Give Ivanka Trump a Break, She Didn’t Get the Western Wall Wrong

Twitter erupted after the first daughter described Jerusalem’s Kotel as the holiest site in Judaism; as part of the Temple Mount, that’s exactly what it is

Ivanka Trump touches the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, May 22, 2017.
Ivanka Trump touches the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, May 22, 2017. REUTERS/Heidi Levine/Pool

When Ivanka Trump, a daughter and adviser of U.S. President Donald Trump, visited Jerusalem’s Western Wall on Monday, she left a note between its stones, as is traditional, and then tweeted out a photograph of herself, writing: “It was deeply meaningful to visit the holiest site of my faith and to leave a note of prayer.”

A few snarky readers of the first daughter’s Twitter feed corrected her, arguing that the holiest site is the Temple Mount, not the Kotel below it.

Polly Sugartree wrote: "Oh Ivanka, you really do take after your father. The holiest site is at the top of Temple Mount, not at the Wailing Wall..."

A Twitter user called thomas53280, whose handle in Hebrew describes him as "leftist, but rational," wrote: "Our holiest site is the Temple Mount, but any way, welcome Ivanka, it is your second home."

Trump deserves to win this round.

It is true that while the Temple stood, Jews considered its innermost chamber the most sacred place on earth: Once a year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the high priest entered the holy of holies, where, according to the Talmud, he uttered the ineffable name of God.

Just as the pronunciation of the tetragrammaton, the four-letter name he spoke, is no longer known, so the exact location of the holy of holies was lost to history when the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E., although some archaeologists and other scholars believe they have calculated its location to a fair degree of certainty. It is because the precise location of the inner sanctum is not known with certainty that rabbinical tradition has barred Jews from the Temple Mount, for fear they would inadvertently tread on the forbidden holy ground of the holy of holies.

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The Kotel Hama’aravi (Western Wall, in Hebrew) is all that remained of the Second Temple complex after it was razed; it is the western retaining wall of the platform — the Temple Mount — built by King Herod starting in the first century B.C.E. to hold the grand reconstruction, greatly enlarged, of the Second Temple. (Solomon’s Temple — the First Temple — was destroyed in 586 B.C.E. and replaced by the original Second Temple 70 years later, after the return from exile in Babylon.)

A Roman temple took the place of Herod’s sanctuary, and after the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem, in the seventh century, the entire platform became a holy site for Muslims, who built the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Thereafter, the closest Jews could get to the site of the holy Temple was the Western Wall, and that became a site of pilgrimage for Jews who visited or lived in the Land of Israel during two millennia of exile. As a focal point of Jewish longing and mourning for the loss of the Temple and of the Land in general, the Kotel was called by many the Wailing Wall. But Polly Sugartree dated herself in using that terminology. Jews throughout the word today refer to the Kotel or the Western Wall.

During the 19 years when the Old City was in Jordanian hands and off-limits to Israelis, even the Western Wall could not be visited. But after 1967, it was again accessible to Jews, and everyone else, and quickly turned into an open-air Orthodox synagogue. For Jews who focus their religious devotion on physical locations, it is indeed the holiest spot in the world, certainly the holiest place they may visit, because it is part and parcel of the Temple Mount, and because the exact coordinates of the holy of holies are unknown and would be off-limits if they were known.