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