The Children of ’73 Write About the Yom Kippur War

Letters written by Israeli children during the 1973 war reveal how they experienced one of the nation's most challenging periods.

Photo by Eli Landau, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Today, forty-seven years after the Yom Kippur War, they are well into their fifties and sixties. Back then, in the fall of 1973, they were only schoolchildren, young boys and girls. To find out what they remember from that time, we can simply ask them, most are still with us. To know what they felt and thought in real time, when the events actually happened, we must read their letters.

The war caught not only the Israeli army and government off guard, but also the nation’s press. This included a number of newspapers and magazines intended for children. Two days after the war’s outbreak, on October 8th, Davar Leyeladim (a weekly children’s supplement of the Davar daily) published its Sukkot holiday issue. The only mention of the war was a short item at the top of the first page. It began with the words: “With the closing of this issue, on the eve of Yom Kippur, a fourth war broke out between Israel and its neighbors: the Syrian army crossed the border in the Golan Heights and the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal. Fierce battles are being waged on land, at sea and in the air.”

Plainly, there was an attempt to reassure young readers and present Israel as in control of the situation—even before the fog of war had lifted: “The Israeli home front has been called up and everyone has gone out to do their duty. At the time of writing, the IDF, with supreme heroism, is blocking the enemy’s advance and the both the Syrian and Egyptian armies are suffering heavy losses. News from the front lines is still vague, [and here there appears a quote from Defense Minister Moshe Dayan who predicts that “there is no doubt that the war will end in our favor!”].

The cover of the October 8th issue of the children’s supplement, Davar Leyeladim, made no mention of war…

The October 8th issue of the Haaretz children’s edition managed to update its readers further, but even there the news filled only a single page. In it, readers learned of the “small and insignificant” achievements of the Arab armies, “considering the fact that the enemy struck the opening blow.”

“Considering the fact that the enemy struck the opening blow, their achievements were small and insignificant.” – One page was dedicated to the war in the October 8th issue of the Haaretz children’s edition

Subsequent issues presented a more complete picture of the war’s events, in greater detail—with emphasis on the soldiers and their stories. Nevertheless, most of the issues maintained their pre-war format and regular sections, including serial fiction, children’s songs and even jokes. The section relevant to our discussion is “Haaretz Shelanu Readers Write” published in Haaretz Shelanu (“Our Country”), a children’s weekly.  There we learn that despite the intention of keeping up a routine even during the country’s most difficult moments, the war clearly consumed the thoughts of the nation’s children.

The first time we hear these children’s voices is the third week of the war, in Haaretz Shelanu’s October 22nd issue. In the letters from readers we hear the paralyzing fear caused by the fighting. Anat Gavrieli from Tel Aviv wrote: “Dear editor, I know there is a war. The Egyptians surprised us and ambushed us. I feel uneasy. There are real sirens, [not just drills]. Instead of going down to the shelter, I stay at home, seized with fear. On radio and television—all the time its war . . .  I am glued to the radio like a snail to its shell. I hope and pray that there will be peace and that the war will end in peace.”

Alongside the striving for peace, we find quite a bit of anger over the surprise attack: “Dear editor, the Arabs are cowards! We are not! Our enemies thought to defeat us during the day of fasting and prayer, but they soon learned that despite the fast we were ready to fight for our very right to fast and pray in peace. Our victory is assured, because our fight is a fight for life,” wrote 10-year-old Liora Binyamin of Haifa.

“…immediately, a siren went off. I put my sister Maya in the carriage and went downstairs. I played with her in the bomb shelter…Many thoughts went through my head. When the all-clear was given, they asked me: ‘Why are you always daydreaming?’ I didn’t answer…Hagit Kanev, #55 Tchernichovsky Street, Haifa”

Fear, longing for peace and anger also appear in later issues, alongside the simple questions and thoughts of the children. When the sirens sounded, Hagit Nakav and her sister went down to a bomb shelter in their apartment building in Haifa. To pass the time the two played, and “suddenly I thought: there in the north they are fighting, and here am I sitting and playing.” In the midst of the chaos of war and anguished concern for brothers and fathers fighting for their lives, Meirav Bieber, 10, from Raanana, sent a question: “In wartime, like now, what happens to the animals at the zoo? Are they put in shelters, or left in cages? And if they are left, what happens if a bomb falls on them? It’s animal cruelty!”

