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Western Wall

The Western Wall (הכותל המערבי, translit.: HaKotel HaMa'aravi), sometimes referred to as the Wailing Wall or simply the Kotel (lit. Wall; Ashkenazic pronunciation: Kosel), and as al-Buraq Wall by Muslims, is an important Jewish religious site located in the Old City of Jerusalem which is also of significance to Islam. Just over half the wall, including its 17 courses located below street level, dates from the end of the Second Temple period, being constructed around 19 BCE by Herod the Great. The remaining layers were added from the 7th century onwards.

Names of the wall

"Jews may often be seen sitting for hours at the Wailing-place bent in sorrowful meditation over the history of their race, and repeating oftentimes the words of the Seventy-ninth Psalm. On Fridays especially, Jews of both sexes, of all ages, and from all countries, assemble in large numbers to kiss the sacred stones and weep outside the precincts they may not enter."
Charles Wilson, 1881. (Picturesque Palestine, vol. 1, p. 41).
Early Jewish texts referred to a “western wall of the Temple”, but there is doubt whether the texts were referring to today’s Western Wall or to another wall which stood within the Temple complex. The earliest clear Jewish use of the term Western Wall as referring to the wall visible today was by the 11th-century Ahimaaz ben Paltiel. The name “Wailing Wall” was introduced by the British in 1917 and was based on the reports of 19th century European travellers who often referred to the wall as the “wailing place of the Jews”, Mur des Lamentations in French or Klagemauer in German. This term itself was a translation of the Arabic el-Mabka, or "Place of Weeping, the traditional Arabic term for the wall. This description stemmed from the Jewish practice of coming to the site to mourn and bemoan the destruction of the Temple. During the 1920s with the growing Arab-Jewish tensions over rights at the wall, the Arabs began referring to the wall as al-Buraq. This was based on the tradition that the wall was the place where Muhammad tethered his winged steed, Buraq.

Location and dimensions

The Western Wall commonly refers to an exposed section of ancient wall situated on the western flank of the Temple Mount. This section faces a large plaza and is set aside for prayer. In its entirety however, the above ground portion of the Western Wall stretches for , most of which is hidden behind residential structures built along its length. Other revealed sections include the southern part of the Wall which measures approximately 80 metres and another much shorter section known as the Little Western Wall which is located close to the Iron Gate. The wall functions as a retaining wall, built to support the extensive renovations that Herod the Great carried out around 19 BCE. Herod expanded the small quasi-natural plateau on which the First and Second Temples stood into the wide expanse of the Temple Mount visible today.

At the Western Wall Plaza, the total height of the Wall from its foundation is estimated at , with the exposed section standing approximately high. The Wall consists of 45 stone courses, 28 of them above ground and 17 underground. The first seven visible layers are from the Herodian period. This section of wall is built from enormous stones, which were apparently cut from meleke limestone in quarries near Bezetha. Most of them weigh between two and eight tons each, but others weigh even more, with one extraordinary stone located in the northern section of Wilson's Arch measuring 13 metres and weighing approximately 570 tons. Each of these stones is surrounded by fine-chiseled borders. The margins themselves measure between five and twenty centimetres wide, with their depth measuring 1½ centimetres. In the Herodian period, the upper ten metres of wall were one metre thick and served as the other wall of the double colonnade of the plateau. This upper section was decorated with pilasters, the remainder of which were destroyed at the beginning of the seventh century when the Byzantines reconquered Jerusalem from the Persians and their Jewish allies in 628.

The next four layers were added by Umayyads in the seventh century. The next fourteen layers are from the Ottoman period and their addition is attributed to Sir Moses Montefiore who in 1866 arranged that further layers be added “for shade and protection from the rain for all who come to pray by the holy remnant of our Temple”. The top three layers were placed by the Mufti of Jerusalem before 1967.

History

Construction 19 BCE

According to the Bible, Solomon's Temple was built atop the Temple Mount in the 10th century BCE and destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The Second Temple was built in 516 BCE. In around 19 BCE Herod the Great began a massive expansion project on the Temple Mount. He artificially expanded the area which resulted in an enlarged platform. Today's Western Wall formed part of the retaining perimeter wall of this platform. Herod's Temple was destroyed by the Roman Empire, along with the rest of Jerusalem, in 70 CE during the First Jewish-Roman War. After the Roman defeat of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 CE, Jews were banished from Jerusalem. When the empire became Christian under Constantine I, they were given permission to enter the city once a year, on the ninth day of the month of Av, to lament the loss of the Temple at the wall. In 425 CE, the Jews of the Galilee wrote to Byzantine empress Aelia Eudocia seeking permission to pray by the ruins of the Temple. Permission was granted and they were officially permitted to resettle in Jerusalem.

