In Legal Compromise, Women of Wall Forgoes Priestly Blessing Ceremony at Western Wall

In compromise, women read passages from the traditional priestly blessing but did not raise their hands and place prayer shawls over their heads, as men do on Passover when they bless male descendants of priests.

Members of Women of the Wall praying at the Western Wall on Passover, April 24, 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

About 200 women attended Passover prayers Sunday morning as the group Women of the Wall accepted a compromise and did not hold a ceremony normally reserved for men at Jerusalem's Western Wall.

The group held off blessing female descendants of the kohanim, the ancient priestly class. The group backed down after Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit ruled that the ceremony would violate regulations at the site. Women of the Wall held a more limited observance in an area of the women's section set aside for the group.

In the compromise, the women read passages from the traditional priestly blessing but did not raise their hands and place prayer shawls over their heads, as men do on Passover at the Wall when they bless male descendants of priests.

Women of the Wall said the passages would be recited without actually carrying out the ceremony, known as birkat hakohanim in Hebrew, and which is being referred to as birkat hakohanot for women.

At a meeting Thursday, Mendelblit said the female equivalent had no precedent and was being barred in accordance with regulations on the maintenance of holy places. Those regulations prohibit prayer at the holy site not in accordance with “local custom.”

If Women of the Wall went ahead with its ceremony, women might have been arrested, something Mendelblit said he wanted to avoid.

Many members of Women of the Wall wear prayer shawls and tefillin when they take part in the group’s monthly prayer service held for the past 25 years in the women’s section. In the past, they have sometimes been prevented from engaging in their practices, considered sacrilegious by ultra-Orthodox Jews.

But since April 2013, when the Jerusalem District Court ruled that these practices did not violate local custom, the women have been left alone.

"We take exception to the legal stance that the attorney general has taken on this matter, because the holiday shaharit and musaf prayers, which include the birkat hakohanot, are considered part of local custom, as ruled on by the Jerusalem District Court,“ said Riki Shapira-Rosenberg, a lawyer and senior member of Women of the Wall.

The head of Women of the Wall, Anat Hoffman, added: “From what has been reported in the media, it turns out that the attorney general’s decision was taken without us after a meeting attended by the rabbi of the Western Wall, the religious services minister and representatives from the Prime Minister’s Office, the justice minister and the Israel Police."

She said they had "discussed ways to cancel the first female priestly blessing at the Wall and prevent the women’s festive prayer.”

Hoffman called the move a “pathetic” decision that reflected a surrender to an extreme minority whose only desire was “to scuttle gender equality at the Wall and deprive women of freedom of prayer and worship.”

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the head of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, said: “Even though the Western Wall plaza is empty this morning, the police are choosing to prevent Women of the Wall from praying in the women’s section and are requiring them to pray in a fenced-off area. This conduct is a victory for the ultra-Orthodox politicians trying to foil the compromise at the Wall.”

That compromise is this year's cabinet-approved plan that will create a permanent egalitarian prayer area at the Wall next to the Western Wall plaza. The compromise has been harshly criticized by some ultra-Orthodox leaders.