritualize the amorphous “place” to which they were referring. Exodus 25:8’s introductory “Let them make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell be-tokham” came to be translated “within them,” rather than the probably intended “in their midst.”10 The priest who entered the Holy of Holies became the worshipper turning toward his inmost heart. The same did not happen with regard to sacred time. Shabbat was real, and needed to be observed in proper form. The Jew “entered into” Sabbath, rather than becoming it.11 Mishkan (“tabernacle”) was the distant object of fantasy, hence easily transformed into symbol. But Judaism was greatly deepened by the opening of that symbolic well. Mystics and poets, both medieval and modern, have been nourished by that notion of an inward journey into God’s house, of the human heart as God’s true dwelling. Think of the wide usage, and now the singing, of verses in the penitential Psalm 27: “One thing I ask of Y-H-W-H; that is what I seek. May I dwell in the house of Y-H-W-H all the days of my life.”12 The intent of the verse is quite entirely spiritualized when read in that context. Indeed, the psalmist himself, one cannot help but think, might have been thinking of something more abstract than just a never-ending visit to the Jerusalem Temple.

Where does all this leave us, now that a full half century has passed since 1967? It is clear that in our great eagerness to celebrate the historic victory of 1967, including the great relief from the worst of our Holocaust-inspired fears, we refused to take notice of the fact that old Jerusalem, while a Jewish dream, is also a mostly Arab city. Efforts, both by governmental and private agencies, to change that reality have been ugly, underhanded, and sometimes brutal. Jerusalem, at least Jewish Jerusalem, is indeed being built every day. But it is hardly the psalmist’s dream of “a city joined together” (Ps. 122:3).  That dream can be fulfilled only when the people of Jerusalem’s two (or more) sides are “joined together” in peace.

What is and should be the nature of our contemporary Tish’ah be-Av in the face of all this? Having re-embraced sacred space, it feels like we must pay the price. Spiritualization of the notion of “holy place” becomes harder when one has to defend one’s people’s attachment to a real geographical sacred center. And that center is at the core of more than one conflict that tears at the Jewish soul. Jews possessed of any sense of human decency and memory of Jewish suffering have to be horrified at not-so-subtle efforts to push the Arab population out of the city. And even if we did,  the city’s past would remain to haunt us. That which we love about the Old City has much to do with Mamluk and Ottoman architecture, not created by Jews. At the same time, Jerusalem has been increasingly claimed by parts of the Jewish people from whom I feel deep alienation, the exclusivist ultra-Orthodox at the Wall, treating women whom I know and care about in simply disgusting ways, and the ultra-nationalists, creating a noisy presence on the Mount, dreaming aloud about destroying the mosque and building a third Temple.  Such a rebuilding would be a suicidal act for the Jewish state, for more than one reason. We have seen much of the Israeli public overtaken by a flammable combination of land hunger, triumphalism, and ongoing insecurity, with more than a little bit of racism thrown in. We shudder to think how this all this lines up with those things tradition tells us brought about the destruction of the first two Temples. Idolatry? Baseless hatred? It all sounds entirely too familiar.

A couple of decades ago, I recall hearing the phrase “Friends don’t let their friends drive drunk” applied to American Jews and Israelis. But by then we realized that the car keys were not in our hands, and we could not reach the emergency brake. We have watched the country we love, the Zionist experiment we still treasure, engage in what I believe to be indeed suicidal policies, especially that of unrestricted settlement in occupied territories, bringing about inhumane disruption of the lives of local Arabs, then resorting to language and actions that devalue those lives altogether, in order to defend such policies. Oy, meh hayah lanu: “Woe, what has become of us!”

