A story is told of a young boy who visited the Western Wall for the first time. He was perhaps a tad skeptical of its significance and his father watched on nervously as the boy cautiously approached the wall and held out his hand. The young boy’s fingers traced the ancient stone, but the boy retreated and backed off quickly from the wall. A minute later he returned, dragging a chair from the plaza outside, to the surprise of his father. The boy pulled the chair up to the wall and clambered upon it. Standing on his tiptoes he reached up his hand and touched the very tallest stone he could manage, letting a small smile slowly spread across his face.
Walking away from the Western Wall, hand in hand, the boy’s father asked whether his son had found any significance or emotion in the experience. The boy replied: “father, I felt how smooth the stones were just above ground level, but how rough they were where no hands could reach to touch them. This wall is a place where people rest their heads, grasp the bricks with their hands and let their tears smooth the façade. This is a place of hope and beauty.”
Amidst the cool stones, smoothed and softened by endless hands, little prayers lay curled up between yellowing pages of hopeful notes. From all over the world, people of all walks of life write down their innermost feelings and burry them in the gaps along the face of the Western Wall. Many have come to accept this tradition as standard, but it wasn’t always so, and in fact there are those who would rather that the practice come to a swift end. But let’s begin at the beginning.
The Western Wall is a portion of ancient limestone wall in the Old City of Jerusalem which forms part of the large retaining wall of the Temple Mount built by Herod the Great. It is often considered the holiest place in the world for Jews, as it is the closest place that they are permitted to pray outside the Temple Mount. The largest part of the wall is used for prayer and is sometimes referred to as the Wailing Wall or the Kotel. It is here that we find thousands of crinkled notes stuffed into its cracks.
There is a curious tradition amongst mankind to make our presence known in any place we visit. From the earliest times people were carving their identities into stone, and even today one needn’t look far to find an urban wall brightened by graffitied names: “John woz ‘ere”. Understandably then, during the British Mandate period, the authorities decreed that the Western Wall was too precious to be defaced, in a ruling that follows: “It shall be held… that the Western Wall should not be disfigured by having any engravings or inscriptions placed upon it…and that the Wall should be kept clean and be properly respected.”
Along with this decree came the presumed end of people writing their heartfelt prayers and wishes on the face of the Western Wall, but it was not so.
Indeed, a new solution had to be found for people to leave behind a lasting memory of their spoken prayers, so the famous tradition of prayer notes was born (or perhaps reborn, as we shall soon see). Initially, those who travelled to the wall to pray would write out their meditations on the spot, placing them directly into the cracks. But as word spread of this venerable tradition, more and more people wanted to take part. Soon it became accepted that anyone travelling to the Western Wall would bring with them the pleas of all their friends and families. Notes would fill all the available spaces and begin to tumble out onto the plaza below.
Yet sources differ regarding the very first occurrence of placing notes in the Western Wall. Rabbi Gedaliah of Semitzi visited the Western Wall in 1699 and was supposedly the first one to record that letters were to be found in the crevices. Others say Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar was the one who first noted this phenomenon.
Conversely, according to Rabbi Zalman Koren, a great expert of the Western Wall, the tradition dates back to the days of the Chassidim who would give their rebbe notes called kvitlech with names of those who he should bless during prayer. When the rebbe died, these notes would be placed on his grave instead. As Chassidim made their way to Jerusalem in the 1700s, this ritual spread to leaving notes in the Western Wall, a practice then adopted by others.
The Book of Remembrance for the late Rabbi Getz, who served as Rabbi of the Western Wall until 2005, disagrees. He tells the moving story of a man who wept over his dying wife. As his tears fell, a heavenly hand passed him a note and a holy voice instructed him: “Go out immediately to the Western Wall, place the note between the stones and you will receive complete healing,” implying that it was already customary to bury notes in the Western Wall nearly 260 years ago.
More biblical sources are also quoted as the root of this tradition. The biblical commentator Ramban notes that the Children of Israel were writing their prayers on notes in order to receive blessings even during the exodus from Egypt, and sources for inscribing prayers in note form can be found in Ezra 9:8 and Isaiah 22:23 too. Clearly there is dispute about the origins of inserting notes into the Western Wall – and fierce competition to be the first person to have remarked upon this tradition. The truth is that we probably don’t know who wrote the first prayer note – in fact, it has surely long since disintegrated, or been buried… which leads us to the next fascinating debate in the world of Western Wall notes.
The tradition being as old as it is (and how old is that, I’m still confused!) today anyone visiting the Western Wall would have to swim through a sea of letters if it were not for the Jewish law forbidding the desecration of any article containing the name of G-d. Of course, it is impossible to know how many of these little notes contained the name of G-d without hiring a formidable team to open and read each of these private requests, so all the papers must be treated as if they contain those holy letters.
Thus, twice a year before Passover and Rosh Hashanah when hoards of visitors are expected to descend onto the streets of Jerusalem, the rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinovitch, immerses in the mikve, takes a long wooden stick, and pries all the notes from the wall. He fills over 100 bags full of notes and takes them to the Mount of Olives to be buried.
When Jews leave notes at the graves of holy rabbis, generally these notes get burned, and there is much deliberation in the rabbinical world over whether the same should be done with the Western Wall notes. Burning the notes is “more pure” but burying them shows “more honor” according to many rabbis, giving the proper respect to the notes’ manifold authors.
So, who are these people writing the notes? Well, everyone! Of course, Jerusalem natives and tourists are the main contributors, but geographical distance is no barrier to having your letter put in the wall. Simply log onto the Western Wall website and type out your prayer. It will be printed anonymously, on size 4 typeface in an illegible font to prevent anyone reading it (don’t worry, G-d has a good pair of eyeglasses), before being hand-placed into the wall. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch also receives hundreds of letters annually, addressed to “G-d, Jerusalem.” He folds up these letters and inserts them, too, in the wall. There is even a fax and email address set up for those who want to send their letters digitally. And of course, an entire department exists in the Israeli Postal Service for the thousands of letters sent to Israel simply addressed “to G-d.” The postal workers take each one and dutifully deliver it to the Western Wall, which would explain why the average Israeli has to wait approximately 781 business days to receive any mail!
Of course, some letters are more high profile than others, although I hear that G-d doesn’t pick favorites. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have placed their prayers into the wall, as well as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Most famously, in 2008 when Barak Obama inserted his note into the wall, it was removed and sold to an Israeli newspaper who published it, to the anger of many.
Not everyone agrees with the idea of putting notes into the Western Wall. Rabbi Zalman Koren famously recounts that many Jews do not bury their requests among the stones of the Western Wall so as not to deface the precious bricks. Rabbi Jacob Joseph agrees that this practice “pollutes” the holy space.
Moreover, Rabbi Meir Simcha Hacohen of Dvinsk clearly states that “Attributing holiness to any object borders on idol worship” and in the bible (2 Kings 18:4) King Hezekiah agrees that worshiping even holy sites and objects is idolatrous. Thus, modern day rabbis often argue that worshiping the Western Wall by placing notes in its crevices is similarly idolatrous, and the debate rages on.
We started with a story, so we shall end with a story: A man told his rabbi that he was going to place a prayer in the Western Wall. “Why?” the rabbi asked, “G-d hears prayers regardless of where you are or how you convey them.” “True, G-d is the same everywhere” replies the man, “but I am not”. The practice of placing notes into the Western Wall is a source of comfort, hope, and encouragement for so many thousands of people, whether in person or via a disgruntled Israeli postal worker. So, debate all you like, it seems that the tradition is here to stay.