Seven years ago, weeks after we got married we were invited to visit our family in South Africafrom Israel. This represented a huge halachic problem as certain airlines fly over the temple mount on their way south. Is this considered to be an infringement on the prohibition of entering into the temple mount in a state of impurity or not?
Following is a brief synopsis of the opinion given by Rav Ovadya Yosef in his book “Yabia Omer” volume 5: Yore Dei’ah, 26
This question is particularly relevant to the opinion of the Rambam who claims that the Divine Shechina never left the temple mount site, and that Jerusalemretains its holiness even when desolate. On the other hand, it can be assumed that we are all ritually impure. Is the prohibition only at ground level or does it reach to the sky?
The air of the Templearea must have the same status as the ground, for otherwise any portion of a sacrifice moved from one place to another to be eaten would become prohibited, as it left the “azara,” the holy temple area when it was carried through the air. On the other hand, roofs and upper floors on the TempleMountwere never declared holy in the first place. However, it is only the roofs and rooms which existed at the time of the Temple which were exempted from holiness, but anything which was added later – and this would include anything on the floor of an aircraft – is in the holy space of the air of the Temple. This air has no height limit, and one who is ritually impure is forbidden to enter it.
The basis of the prohibition is the verse, “She shall not enter the Temple” [Vayikra 12:4]. At first glance, this would only seem to prohibit entry onto the Mount in a “normal fashion.” Because of this exception to the rule, one who enters by way of a roof is not punished (Rambam, Bi’at Hamikdash 3:19). The sky is certainly not to be considered a normal path of entry into the Templearea (even though it may well be that prayers rise up through the heavens), and this might provide the basis for allowing a flight over the TempleMount. However, the law is that even though one who enters by way of a roof does not receive the heavenly punishment of “karet,” he is punished by lashes according to a rabbinical decree, “even including one who enters by a tower flying in the air” [Rambam, ibid]. (Is the Rambam hinting at the possibility of an airplane?)
According to legend, when Sir Moshe Montefiore came to Eretz Yisrael in 1867, he and an accompanying rabbi were taken into the Templesite in a canopy carried by Gentiles in order to avoid the prohibition. In spite of this, his actions created a stir in Jerusalem, including some who wanted to excommunicate him. In the end, Montefiore apologized, admitting that he had made a mistake. If one wishes to enter more deeply into this halachic issue one can consult a fascinating article written by the former Cheir Rabbi of the IDF, Rav Shlomo Goren zt’l, in his book “Torat Hamdinah” in which he concludes similarly to the above article.