Ottoman period 1517 - 1917

In 1517 the Turkish Ottoman Empire under Selim I conquered Jerusalem from the Mamelks who had held it since 1250. The Ottomans had a benevolent attitude towards the Jews, having welcomed thousands of Jewish refugees who had recently been expelled from Spain by Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile in 1492. Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent was so taken with Jerusalem and its plight that he ordered a magnificent fortress-wall built around the entire city, today's Old City wall. According to legend, Suleiman wished to locate the remains of the Temple. He came across a woman who was carrying a basket loaded with rubbish. He asked her where she was from, to which she replied "I live in Bethlehem". He queried why she had travelled all the way to Jerusalem in order to dump her waste. She told him that the tradition was that whoever dumps rubbish in this area performs a good deed. Upon hearing this he ordered that the dirt be removed from the site. When the remains of the Temple and Western Wall were revealed, he proceeded to douse them with rosewater. In the second half of the 16th century, Suleiman the Magnificent gave the Jews exclusive rights to worship at the Western Wall and had his court architect Sinan build an oratory for them there.

Over the centuries, land close to the Wall became built up. Shortly before the Crusader period a synagogue stood at the site. In 1193 the Moroccan Quarter was established and houses were built only four metres away from the Wall. Public access to the Wall was through a labyrinth of narrow alleyways. In May 1840 a firman issued by Ibrahim Pasha forbade under sharia law the Jews to pave the passageway in front of the Wall. It also cautioned them against “raising their voices and displaying their books there.” They were however allowed “to pay visits to it as of old.”

Rabbi Joseph Schwarz writing in the mid-19th century records:

”This wall is visited by all our brothers on every feast and festival; and the large space at its foot is often so densely filled up, that all cannot perform their devotions here at the same time. It is also visited, though by less numbers, on every Friday afternoon, and by some nearly every day. No one is molested in these visits by the Mahomedans, as we have a very old firman from the Sultan of Constantinople that the approach shall not be denied to us, though the Porte obtains for this privilege a special tax, which is, however, quite insignificant.”

Over time the increased numbers of people gathering at the site resulted in tensions between the Jewish visitors who wanted easier access and more space, and the residents, who complained of the noise. This gave rise to Jewish attempts at gaining ownership of the land adjacent to the Wall.

In the late 1830s a wealthy Jew named Shemarya Luria attempted to purchase houses near the Wall, but was unsuccessful, as was Jewish sage Abdullah of Bombay who tried to purchase the Western Wall in the 1850s. In 1869 Rabbi Hillel Moshe Gelbstein settled in Jerusalem. He arranged that benches and tables be brought to the Wall on a daily basis for the study groups he organised and the minyan which he led there for years. He also formulated a plan whereby some of the courtyards facing the Wall would be acquired, with the intention of establishing three synagogues — one each for the Sephardim, the Hasidim and the Perushim. He also endeavoured to re-establish an ancient practice of “guards of honour”, which according to the mishnah in Middot, were positioned around the Temple Mount. He rented a house near the Wall and paid men to stand guard there and at various other gateways around the mount. However this set-up lasted only for a short time due to lack of funds or because of Arab resentment.

In 1877 the Mufti of Jerusalem accepted a Jewish offer to buy the Moroccan Quarter, but a dispute within the Jewish community prevented the agreement from going ahead. In 1887 a promising attempt was made by Baron Rothschild who conceived a plan to purchase and demolish the Moroccan Quarter as “a merit and honor to the Jewish People.” The proposed purchase was considered and approved by the Ottoman Governor of Jerusalem, Rauf Pasha, and by the Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Tahir Husseini. Even after permission was obtained from the highest secular and Muslim religious authority to proceed, the transaction was shelved after the authorities insisted that after demolishing the quarter no construction of any type could take place there, only trees could be planted to beautify the area. Additionally the Jews would not have full control over the area. This meant that they would have no power to stop people from using the plaza for various activities, including the driving of mules, which would cause a disturbance to worshippers. Other reports place the scheme's failure on Jewish infighting as to whether the plan would fester a detrimental Arab reaction. In 1895 Hebrew linguist and publisher Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn became entangled in a failed effort to purchase the Western Wall and lost all his assets. Even the attempts of the Palestine Land Development Company to purchase the environs of the Western Wall for the Jews just before the outbreak of World War I never came to fruition. In the first two months following the Ottoman Empire’s entry into the First World War, the Turkish governor of Jerusalem, Zakey Bey, offered to sell the Moroccan Quarter, which consisted of about 25 houses, to the Jews in order to enlarge the area available to them for prayer. He requested a sum of £20,000 which would be used to both rehouse the Muslim families and to create a public garden in front of the Wall. However, the Jews of the city lacked the necessary funds. A few months later, under Muslim Arab pressure on the Turkish authorities in Jerusalem, Jews became forbidden by official decree to place benches and light candles at the Wall. This sour turn in relations was taken up by the Chacham Bashi who managed to get the ban overturned.