We who love Israel, despite it all, still have much to celebrate: the rebirth of Jewish life, the ingathering of Jewish tribes, the renewal of Hebrew and its culture, and lots more. I, for one, also confess to having been swayed by the rebirth of sacred space consciousness in the collective Jewish soul. I do feel a deep attachment to the Wall, the focus of Jewish dreams and prayers for so many centuries, even though I seldom go there anymore. I still have not gone up to the Temple Mount, feeling myself not yet fit to enter those sacred precincts. I do have a special sense of kedushat ha-arets, the sanctity of the Holy Land itself. But that is one that leads to obligation, not to privilege. The claim that erets yisra’el is holy should not be read as a statement of ownership.13 Holiness means a belonging to God, not to us, since we are not God’s exclusive earthly representatives. Holiness of the land is rather a declaration that such rules as the sabbatical and jubilee apply there, symbolizing a concern for protecting that land, no matter who owns or governs it. They, in turn, should serve to sensitize us to respect for all earthly soil, wherever we may live. I support recent efforts to apply such “holy land” thinking regarding the treatment of crops and soil outside the land as well. But that should not diminish our special sense of responsibility for erets yisra’el itself as a holy place. My recent discovery of holy places outside the Land (see the essay “Pilgrimage 2019” in this volume) also does not diminish my sense of kedushat erets yisra’el.

One of the later hasidic masters suggests a reading of the three realms of sacrality (space, time, and person) that is quite redemptive of the whole insistence on particularism that so characterizes Jewish religious language. The Sefat Emet, who deeply influenced Heschel,14 refers in several places to a source that was originally purely a device for legal scholars to justify derivations of praxis from Scripture. “Any unit that was part of a larger category,” it says, “and became an exception to that category, did so in order to teach something not only about itself, but regarding the entire category.”15 He then applies this notion with surprising breadth to a whole series of specifics and general rules. The Land of Israel was within the category of lands. If it became an exception to that category—in becoming a Holy Land—it did so not only to make a statement about itself, but to teach that all land, the earth itself, is holy.16 Shabbat was in the category of days. Its becoming an exception, a holy day, comes to teach us about the holiness of the day itself, showing that every day is holy.17 He says it also about priests or Levites and the rest of Jewry, as also, in what may have been the most daring application in his time and place, about Israel and the rest of humanity.18

To express it more abstractly: ritual, or the ritually sacralized space or time, is paradigmatic. The way we relate to it is intended to teach us how to relate to all moments, all places. Here the panentheistic teaching of Hasidism is brought back to the fore: God is to be found everywhere—or everywhere that we let God in. Specific to the author’s place in hasidic history is also a certain democratizing within Jewry: the way we seek holiness in the priest, to be read as the tsaddik, is a paradigm of the way we are to treat all, encountering each as bearing the divine presence.19 

Reasserting this attitude toward the specifically holy in Judaism is a crucial item on the contemporary theological agenda. The holiness of the Land is not to be denied. The Torah’s special concern for its protection, through the laws of sabbatical and jubilee, reflects the great love our ancient ancestors felt God to shower on that unique and special place. It is a sign of health that the Jewish people have rediscovered that particular love—as long as it is used paradigmatically, as a reminder and a “demonstration project” indicating that all places in God’s created world deserve to be cherished, loved, protected. Sacred space no longer exists in a mythic and inaccessible realm, somewhere between heaven and earth, as it did for so many centuries. Most Jews who care about their religious legacy either live in the Land of Israel or visit it quite regularly. But if we understand the holiness that adheres to that land and soil only in an exclusive—and even politicized—way, we will be missing the point.

Tish‘ah be-Av is a time to think about responsibility. We diaspora Jews for fifty years have been watching in horror as messianic politics transformed so much of the Jewish moral landscape, beginning in Israel but eventually overcoming much of our own community as well. We were cowed into silence, and accepted it   ‘Al et she-atanu bi-shetikah ke-hoda’ah. We mourn today for our own sinfulness in acquiescence by silence. Yes, we mourn for the past and for the present; we will not permit ourselves to mourn for the future. But this is indeed a day to cry out loudly our fear for that future, and to express in full voice our distress at several of the paths that Israel—both state and society—are taking. 

We know why the first two Temples were destroyed. Let us make sure the third one does not totter due to the great sin of our era, that committed by silent bystanders.

Tish‘ah be-Av

1. B. Yoma 9b.

2. B. Baba Batra 119b.

3. Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951).

