There’s a well-known photograph from 1910 showing men and women praying side by side in front of the Western Wall. It accompanies an essay called “The Temple Mount in Jewish Thought,” by historian Miriam Frenkel that appears in the book “Where Heaven and Earth Meet: Jerusalem’s Sacred Esplanade.” No mechitza (barrier separating the sexes) divides these pious-looking Jews as they gather to pour out their hearts before the site that was the closest they could get to the location of the holy Temple.
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The Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Although Jews were officially prohibited from residing in Jerusalem not long after that, it was still possible for them to visit for most of the millennium and a half that followed the hurban (destruction). Jews continued to make pilgrimages to the place where both it and Solomon’s Temple – the First Temple – had stood.
Those pilgrimages included ascending to the Mount itself until Maimonides, the 12th-century philosopher and scientist, put an end to the practice. He ruled that a permanent state of ritual impurity attached to all Jews since the destruction meant that they were forbidden from setting foot on the Temple Mount. As a result, Jews began redirecting their attentions to other sites in the vicinity of the Mount, principally the Mount of Olives, from which one can gaze directly at the site.
According to Frenkel, a professor of Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, it was only after the Ottoman conquest of Jerusalem in 1516 that the tradition of visiting the Western Wall became common among Jews. This was because the city’s new rulers prohibited non-Muslims from ascending to the Temple Mount, the location of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. At the same time, many Jewish exiles from Spain began to settle in the city. For them, the Kotel became a favored site of devotion.
The Western, or Wailing, Wall was not part of the Temple. Until contemporary excavations exposed much more of it, the Kotel was the only known remnant of the retaining wall that supported the large esplanade built by King Herod in the first century B.C.E. to hold his grandiose reconstruction of the Second Temple.
Frenkel writes how, “by the seventeenth century nearly all Jewish worship was concentrated around the Western Wall.” She quotes an anonymous Italian traveler who wrote after visiting the city in 1626 that, “‘I kissed it and prostrated myself at its feet and there I said regular prayers.’” Frenkel adds that, “similar testimonies are found in Karaite writings from this period.”
With the cabinet’s decision on Sunday to cancel the 2016 agreement to establish an egalitarian prayer space at the wall, Jews will be prohibited from doing what Karaites, a members of an 8th-century offshoot of Jewry that doesn’t believe in the force of the Talmud, were permitted to do in the 17th century: To pray in a manner that accords with their beliefs.
With the start of the three-week period that precedes Tisha B’Av, the day that tradition says both the First and Second Temples were destroyed - which is only two weeks away, Jews can expect to hear frequent references to the “baseless hatred” that the Talmud (Yoma 9b) tells us led to the Roman demolition of the sanctuary. Baseless hatred among Jews, that is. Whereas it was God who destroyed the First Temple as punishment for the Israelites’ sins of idol worship, forbidden sexual relations and bloodshed, we are told that the leveling of the Second Temple didn’t require divine intervention. The ripple effects of hatred and disunity among Jews can have unanticipated consequences.