British rule 1917 - 1948

In December 1917, British forces under Edmund Allenby captured Jerusalem from the Turks. Allenby pledged "that every sacred building, monument, holy spot, shrine, traditional site, endowment, pious bequest, or customary place of prayer of whatsoever form of the three religions will be maintained and protected according to the existing customs and beliefs of those to whose faith they are sacred".

In 1919 Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, anxious to enable Jews to access their sacred site unmolested, approached the British Military Governor of Jerusalem, Colonel Sir Ronald Storrs, and offered between £75,000 and £100,000 (approx. £5m in modern terms) to purchase the area at the foot of the Wall and rehouse the occupants. Storrs was enthusiastic about the idea because he hoped some of the money would be used to improve Muslim education. Although optimistic at first, negotiations broke down after strong Muslim opposition. Storrs wrote two decades later:

"The acceptance of the proposals, had it been practicable, would have obviated years of wretched humiliations, including the befouling of the Wall and pavement and the unmannerly braying of the tragi-comic Arab band during Jewish prayer, and culminating in the horrible outrages of 1929"

In 1926 another abortive effort was made by Palestine Zionist Executive, Colonel F. H. Kisch, who envisaged buying the whole area adjacent to the Wall in order to create an open space with seats for aged worshippers to sit on. In 1928 the Zionist Organisation reported that John Chancellor, High Commissioner of Palestine, believed that the Western Wall should come under Jewish control and wondered “why no great Jewish philanthropist had not bought it yet”.

September 1928 disturbances

In 1922, a status quo agreement issued by the mandatory authority forbade the placing of benches near the Wall. The last occurrence of such a ban was in 1915, but the Ottoman decree was soon retracted after intervention of the Chacham Bashi. In 1928 the District Commissioner of Jerusalem, Edward Kitrutch, acceded to an Arab request to implement the ban. This led to a British officer being stationed at the Wall making sure that elderly Jews were prevented from using chairs. On 28 September, 1928, the Day of Atonement, British police forcefully removed a screen used to separate men and women at prayer. Women who tried to prevent the screen being dismantled were beaten by the police who used pieces of the broken wooden frame as clubs. Chairs were then pulled out from under elderly worshippers. Commissioner Kitrutch informed the Jewish community that the removal had been carried out under his orders after receiving a complaint from the Supreme Muslim Council. He described the screen as violating the Ottoman status quo that forbade Jews from making any construction in the Western Wall area. The Arabs were concerned that the Jews were trying to extend their rights at the wall and with this move, ultimately intended to take possession of the al Aqsa Mosque. In practice, a flexible modus vivendi had emerged and such screens had been put up from time to time when large numbers of people gathered to pray. The episode made international news and Jews world over objected to the British action. Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld issued a letter on behalf of the Edah HaChareidis and Agudas Yisroel strongly condemning the desecration of the holy site. Various communal leaders called for a general strike. A large rally was held in the Etz Chaim Yeshiva, following which an angry crowd attacked the local police station in which they believed the British officer involved in the fiasco was sheltering. The British government issued an announcement explaining the incident and blaming the Jewish beadle at the Wall. It stressed that the removal of the screen was necessary, but expressed regret over the ensuing events. The Vaad Leumi responding to Arab fears of a takeover of the haram area declared in a statement that: We herewith declare emphatically and sincerely that no Jew has ever thought of encroaching upon the rights of Moslems over their own Holy places, but our Arab brethren should also recognise the rights of Jews in regard to the places in Palestine which are holy to them. The commitee also demanded that the British administration expropriate the wall for the Jews.

From October 1928 onward, Amin al-Husayni, the new Grand Mufti organised a series of measures to demonstrate the Arabs' exclusive claims to the Temple Mount and its environs. He ordered new construction next to and above the Western Wall, with bricks often falling on the worshippers below. The British granted the Arabs permission to convert a building adjoining the Wall into a mosque and to add a minaret. A muezzin was appointed to perform the Islamic call to prayer and Sufi rites directly next to the wall. These were seen as a provocation by the Jews who prayed at the wall. The Jews protested and tensions increased.

A British enquiry into the disturbances - "The Western or Wailing Wall in Jerusalem: Memorandum by the Secretary of State for the Colonies" - was published in November 1928. It emphasised the need to maintain the status quo and instructed that Jews could only bring “those accessories which had been permitted in Turkish times.” The Chief Rabbinate was asked to verify which apparatus had been permitted, but they refused to do so, arguing that Jews had the right to pray at the Wall without restrictions.