Comparisons between Israel and its enemies in the war focused on the question of sanctity of life. The children writing to the newspaper wrote decisively, as Anat Kasavi from Nahariya put it: “They, the Arabs, do not care at all about their people! If one falls, ten replace him. This is not the case with us! 658 dead after a week of fighting, from our very best! I don’t want our people to die, and I don’t want our enemies to die!”

”I don’t want our people to die, and I don’t want our enemies to die!… Anat Kasavi, #45 Herzl Street, Nahariya”

Many of the young letter writers wrote about life on the home front in the shadow of the war. Ella Tamar from Tel Aviv wrote about the war’s silent, overlooked heroine—the bereaved mother. Twelve-year-old Ella chose to link the figure of the bereaved mother to stories from the Bible, and held the patriarch Abraham’s heroism on a par with the grieving mothers, adding, “When the farmer sows his fields he knows he will soon reap the harvest. Yet these mothers will not reap theirs; they will not see their sons grow up and witness the fruits of their labor. The war prevented that. “

“When the farmer sows his fields he knows he will soon reap the harvest. Yet these mothers will not reap theirs; they will not see their sons grow up and witness the fruits of their labor…Ella Tamar, 12 years old, #47 Frishman Street, Tel Aviv”

With the announcement of the ceasefire, the country’s children turned once again to expressing their longing for peace. Gadi Marcus from Tel Hashomer wrote, “I think in my heart how awful war is. Apart from the many casualties, there is a lack of a workforce on the home front. Everything must be done for peace.”

With the fighting ended, the young writers were able to think about their enemies’ motivations for going to war. Talia Nur, 12, from Bat Yam, thought the surprise attack by the Egyptians and Syrians stemmed from a sense of loss of confidence after Israel’s decisive victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, and claimed that the “arrogance and dismissiveness” that characterized the Israeli attitude ahead of the Yom Kippur war was “not the right way to estimate the Arabs.” Eleven-year-old Ronit Hagai from Ramat Gan wondered: “Maybe most of the Arabs did not want to fight, and it was only the leaders who incited them?”

“Arrogance and dismissiveness is not the right way to estimate the Arabs….Talia Nol, 12 years old, #22 Rabbi Kook Street, Bat Yam”

Some of the writers responded to other children’s letters, such as seventh grader Galil Ben-Dor from Gvat: “Even though the Arabs were forced to retreat, they were not broken. Do not think, Liora, that we are braver than the Arabs.”

“Even though the Arabs were forced to retreat, they were not broken. Do not think, Liora, that we are braver than the Arabs…Galil Ben-Dor, 7th grade, Gvat”

The contributions of the Israeli youths themselves to the war effort were also occasionally mentioned, such as in this letter published in the November 26th issue:

“We worked in the gardens, washed cars and more, and collected 1210 Israel liras. We hope such acts will help us win this difficult war…Shani Herzberg and Yonah Davidovitch, 8th grade, Brandeis School, Herzliya”

With the war’s end and the rise of public debate on what was immediately dubbed “The Fiasco,” the youth displayed an impressive engagement in current affairs. Was it Dayan’s fault? Should the entire government take responsibility? Should the ruling party receive the blame? The figure of Motti Ashkenazi soon came to the forefront. Ashkenazi was a reserve officer whose personal campaign against the Israeli leadership’s failures surrounding the war became a public protest movement. Who was in the right—Dayan or Ashkenazi? What were the limits of legitimate criticism? These questions riveted the attention of children who were only ten or twelve years old. Even if their words echo those of their parents and other adults around them, their preoccupation with and articulation of the issues appears very mature today. Here are some excerpts:

“Motti Ashkenazi is nothing but a chatty parrot, who shouts and screams as he marches around the Knesset. And it is shameful for the State of Israel that a man who speaks so much nonsense is not stopped!… Ilana Zohar, Beer Sheva”

“It is possible that Moshe Dayan is culpable for what happened, but in fact we are all flesh and blood, every person can make a mistake, but he certainly didn’t do it on purpose. Therefore we must understand him and logically consider his actions in the correct way…Melli Herbst, #30 Uziel Street, Ramat Gan”

“Ruthi, you yourself wrote that Israel is a democracy, and that includes freedom of expression. So why shouldn’t Motti Ashkenazi express himself publicly?…Varda Harif, #22 Tirza Street, Ramat Gan”

“The people elected Moshe Dayan 6 years ago, and now, because of the war’s fiascos, support for Moshe Dayan has waned. Motti Ashkenazi demands that Dayan resign, and rightfully so. Moshe Dayan, as the minister responsible for state security, must bear the consequences…Noam Ben-Ozer, 10 years old, Kibbutz Gan-Shmuel”



This article is based on a previous article by Ioram Melcer.