4. See, for example, Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, Sefat Emet, le-pesa, 5637 [1877], s.v. va-yedaber moshe and 5652 [1892], s.v. ita be-gemara ha-mekayem ha-mo‘adot. Heschel, a Warsaw Jew, was educated in Gerer schools, and the influence of Ger upon Heschel’s thinking has been insufficiently appreciated. See the succinct discussion and sources cited in Michael Marmur, Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Sources of Wonder (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), 122–23; and my “Three Warsaw Mystics,” Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 13 (1996): 1–58, also available on my website,

5. Arthur Green, “Sabbath as Temple: Some Thoughts on Space and Time in Judaism,” in Go and Study: Essays and Studies in Honor of Alfred Jospe, ed. Raphael Jospe and Samuel Z. Fishman (Washington, DC: Bnai Brith Hillel Foundations, 1980), 287–305.

6. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Yahadut, Am Yehudi u-Medinat Yisrael [in Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1975).

7. Avi Sagi and Dov Schwartz, Religious Zionism and the Six-Day War: From Realism to Messianism (London: Routledge, 2018).

8. The single reference in Zechariah 2:16 may indicate that the concept began to develop in early Second Temple times, emerging from a nostalgia for a lost homeland.

9. Exodus 19:13; and see b. Ta‘anit 21b.

10. On the whole history of this, see Ron Margolin, Mikdash Adam [in Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Magnes, 2005).

11. Thus hasidic masters sometimes compared Sabbath to a sukkah, although it is one we enter but cannot walk out of, staying immersed in it throughout the day. However, the trope of “being” Shabbat is occasionally found in the Zohar and hasidic sources, in which the tsaddik is Shabbat: Zohar 3:29a; and see Ba‘al Shem Tov al-ha-Torah (Jerusalem: Nofet Tsofim, 5757 [1996–97]), 1:112–14 and n. 108 there.

12. Similarly, the widely sung Bil’vavi mishkan evneh, “In my heart I will build a sanctuary,” whose lyrics were composed in the mid-twentieth century by Rabbi Yitsḥak Hutner, inspired by the lines of a poem in sixteenth-century Rabbi Elazar Azikri’s Sefer Ḥaredim.

13. I recognize that sometimes it was understood that way in rabbinic literature (see, for example, b. Yebamot 16a). I reject that understanding of kedushah.

14. See my treatment in “Three Warsaw Mystics.”

15. Beraita de-rabbi Yishma‘el, from the introduction to the Sifra, printed in traditional prayer books following the sacrificial passages toward the beginning of the morning service. Where other classical hasidic books may cite this principle once or twice, Alter places it at the center of this thought—it is quoted over fifty times in Sefat Emet. For examples in other hasidic works, see Kedushat Levi, 171, parashat devarim, s.v. dibber moshe; and Kalonymous Kalman Epstein, Ma’or va-Shemesh (Jerusalem: Galim, 5746 [1985–86]), 2:52, parashat ukkat, s.v. o yomar zot.

16. Yehudah Leib Alter, Sefat Emet (Jerusalem: Mir, 5757 [1996–97]), 3:194, parashat be-har 5648 (1888), s.v. ki tavo; translated in my The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1998), 204–5.

17. Alter, Sefat Emet, 1:69, parashat va-yera‘ 5651 (1890–91), s.v. be-midrash ve-aar, and 1:234–35, parashat pekudei 5652 (1891–92), s.v. be-midrash tanuma.

18. Regarding priests or Levites and the rest of Israel, see, for example, Alter, Sefat Emet, 3:26, parashat tsav, s.v. be-parshat ka et aharon. The text in parashat pekudei 5652 cited in the previous note applies this thought to Israel and all humanity quite clearly. See Yoram Jacobson, “The Sanctity of the Mundane in the Hasidic School of Ger” [in Hebrew], in Tsaddikim ve-Anshei Ma‘aseh: Studies in Polish Hasidism, ed. Rachel Elior, Israel Bartel, and Chone Shmeruk (Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 1994), 241–77.

19. In the “Polish School” of Hasidism, of which Sefat Emet is the apogee, there is much less emphasis on the uniqueness of the tsaddik, and more on his serving as an example for the spiritual journey of every Jew. See Michael Rosen, The Quest for Authenticity: The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim (Jerusalem: Urim, 2008).


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