1929 Palestine riots

In the summer of 1929, the Mufti ordered an opening be made at the southern end of the alleyway which straddled the Wall. The former cul-de-sac became a thoroughfare which led from the Temple Mount into the prayer area at the Wall. Mules were herded through the narrow alley, often dropping excrement. This, together with other construction projects in the vicinity, and restricted access to the Wall, resulted in Jewish protests to the British, who remained indifferent.

On August 14, 1929, after attacks on individual Jews praying at the Wall, 6,000 Jews demonstrated in Tel Aviv, shouting “The Wall is ours.” The next day, the Jewish fast of Tisha B'Av, 300 youths raised the Zionist flag and sang the Zionist anthem at the Wall. The day after, on August 16, an organized mob of 2,000 Muslim Arabs descended on the Western Wall, injuring the beadle and burning prayer books, liturgical fixtures and notes of supplication. The rioting spread to the Jewish commercial area of town and was followed a few days later by the infamous Hebron massacre.

1930 International commission

In 1930, in response to the 1929 riots, the British Government appointed a commission "to determine the rights and claims of Muslims and Jews in connection with the Western or Wailing Wall". The League of Nations approved the commission on condition that the members were not British.

The Jews requested that the Commission take the following actions:

  • To give recognition to the immemorial claim that the Wailing Wall is a Holy Place for the Jews, not only for the Jews in Palestine, but also for the Jews of the whole world.
  • To decree that the Jews shall have the right of access to the Wall for devotion and for prayers in accordance with their ritual without interference or interruption.
  • To decree that it shall be permissible to continue the Jewish services under the conditions of decency and decorum characteristic of a sacred custom that has been carried on for many centuries without infringement upon the religious rights of others.
  • To decree that the drawing up of any regulations that may be necessary as to such devotions and prayers, shall be entrusted to the Rabbinate of Palestine, who shall thus re-assume full responsibility in that matter, in discharge of which responsibility they may consult the Rabbinate of the world.
  • To suggest, if the Commissioners approve of the plan, to the Mandatory Power that it should make the necessary arrangements by which the properties now occupied by the Moghrabi Waqf might be vacated, the Waqf authorities accepting in lieu of them certain new buildings to be erected upon some eligible site in Jerusalem, so that the charitable purpose, for which this Waqf was given, may still be fulfilled.

David Yellin testifying before the commission stated:

”Being judged before you today stands a nation that has been deprived of everything that is dear and sacred to it from its emergence in its own land – the graves of its patriarchs, the graves of its great kings, the graves of its holy prophets and, above all, the site of its glorious Temple. Everything has been taken from it and of all the witnesses to its sanctity, only one vestige remains – one side of a tiny portion of a wall, which, on one side, borders the place of its former Temple. In front of this bare stone wall, that nation stands under the open sky, in the heat of summer and in the rains of winter, and pours out its heart to its God in heaven.”

The Commission concluded that the wall, and the adjacent pavement and Moroccan Quarter, were solely owned by the Muslim Waqf. However, Jews had the right to "free access to the Western Wall for the purpose of devotions at all times", subject to some stipulations that limited which objects could be brought to the Wall and forbade the blowing of the shofar, which was made illegal. Muslims were forbidden to disrupt Jewish devotions by driving animals or other means. Yitzchak Orenstein, who held the position of Rabbi of the Kotel, recorded in April 1930 that “Our master, Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld came to pray this morning by the Kosel and one of those present produced a small chair for the Rav to rest on for a few moments. However, no sooner had the Rav sat down did an Arab officer appear and pull the chair away from under him.” During the 1930s, at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, young Jews persistently flouted the shofar ban each year and blew the shofar resulting in their arrest and prosecution. They were usually fined or sentenced to imprisonment for three to six months.

Jordanian occupation 1948 - 1967

During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War the Old City together with the Wall was captured by Jordan. Article VIII of the 1949 Armistice Agreement provided for Israeli Jewish access to the Western Wall. However for the following nineteen years, despite numerous requests by Israeli officials and Jewish groups to the United Nations and other international bodies to attempt to enforce the armistice agreement, Jordan refused to abide by this clause. Only Jordanian soldiers and tourists were to be found there. A vantage point on Mount Zion, from where the Wall could be viewed, became the place where Jews gathered to pray. For thousands of pilgrims, the mount, being the closest location to the Wall under Israeli control, became a substitute site for the traditional priestly blessing ceremony which takes place on the Three Pilgrimage Festivals.