When Jews From the Land of Israel Vacationed in Lebanon

There was a time when Lebanon's coastal cities and snowy peaks were leading tourist destinations for the Jewish residents of Mandatory Palestine

From the Ephemera Collection at the National Library of Israel

As a result of the famous Sykes-Picot agreement, a line was drawn in the Middle East, separating Israel, Transjordan and Iraq, which were given to the British, and Syria and Lebanon, which were given to the French. This border wasn’t as inflexible as the modern boundaries we know today. Though tensions certainly existed, these were mainly felt between the various ethnic and religious groups of the region, Arabs and Jews among them. When it came to relations between the respective governments that ruled Mandatory Palestine and Lebanon (and Syria), ties were in fact quite cordial: merchandise was sent from one place to the other, the railways laid down by the Ottomans connected distant lands, and most importantly – people traveled freely across the region.

As a result, just as Jewish merchants moved between Jerusalem, Damascus, Halab, and Beirut during the days of the Ottoman Empire, citizens of Mandatory Palestine – both Jews and Arabs – continued to visit their northern neighbors while living under British rule. The local tourist industry in particular, flourished during this period. Lebanon was considered a fascinating and attractive destination: its southern shores, the vibrant metropolis of Beirut and the beautiful snow-capped mountains – a rare sight in the Middle East. The Hebrew press and bulletin boards were filled with advertisements appealing to the Jewish readers to come and relax in Lebanon.


From the Ephemera Collection at the National Library of Israel

Hundreds of enticing illustrations and advertisements were frequently published in the papers. Ads promoting the country’s many hotels emphasized the cool, almost European weather and the cedar trees viewable from one’s window. These tourist establishments were often given French names to increase their prestige in the eyes of the holiday goers. Just like ads common to this day, they emphasized the short distance from the hub of Beirut, and promised lavish accommodations at affordable prices.


“Gather strength and health in Lebanon – Gaiety and comfort at low cost”, from Do’ar Hayom, June 14th, 1935


An ad promoting the Grand Hotel Casino at Ain Sofar, promising the latest modern appliances – an elevator, central heating, kosher European cuisine, 5 o’ clock tea – all supervised by “Viennese management”, for just 55 francs per day. From Do’ar Hayom, July 29th, 1934

What else attracted potential Hebrew tourists? Ski! In the arid Land of Israel, there weren’t many snowy places to engage in this popular European hobby, but in Lebanon, winter sports flourished, even in springtime. Ski instructors were brought in from Europe, and the promise of enjoying snow so close to home attracted many.

An ad promoting ski trips to Sofar, Lebanon, with two Swiss ski instructors, from Do’ar Hayom, March 5th, 1935


The snowy peak of Jabal Al Barouk in the Chouf Mountains, Lebanon, 1929. From the archives of the Hebrew Reali School of Haifa, the Bitmuna Collection

So let’s say you decided to spend your summer vacation in Lebanon. How would you get there? You could take the train of course, but why settle for that? Tourists were invited to board one of the ships departing from the port of Haifa and stopping at various ports en route to Beirut, and beyond. You could also choose to travel by bus – these departed from the central bus station in Tel Aviv. The Egged Museum still holds travel tickets to these exotic destinations. And for several hundred Palestine pounds (liras), you could even take a taxi from Haifa.

From the Ephemera Collection at the National Library of Israel


On the way to Baalbek, 1929. Photo: Jenka Ratner, the Bitmuna Collection

Of course, you could choose to spend your vacation on an organized trip. The travel company would take care of everything. That way, you could be sure not to miss any significant destination or attraction. Where did these tourists visit? It was unheard of to complete a trip to Lebanon without a tour of the coastal cities, driving up to the Lebanese mountains, and last but not least, visiting the ancient ruins of Baalbek.

An ad promoting a 10-day organized trip to “Lebanon, the Alawite State and Syria”, including stops in Beirut, Tripoli, Aleppo and Damascus. From the Ephemera Collection at the National Library of Israel

Without doubt, Lebanon was considered an attractive, intriguing destination for many. In the 1930s, competition was so fierce, that hotels even enticed Jewish holidaymakers with the promise of kosher food. Hebrew newspapers published advertisements for acquisitions or partnerships in these hotels, and lectures on the geography of Syria and Lebanon were often given by senior lecturers, educators, and geographers of the Hebrew community in Mandatory Palestine.

