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The road to the Western Wall begins in the chilly lanes and alleyways of the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem, which are now lit up with thousands of colored lights to mark the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. At five in the morning, two elderly imams, walking sticks in their hands, march over to one of the mosques to announce the start of dawn prayers that mark the end of the time when eating is permitted, before the daily fast. Until then, the youngsters seated at the door to the grocery store have a few more minutes to continue cracking open pumpkin seeds and to chat. After that, they will follow the imams to the mosques on the Temple Mount.

The month of Ramadan and the Jewish month of mercy and slihot (penitential prayers) started on the same day this year. From a spiritual point of view, they have more than a few aspects in common, but in the world of flesh and blood, within the square kilometer that is the Old City of Jerusalem, every tribe does its accounting with its God in its own way. Armed policemen are posted at points of friction to ensure that these two spiritual worlds do not rub shoulders too closely.

The Western Wall plaza appears between the narrow streets that surround the holy basin, flooded in blinding light and filled with the voices of the tens of thousands who are praying for their souls. "Human being, why are you sleeping? Get up and read your prayers for mercy," recites one group, while another group alongside it is chanting at the top of their voices, "thirteen good qualities" as their voices are drowned by the sounding of shofars (rams' horns) by two other minyan (prayer quorum) groups.

For two weeks now, since the month of Elul began, this is how the Western Wall has looked, and how it can be heard from midnight until morning. Tens of thousands of people pass by every night, divided by ethnic group and approaches. On this coming Saturday night, they will be joined by Ashkenazi Jews, and the Western Wall rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, estimates that the number of nightly worshippers will skyrocket to some 150,000 people, including the tourists who come to observe them. Who said there is no night life in Jerusalem?

This night life is divided by different traditions and sub-traditions, and every ethnic group has its own "order of slihot" - the "slihot meduyak," the "sha'arei tefila," the "Kavanot halev," the Yemenite Jews' "Ashmorot," the slihot according to the Italian Jewish community, and those according to the text of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. In one of his rulings, Rabbi Yosef says that "the main point in praying for forgiveness must be intention and pleasure and moderation and exceptional humility - and it must be understood that what he says comes from a broken and depressed heart." He criticizes those who recite the hymns too quickly, but on the other hand also those who "force themselves to get up from sleep and to go to the synagogue where they raise their voices in joyful recitation, and recite the slihot at the top of their voices in the same way as they sing the liturgical poems and tunes; these people inherit three kinds of hell and moreover, their effort gets lost because they have come to say slihot and not to shout."

In the covered area of the Western Wall, an untidily clad Jew is standing and reading liturgical poems with a cracked voice; one moment he is racing along and then he slows down, and then stops, moans, cries, and then sings with flourishes. Behind him stand some 200 worshippers, who constitute one of the largest minyans at the Wall during the nights of the month of Elul. Their cantor is Rabbi Yaakov Addas, who has gained the reputation of being a "tzaddik" (righteous man) not only among Jews of Sephardi descent, but also among ultra-Orthodox and knitted skull-capped Jews of Ashkenazi descent.

His father is Rabbi Yehuda Addas, head of a renowned Sephardi yeshiva that has wholeheartedly adopted the Ashkenazi tradition, but he himself has become highly involved in the Kabbalah, the mysteries of which he studied at Yeshivat Hashalom. That yeshiva, which is located close to Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda open-air market, two nights ago held a "tikkun avonot" (amending sins) ceremony for the month of Elul. During the prayer session and ceremony, the participants wound steel wires around their bodies and rubbed their skins with blocks of ice as a purifying act of contrition before the Day of Judgment.

Rabbi Yaakov Addas is known for the ascetic way of life he has adopted year-round. He walks around in torn trousers, his hair is wild, and he wears shoes without laces and socks, while at night he sleeps on the floor.

In the ultra-orthodox Internet forum, "atzor kan hoshvim" ("stop, here people think"), a subversive intellectual stage, a discussion started in recent days about the use being made by rabbis of "fear of retribution" as a means of being strengthened during the days of atonement. One anonymous participant claimed that what is happening in his community in anticipation of the High Holidays is that people are "occupying themselves with a search for momentary experiences, and who knows whether these are not imaginary." And in another discussion, that is a little older, someone wrote: "forgive me, saying slihot is meant for simple people, for those who still have primitive beliefs that such-and-such penitential poems and moans and groans will turn the balance of the scales, so that a good and sweet year will be organized for them." Another participant answered him that "getting up in the morning before the dawn breaks, together with a mass movement in the direction of the synagogue, puts one in the atmosphere of preparation for moral renewal."

But at the Western Wall, it is possible to forget about this kind of learned discussion. The large minyan of Rabbi Addas, with his ascetic appearance and his cracked voice, also attracts a not-insignificant group of ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews, even though according to Ashkenazi tradition the slihot will begin only in a few days' time. "Slihot have turned into a trend," one of them explains, apparently himself part of that trend. And he adds two other reasons: "Rabbi Addas is a truly righteous man, and anyway the slihot of the Sephardi Jews are much more beautiful."