Israeli sovereignty 1967 - present

Following Israel's victory during the 1967 Six-Day War, the Western Wall came under Israeli control. Yitzchak Rabin, fifth Prime Minister of Israel, described the moment Israeli soldiers reached the Wall:

”There was one moment in the Six-Day War which symbolized the great victory: that was the moment in which the first paratroopers - under Gur's command - reached the stones of the Western Wall, feeling the emotion of the place; there never was, and never will be, another moment like it. Nobody staged that moment. Nobody planned it in advance. Nobody prepared it and nobody was prepared for it; it was as if Providence had directed the whole thing: the paratroopers weeping - loudly and in pain - over their comrades who had fallen along the way, the words of the Kaddish prayer heard by Western Wall's stones after 19 years of silence, tears of mourning, shouts of joy, and the singing of "Hatikvah".

Forty-eight hours after capturing the wall, the military, without explicit government order, hastily proceeded to demolish the entire Moroccan Quarter which stood four metres from the Wall. Chaim Herzog, who later became Israel’s sixth president, took much of the credit for the destruction of the neighbourhood:

”When we visited the Wailing Wall we found a toilet attached to it...we decided to remove it and from this we came to the conclusion that we could evacuate the entire area in front of the Wailing Wall...a historical opportunity that will never return...We knew that the following Saturday, June 14, would be the Jewish festival of Shavouot and that many will want to come to pray...it all had to be completed by then.”

The narrow pavement, which could accommodate a maximum of 12,000 per day, was transformed into an enormous plaza which could hold in excess of 400,000. The dusty plaza stretched from the wall to the Jewish Quarter. The section of the Wall dedicated to prayers was extended southwards to double its original length from 30 to 60 metres, while the 4 metre space facing the Wall grew to 40 metres. Thus the small pre-1967 120 square metre area in front of the wall became the vast Western Wall Plaza, covering 20,000 square metres.

Over the decades the wall has been visited by millions of tourists and pilgrims alike and is often on the itinery of foreign heads of state who visit Israel.Structural damage On February 16, 2004, a portion of a stone retaining wall that forms one side of the Western Wall Plaza and supports the ramp that leads from the Western Wall plaza to the Gate of the Moors and onto the Temple Mount collapsed. In February 2007 repair work on the ramp led to violent demonstrations.

The Wall in Judaism

In Judaism, the Western Wall is venerated as the sole remnant of the Holy Temple. It has become a place of pilgrimage for Jews, as it is the closest permitted accessible site to the holiest spot in Judaism, namely the Even ha-shetiya or Foundation Stone, which lies on the Temple Mount. According to majority rabbinic opinion, Jews may not set foot upon the Temple Mount and doing so is a sin punishable by karet. While many believe that the rocky outcrop in the Dome of the Rock is the Foundation Stone, others say it is located directly opposite the exposed section of the Western Wall, near the El-kas fountain. This spot was the site of the Holy of Holies when the Temple stood.

Jewish tradition teaches that the Western Wall was built by King David and that the wall we see today is built upon his foundations, which date from the time of the First Temple. Jewish midrashic texts compiled in Late Antiquity refer to a western wall of the Temple which “would never be destroyed.” Some scholars were of the opinion that this referred to a wall of the Temple itself which has long since vanished. Others believed that the wall still stood and was actually a surviving wall of the Temple courtyard. However, today there is no doubt that the wall is the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount and the Midrash refers to the Temple in its broader sense, that is, the Temple Mount. Jewish sources teach that when Roman Emperor Vespasian ordered the destruction of the Temple, he ordered Pangar, Duke of Arabia, to destroy the Western Wall. Pangar however could not destroy the wall because of God's promise that the Wall will never be destroyed. When asked by Titus why he did not destroy it, Pangar replied that it would stand as a reminder of what Titus had conquered. He was duly executed. There is a tradition that states that when water starts trickling through the stones of the Wall, it is a signal of the advent of the Messiah.

Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kaindenover discusses the mystical aspect of the Hebrew word kotel when discussing the significance of praying against a wall. He cites the Zohar which writes that the word kotel, meaning wall, is made up of two parts: "Ko", which has the numerical value of God’s name, and "Tel", meaning mount, which refers to the Temple and its Western Wall.

Jewish sources, including the Zohar, write that the Divine Presence rests upon the Western Wall. The Midrash quotes a fourth century scholar: “Rav Acha said that the Divine Presence has never moved away from the Western Wall”. 18th century scholar Jonathan Eybeschutz writes that “after the destruction of the Temple, God removed His Presence from His sanctuary and placed it upon the Western Wall where it remains in its holiness and honour”. It is told that great Jewish sages, including Isaac Luria and the Radvaz, experienced a revelation of the Divine Presence at the wall.