An ad listing Lebanese hotels offering kosher meals, from Ha’aretz, July 1st, 1935


Apparently, the practice was so widespread, that summer trips to Lebanon were still being promoted during the early days of the 1936–1939 Arab revolt.  However, it seems as though during this period, some of the hotels went bankrupt. A hotel in Metula at the northern tip of the Land of Israel named itself “The Snows of Lebanon” (Sheleg-HaLevanon) and invited the local holiday-goers to its premises, instead of spending money abroad, in such times of hardship.

The Snows of Lebanon Hotel in Metula, the Bitmuna Collection

Adverts about trips to Lebanon were advertised even during World War II, although after the Germans conquered France, enemy soldiers were stationed in Syria and Lebanon. However, after Lebanon gained independence in 1943, travel resumed, although to a lesser extent, due to the escalation of the Jewish-Arab conflict in what was still Mandatory Palestine.

An ad from 1945 advertising an organized week-long trip to Syria and Lebanon. From the Ephemera Collection at the National Library of Israel

Of course, the War of Independence and the establishment of the State of Israel brought an end to this popular practice. And until we can resume skiing down the slopes of the Chouf Mountains, or sunbathing on Beirut’s beaches, we invite those of you who may recall a family trip to Lebanon, to tell us about it here in the comments, on Facebook, or Twitter.

The National Day of Mourning… and Fundraising?

In the early 20th century, Zionists rallied around Tisha B’Av

Both Jewish Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed on the same date, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, or “Tisha B’Av“. Besides destroying the national religious and spiritual center – the very home of the divine presence on Earth, according to Jewish tradition – each destruction was accompanied by mass carnage, unspeakable violence and forced expulsion still mourned thousands of years later.

The Destruction of the Temple, as depicted in an early 18th century Dutch prayer book. From Seder Hamisha Taaniot, printed in Amsterdam by Abraham Attias, ca. 1727. Click image to enlarge

The Biblical “Sin of the Spies” over three millennia ago; the disastrous end of the Bar Kokhva Revolt in the year 135 CE; the beginning of the First Crusade and its murderous destruction of Jewish communities across Europe; the Medieval expulsions of Jews from England, France and Spain; and the bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994 are just a few of the events that have also occurred on or around Tisha B’Av over the centuries.

To this day, Tisha B’Av is a day for mourning these national tragedies. Traditionally observant Jews mark it by fasting and refraining from worldly pleasures. Somber poetry, written across the generations, is read while community members sit on the floor, morning the destruction of the Temples and the other national calamities associated with the day.

Yet, in the early 20th century, there was a major effort to turn this day of grief and sadness into one of hope, renewal and redemption.  In fact, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) made Tisha B’Av into a major fundraising day, soliciting contributions from around the world to support the renewal of Jewish life in the Land of Israel.

An early 20th century Jewish National Fund postcard showing founder Theodor Herzl, Zionist pioneers and the Old City of Jerusalem. Publisher: “Lebanon” publishing company, Warsaw; From the Postcard Collection, National Library of Israel archives.

According to Dr. Hezi Amiur, curator of the Israel Collection at the National Library of Israel, “Tisha B’Av is considered a national day of mourning and the JNF would often utilize ‘national days’ such as Hannukah and Tu B’Shvat for fundraising purposes. These were called ‘Ribbon Days’, and they presented a major source of income for the young Zionist movement.”

While fundraising is not generally associated with this most somber day, JNF would use it to raise serious funds from thousands of communities across the globe. In fact, from the organization’s founding in 1901 by Theodor Herzl, Tisha B’Av was commemorated by asking Jews across the world for money to help rebuild the common ancestral homeland.

Within just a few decades, the calls for support declared that there was no more free land left to accommodate the burgeoning Zionist enterprise. Contributions were needed to buy more land in Palestine, and to continue building infrastructure to support the courageous halutzim (pioneers).

One call to action published in 1926 under the banner “Remember Jewish National Fund on Tisha B’Av” asked “every true Jew to donate on the Ninth of Av, the day of national mourning, a piece of land in Palestine for the Jewish people.”

All were implored to be generous according to their means, with everyone asked to give at least enough to purchase 1/4 of a dunam (roughly 1/16 of an acre, or 250 square meters) of land. After all, continued the cry, “Fellow Jews! The sacrifice we ask of you is insignificantly small in comparison with the sacrifices of our brave Halutzim who are giving their all for the restoration of the homeland.”