Prayer at the Wall

The sages state that anyone who prays in the Temple in Jerusalem, “it is as if he has prayed before the throne of glory because the gate of heaven is situated there and it is open to hear prayer”. Jewish Law dictates that when Jews pray the Silent Prayer, they should face mizrach, towards Jerusalem, the Temple and ultimately the Holy of Holies, as all of God’s bounty and blessing emanates from that spot. According to the Mishna, of all the four walls of the Temple Mount, the Western Wall was the closest to the Holy of Holies and therefore that to pray by the Wall is particularly beneficial. Rabbi Jacob Ettlinger writes "since the gate of heaven is near the Western Wall, it is understandable that all Israel's prayers ascend on high there...as one of the great ancient kabbalists Rabbi Joseph Gikatilla said, when the Jews send their prayers from the Diaspora in the direction of Jerusalem, from there they ascend by way of the Western Wall." A well-known auspicious practice among Jews is to pray for 40 consecutive days at the Western Wall. This custom was apparently conceived by Rabbi Yisroel Yaakov Fisher.

According to some, by Late Antiquity the privileged site of Jewish prayer in Jerusalem was located on the Mount of Olives and only towards the end of the Middle Ages did Jews gradually begin to congregate instead at the Western Wall for their prayers, authorized to do so by the waqf authorities. However, the Scroll of Ahimaaz, a historical document written in 1050 CE, distinctly describes the Western Wall as a place of prayer for the Jews. In around 1167 CE during the late Crusader Period, Benjamin of Tudela wrote that "In front of this place is the Western Wall, which is one of the walls of the Holy of Holies. This is called the Gate of Mercy, and hither come all the Jews to pray before the Wall in the open court". In 1334, Jewish traveller Isaac Chelo wrote: "It is this Western Wall which stands before the temple of Omar ibn al Khattab, and which is called the Gate of Mercy. The Jews resort thither to say their prayers, as Rabbi Benjamin has already related. Today, this wall is one of the seven wonders of the Holy City. In 1625 arranged prayers at the Wall are mentioned for the first time by a scholar whose name has not been preserved. Scrolls of the Law were brought to the Wall on occasions of public distress and calamity, as testified to in a narrative written by Rabbi Gedaliah of Semitizi who went to Jerusalem in the year 1699.

"On Friday afternoon, March 13, 1863, the writer visited this sacred spot. Here he found between one and two hundred Jews of both sexes and of all ages, standing or sitting, and bowing as they read, chanted and recited, moving themselves backward and forward, the tears rolling down many a face; they kissed the walls and wrote sentences in Hebrew upon them... The lamentation which is most commonly used is from Psalm 79: "O God, the heathen are come into Thy inheritance; Thy holy temple have they defiled."
Rev. James W. Lee, 1863. (Earthly Footsteps of the Man of Galilee, p. 147)
The writings of various travellers in the Holy Land, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, tell of how the Wall and its environs continued to be a place of devotion for the Jews. The Kaf hachaim records that Ashkenasim and Sephardim were accustomed to walking through the streets and markets of the Old City wearing their tallit and tefillin on their way to pray by the Western Wall.

Throughout the ages, the Wall is where Jews have gathered to express gratitude to God or to pray for divine mercy. On news of the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944 thousands of Jews went to the Wall to offer prayers for the “success of His Majesty’s and Allied Forces in the liberation of all enemy-occupied territory.” On October 13, 1994, 50,000 gathered to pray for the safe return of kidnapped soldier Nachshon Wachsman. August 10, 2005 saw a massive prayer rally at the Wall. Estimates of people protesting Israel's unilateral disengagement plan ranged from 50,000 to 250,000 people. Every year on Tisha B'Av large crowds congregate at the Wall to commemorate the destruction of the Temple. In 2007 over 100,000 gathered.

In Jewish Law and custom

Mourning the destruction of the Temple

According to Jewish Law, one is obligated to feel grief and rend one's garment upon visiting the Western Wall and seeing the desolate site of the Temple. 17th century rabbi Yoel Sirkis explicitly mentions the Kotel HaMa'aravi when expounding how one could encounter the ruins of the Temple before the ruins of Jerusalem. Currently some poskim are of the view that rending one's garments is not applicable since Jerusalem is under Jewish sovereignty. Others disagree, citing that the Temple Mount itself is controlled by the Muslim Waqf and the State of Israel has no power to remove the mosques which sit upon it. Furthermore, the mosques' very existence on the site of the Temple should increase one's feeling of distress. If one hasn’t seen the Wall for over 30 days, in order to avoid tearing one's shirt, the custom is to visit on the Sabbath, including Friday afternoons, or Saturday evenings if dressed in Sabbath finery, or on festivals. A person who has not seen the Wall within the last 30 days should recite:

"Our Holy Temple, which was our glory, in which our forefathers praised You, was burned and all of our delights were destroyed".

The Bach cites Likutim which instructs that "when one sees the Gates of Mercy which are situated in the Western Wall, which is the wall King David built, he should recite:

Her gates are sunk into the ground; he hath destroyed and broken her bars: her king and her princes are among the nations: the law is no more; her prophets also find no vision from the " — Book of Lamentations 2:9

Placing of notes

There is a much publicised practice of placing slips of paper containing written prayers into the crevices of the Wall. The earliest account of this phenomenon is recounted by the Munkatcher Rebbe and is recorded in Sefer Tamei Ha-minhagim U’mekorei Ha-dinim. The story involves Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar who died in Jerusalem in 1743. A certain man came to him in great distress after he had become so destitute that he couldn’t afford to buy food for his family. The Ohr Ha-chaim wrote him an amulet in Ashuri script on parchment and instructed the man to place it between the holy stones of the Western Wall. More recently, the Israeli Telephone Company has established a fax service to the Western Wall where petitioners can send notes to be placed in the Wall. This opportunity is now offered via a number of charitable websites. On March 26, 2000, Pope John Paul II placed a letter in the wall and in 2005, the Israel Postal Authority issued a stamp commemerating the event. In July, 2008 U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama placed a written prayer in the wall, which was later reportedly removed and published in the Maariv newspaper.

Sanctity of the wall

There is however, much debate among Jewish codifiers about whether it is permitted to place one's fingers inside the cracks of the Wall. Those who warn against such action hold that the breadth of the Wall constitutes part of the Temple Mount itself and therefore retains holiness. Others hold that the Wall stands outside the given measurements of the Temple area and therefore there is no concern about inserting one's fingers into the crevices. Some rabbis have written strongly against having any benefit from the Wall. They write that leaning against it or using it for shade is demeaning to its sanctity. Even to use its cavities for placing prayer books or candles is disapproved of. At one point in the Wall's history, pilgrims, based upon various scriptural verses, would place nails in the cracks and paint their Hebrew names on the Wall. These practices stopped after rabbinic consensus determined that they were a desecration of holiness. Also, in the past it was not uncommon for tourists or those intending to travel abroad to remove a chip from the Wall or some of the sand from between its cracks as a good luck charm or memento. Some rabbis decried the practice as "an evil custom which is totally forbidden." In the late 19th century the question was raised as to whether this practice was permitted and a long responsa appeared in the Jerusalem newspaper Havatzelet in 1898. It concluded that even if according to Jewish Law it was permitted, the practices should be stopped as it constituted a desecration. More recently the Yalkut Yosef rules that it is forbidden to remove small chips of stone or dust from the Wall, although it is permissible to take twigs from the vegetation which grows in the Wall for an amulet, as they contain no holiness. Cleaning the stones is also problematic from a halachic point of view. Offensive graffiti once sprayed by a tourist was visible for months until it began to peel away.

Many contemporary poskim rule that the area in front of the Wall has the status of a synagogue and must be treated with due respect. As a sign of respect, men and married women are expected to cover their heads upon approaching the Wall, and to dress appropriately. When departing, the custom is walk backwards away from the Wall. On Saturdays, it is forbidden to enter the area with electronic devices, including cameras, which infringe on the sanctity of the Sabbath.

The Yalkut Yosef rules that there is no need to remove one's shoes when standing by the Wall, as the plaza area is outside of the sanctified precinct of the Temple Mount. However, there was once an old custom of removing one's shoes upon visiting the Wall. A 17th century collection of special prayers to be said at holy places mentions that “upon coming to the Western Wall one should remove his shoes, bow and recite…”. Rabbi Moses Reicher wrote that “it is a good and praiseworthy custom to approach the Western Wall in white garments after ablution, kneel and prostrate oneself in submission and recite “This is nothing other than the House of God and here is the gate of Heaven.” When within four cubits of the Wall, one should remove their footwear.” Over the years the custom of standing barefoot at the Wall has ceased.

In the past women could be found sitting at the entrance to the Wall every Sabbath holding fragrant herbs and spices in order for the worshippers to make additional blessings. In the hot weather they would provide cool water for them. The women also used to cast lots for the privilege of sweeping and washing the paving of the alleyway at the Wall.