Excerpt from an article urging international contributions to JNF on Tisha B’Av, published in The B’Nai B’Rith Messenger on July 16, 1926. Click for the full article

A mixture of Jewish guilt and Biblical inspiration was employed to encourage donors to open their wallets:

“Consult your own conscience, your Jewish heart, your racial pride and do your duty to your People. Claim no exception, attempt not to evade your own sense of duty, bring your brick towards the great structure, help redeem Erez Israel! From the grief over the Desolation, onward to the joy of Restoration!”

While different years had slightly different styles and themes, often relating to current events, it was generally the same call to action: Brave Jews in the Land of Israel need your support!

In 1924, donors were enticed with commemorative illustrated receipt booklets, a visual reminder of their help rebuilding the Land. Three years later, Tisha B’Av came just a few weeks after a devastating earthquake rattled the Levant. Jews were forbidden from praying at the Western Wall, after the authorities forbade it as a precaution following massive damage caused to many of Jerusalem’s structures. Nonetheless, instead of lamenting this additional point of sadness on the national day of mourning, the JNF encouraged donors around the globe to “shake to the core the indifference… of the many who could aid mightily in the speedy up-building of a Jewish Palestine”, and turn the day into “a splendid beginning… by swelling the coffers of the Jewish National Fund this Tisha B’Ab.”

Jerusalem following the 1927 earthquake. From the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

In 1939, Biblical verses and powerful imagery were used to gather contributions and rally opposition to the recently published White Paper, which severely limited Jewish immigration to British Mandatory Palestine. Less than a decade later, the State of Israel was born, largely thanks to decades of financial and political support from Jews across the world.

“If I forget you Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning.” This image, published in The Sentinel on July 20, 1939, appeared as part of JNF efforts to raise funds and opposition to the White Paper. Click for the full article

It may seem strange or even inappropriate to use the saddest day on the Jewish calendar – one commemorating destruction, slaughter and expulsion – to fundraise. Yet, in a way, turning mourning into hope and action is a reflection of the resilient Jewish spirit over the centuries, and even more so of the Zionist dream to rebuild and resettle the very land from which the Jewish people were exiled millennia ago.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

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When and how did Jews begin praying at the Western Wall?


View of the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

When reading the headline above, those familiar with Jewish sources may be quick to respond by quoting the Midrash: “The Divine Presence has never departed from the Western Wall.” Yet those very knowledgeable people surely know that the Western Wall mentioned by our sages of blessed memory is not the same enormous wall we today call the Western Wall. How then, did the western retaining wall of the Herodian Temple Mount come to be the most prominent national-religious site for Jews around the world?

Jewish women wearing shawls pray in front of the Western Wall. From the Postcard Collection at the National Library of Israel

Let’s start at the beginning. As mentioned, the Western Wall next to which people pray today is one of the four retaining walls built by King Herod as part of the expansion and renovation of the Temple Mount compound and the Temple that stood in the center of it. Yet another quote from the sages concerning the Herodian Temple states the claim: “He who has not seen the Temple of Herod has never seen a beautiful building” (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 4a). And while most sages probably never got a chance to glimpse the Taj Mahal or the Palace of Versailles, it does seem accurate to say that Herod’s Temple must not have been too shabby. This Temple came to its end in the infamous year 70 CE, when the Roman legions burned it down during the conquest of Jerusalem and suppression of the Great Revolt.

When the sages wrote of “the Western Wall” (HaKotel HaMa’aravi in Hebrew), they probably were still able to see the remains of the western wall of the actual Temple building itself, in addition to the retaining walls of the Temple Mount plaza. This was an impressive relic that apparently remained standing after the Roman fire. This was the wall closest to the Holy of Holies, and its miraculous survival probably added to the sense of awe and sanctity of the place. According to historical estimates, its final destruction occurred by the end of the seventh century at the latest, when the recently arrived Muslims built the Dome of the Rock on the same site. We will return to this lost Western Wall later.

The Western Wall and Jerusalem from a map of holy places in the Land of Israel. Click here to view the this full map from the National Library’s Eran Laor Cartographic Collection

At some point, the Temple building’s western wall was destroyed, and what remained was the western wall of the Temple Mount – the retaining wall of Herod’s plaza. However, anyone who has ever looked over the Old City must have noticed that this is not the only wall of the Temple Mount left standing. The southern and eastern walls of Herod’s mighty building project also remain, and still support the Temple Mount plaza. Only the northern wall is no longer visible today. The southern and eastern walls were actually incorporated into the walls of the Old City itself. The famous Gate of Mercy, also known as the Golden Gate, through which the Messiah is traditionally supposed to enter Jerusalem, was carved into the eastern Wall.