Under Jewish control

After the Old City was captured during the Six Day War, the Wall once again became accessible to Jewish worshippers. Berel Wein in his Triumph of Survival describes the events:

“The moment of the recapture of Jerusalem was an electric one throughout the Jewish world. The Wall seemed to shed tears of joy together with the Jewish soldiers who stood before it in awe and reverence. It was not only a historic moment – it was a moment of faith and religious experience, even for hardened secularists. It was perceived as a vindication of the Jewish historic experience and had a profound effect upon Jews everywhere. As soon as the military situation permitted, a steady stream of Jews filled the Old City’s narrow alleyways, walking to the Wall, from which they had been barred since 1948, and countless Jews from the Diaspora flocked to Jerusalem that summer and fall”.

The large plaza created in 1967 is used for worship and public gatherings, including Bar mitzvah celebrations and the swearing-in ceremonies of newly full-fledged soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces. Chabad activists stationed at the site regularly promote the Tefillin Campaign. Tens of thousands of Jews flock to the wall on the Jewish holidays, and particularly on the fast of Tisha B'Av, which marks the destruction of the Temple and on Jerusalem Day, which commemorates the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967 and the delivery of the Wall into Jewish hands.

In 1989, activists belonging to a group called Women Of The Wall petitioned the court to secure the right of women to pray at the wall in organized groups and read publicly from the Torah while donning a tallit.

Rabbis of the wall

After the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Rabbi Yehuda Meir Getz was named the overseer of proceedings at the wall. After his death in 1995, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz was appoited to the position.

The Wall in Islam

Historically, Muslims referred to the Wall as “el-Mabka”, meaning “the place of wailing" - a reference to the Jewish attachment to the site. More recently however, Muslims refer to it as “al-Buraq Wall”. They claim the Wall as a Muslim holy site based on two factors: The first is due to the association with the Wall in the Isra and Mi'raj story; some sources identify the Western Wall as the place where Muhammad tethered his winged steed, Buraq. The second is based on the claim that it is Waqf property and a part of the Noble Sanctuary.

World-renowned expert Dr. Shmuel Berkowitz, in his book "The Wars over the Holy Places", suggests that Muslim attribution of holiness to the Western Wall began only in the last 100 years. The official guides published by the Waqf in 1914, 1965 and 1990 do not attribute holiness to the wall and the entry "al-Buraq" in the Encyclopedia of Islam does not make the connection either.

In recent decades Arab Muslims have been vociferous in denying that the Wall has any significance in Judaism. In December 1973, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia stated that “Only Muslims and Christians have holy places and rights in Jerusalem”. The Jews, he maintained, had no rights there at all. As for the Western Wall, he said, “Another wall can be built for them. They can pray against that". Raed Salah, leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel wrote that:

"The Western Wall - all its various parts, structures and gates – are an inseparable part of the al-Aqsa compound...The Western Wall is part of Al-Aqsa's western tower, which the Israeli establishment fallaciously and sneakily calls the 'Wailing Wall'. The wall is part of the holy al-Aqsa Mosque".

Opinions on the wall

Jewish and Israeli opinions

Most Jews, religious and secular, consider the capture of the wall an historic event. A poll carried out in 2007 by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies indicated that 96% of Israeli Jews were against Israel relinquishing sovereignty of the Western Wall. However, after the 1967 Six Day War, a small minority of reverent Jews led by anti-Zionist Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum of Satmar would not approach the wall. Rabbi Teitelbaum had written of the prohibition against visiting and praying at the wall since it had been liberated by Zionist soldiers. He asserted that a remnant of the Temple had fallen into the hands of "a foreign occupier," and instructed his followers not to approach it. Till this day, adherents of Satmar and the Neturei Karta sect refrain from approaching the Wall, asserting that it has been befouled by secular interests and those professing Zionism, which they see as an abomination.

Palestinian opinions

According to the Palestinian National Authority, the Jews did not consider the Wall as a place for worship except after the Balfour Declaration was issued in 1917. PA-appointed Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Ekrima Sa'id Sabri, believes that the Wall belongs to the Muslims alone. In 2000 he related that “No stone of the Al-Buraq wall has any relation to Judaism. The Jews began praying at this wall only in the nineteenth century, when they began to develop [national] aspirations.” A year later he stated:

In 2006, Dr. Hassan Khader, founder of the Al Quds Encyclopedia, told PA television that the first connection of the Jews to the Wall is "a recent one which began in the 16th Century...not ancient...like the roots of the Islamic connection".

Egyptian opinions

Egyptian Minister of Waqfs, Mahmoud Hamdi Zakzouk, has asserted that the Western Wall is not a Jewish holy site. Another high ranking Egyptian Muslim authority, Mufti Nasr Fradid Wassel, has decreed that the Western Wall remain an Islamic endowment for ever, explaining that it is a part of the western wall of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. He added that the Wall would belong to Muslims all over the world "until the end of earth" and that it is religiously forbidden for Muslims to refer to Buraq Wall as the Wailing Wall.

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