Indeed, testimonies of travelers who visited the Land of Israel as early as the Byzantine period do not mention prayers taking place on the western side of the Temple Mount necessarily. The account of the “Pilgrim of Bordeaux”, who visited in 333 testifies that Jews still ascended the Temple Mount once a year (probably on the 9th of Av), “and wept and mourned over one stone that remained from their Temple and anointed it with oil.” Could this have been the Foundation Stone which sits today inside the Dome of the Rock? In any case, whether for halakhic reasons or due to the objections of various rulers, Jews stopped ascending the mount itself and contented themselves with frequenting adjacent areas.

Prayer at the Western Wall. From the Postcard Collection at the National Library of Israel

Later testimonies mention the Western Wall, but not necessarily the place of worship known to us today. A text from the Cairo Genizah written in the 11th century records prayers near the Western Wall, but further north, at a site directly facing the destroyed Holy of Holies. The famous 12th-century Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela cites the Western Wall by name, stating that Jews prayed there. However, he also placed the Gate of Mercy in the same wall, though, as mentioned, this gate is actually found in the eastern wall. To this must be added the fact that Jews were generally barred from entering the city during this period, and therefore it is unlikely that he personally witnessed Jews praying near today’s Western Wall.

The Western Wall adorns a map of Jerusalem from the 19th century. Only a few maps of the city prominently display the important site, as most portrayed the city from the east. Click here to view the full map from the National Library Eran Laor Cartographic Collection

Other contemporary travelers mention the Western Wall, but not the custom of praying next to it. Some even point out how the Western Wall stands alone, with none coming to pray or view its massive stone blocks. In the 14th century, Ishtori Haparchi, another famous geographer of the region, wrote of Jews praying at any of the Temple Mount walls which they managed to access, without any particular preference for the one to the west. This description is reinforced by inscriptions engraved by the pilgrims on the various walls (including on the Western Wall) – a common practice in the past among visitors to holy sites.

Men and women praying at the Western Wall, mid-19th century. Photo: Felix Bonfils, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Only in the 17th century did clear evidence of Jewish prayer in the specific location begin to appear. Initially, it was individuals praying, and slowly, over the years, we see increasing reports of public prayers held at the site. At first, these were special prayers on the Ninth of Av, and later a general prayer site formed that became ingrained in the hearts of all Jews. What strengthened the position of the Western Wall over the other retaining walls of the Temple Mount? There seem to be two main reasons: one is that it is the same Western Wall is mentioned by the Jewish sages. Even if there is confusion in identifying the western wall in question, the current Western Wall is indeed still the closest to the Holy of Holies, the ascent to which, at some point, was forbidden. The second reason is perhaps more prosaic: in the middle of the 15th century, the Jews left their neighborhood on Mount Zion and settled instead in the location of today’s Jewish Quarter. The proximity of this new quarter to the Western Wall helped to turn it into the preferred prayer site for Jerusalem’s Jews. An earthquake in the 16th century apparently uncovered more parts of the Western Wall, enabling the creation of the place of worship familiar to us today. It seems the exclusive sanctification of the Western Wall can be traced to this century.

Prayer at the Western Wall, early 20th century. It is possible to see the inscriptions engraved on the wall. Photo: Zadok Basan, from the Moshe David Gaon Archive

This, then, is the story of the most important national-religious site in Judaism today. This is how the wall became the symbol of the Jewish people’s longing for Zion. And, this was the story told by the representatives of the Jewish community in the Land Israel to the British Commission of Inquiry set up following the riots of 1929, which erupted following a dispute over prayer at the Western Wall. And what of the notes crammed into the spaces between the stones? This seems to be a “recent” custom introduced only in the 19th century. It took a firmer hold following the British ban on engraving names on the Western Wall, a practice that is no longer accepted today. Other prayer customs at the Western Wall have also changed over the years: today, for example mixed prayer, with both men and women present, is not permitted by the site’s Orthodox rabbis, though this was the practice during the Ottoman period. It turns out that customs, which may seem timeless to us, are in fact based on traditions which have a habit of changing and developing over time.


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