Prayers, Notes and Controversy: How a Wall Became the Western Wall

While sources describe the wall surrounding the ancient Temple in Jerusalem as being a site of pilgrimage and prayer for hundreds of years, only relatively recently did its western section evolve into the sanctified focal point of worship and national renewal that it is today

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

In 1911 Zalman Shazar visited the Land of Israel for the first time. The man who was destined to become the State of Israel’s first minister of education and its third president described his visit to the Western Wall: “You will go down through the narrow alleys of ancient Jerusalem and arrive at the Wall and stand there. Then you will not only see with your eyes but you will also feel with your entire being the single eternity in our past ... And when your feet enter the courtyard of the Wall, here you feel and experience the re-weaving of your soul into the eternal fabric of 2,000 years ... Into the space at this remnant of the Wall the sighs from all the ends of the earth and all eras penetrate ... The Wall does not differentiate between lands and eras. The tears have all flowed from the hearts of one people, they have all come from one source and they will all pray to One.”

About 400 years earlier, the Italian commentator on the Mishna, Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura, who had immigrated to the Land of Israel, also visited the Wall. In 1488 he wrote: “The Western Wall, which still exists ... Its stones are large and thick. I have not seen stones of that size in any ancient building, not in Rome and not in any other land.”

Other, even earlier texts − like the ones found in the Cairo Genizah − describe worship at nearby sites but not at the Western Wall, as we know it today. Some of these writings refer to the wall of the Temple and not to the Western Wall, which is part of the external structure that surrounded the Temple Mount at the end of the Second Temple period ‏(from 530 B.C.E. to 70 C.E.‏).

The first testimony to the transformation of the Western Wall into a sacred site for worship comes only from the 16th century. “It is known that in the past sanctity was not attributed to the Wall, and the [early] written sources and writings left by Jewish visitors in the Middle Ages testify that the Western Wall was no more important than the other walls of the Temple Mount,” according to Dr. Gabriel Barkay, a professor of archaeology at Bar-Ilan University, in an article in the journal Ariel in July 2007.

The Wall, he wrote, became a holy site only in the early modern period. “From the start of the sanctification of the Western Wall, in the 16th century, the traditions in the texts of the Sages were transferred from the western wall of the Temple to the western wall of the Temple Mount,” explained Barkay. Early evidence of this can be found as we get closer to the 17th century. One such testimony is a letter from the year 1625, in which a traveler from the city of Carpi in northern Italy describes his visit to the Wall in the following words: “I kissed it and prostrated myself at its feet and recited an orderly prayer.”

The development of the Western Wall as a site for worship during the past 100 years is connected to the building of the adjacent Jewish neighborhood − the Old City’s Jewish Quarter − and with the fact that this was the piece of the Temple Mount’s retaining wall that was closest to it. Jewish Quarter residents had convenient access to it, whereas other parts of the wall were inaccessible or even outside the city limits, explained Barkay.

“Apparently, after the Jewish neighborhood moved into the Jewish Quarter of today, Jews began going to the small, exposed segment of the Western Wall for individual prayer, after the public prayers. This custom developed slowly during the course of the 16th century,” wrote Prof. Dan Bahat, the archaeologist who excavated the Western Wall tunnels, in another article in April.

After the earthquake that struck Jerusalem in 1546 and toppled buildings that had stood against the Wall in the worship compound of today, Jews were able to move from the modest area that had served them until then to the prayer site we know today, wrote Bahat. Another reason for the sanctification of the Wall in the past 100 years has to do with the fact that the Western Wall we know today, which was part of the external wall surrounding the Temple compound, was also the closest to the rear wall of the focal point of sacredness in the Temple, the Holy of Holies. That wall, too, was known as the “Western Wall” in early sources. Thus it is easy to link the two walls and their sanctity.

The custom today of placing notes among the stones of the Wall apparently was imported from Europe in the 19th century. Special scribes would help those who needed to write their notes in Hebrew, and then they were placed in the cracks between the stones. At regular intervals, the notes would be removed, gathered in a sack and buried in synagogue genizahs. One story connected to this custom tells of a Jewish tourist who came after the Six-Day War and saw people writing notes and then stuffing them into the cracks. He took out a slip of paper, wrote what he wrote, and also placed it between the stones. Five years later he returned to Jerusalem, looked for his note and found it in a spot higher up. “Here’s my note making its way upward toward the Creator of the universe,” he said to himself. The tourist did not know that after his first visit work had been done to lower the level of the plaza, so that the stones only appeared to be higher up.

Hundreds of years before that, starting in the early Middle Ages, pilgrims would write their names on the stones of the wall alongside short blessings. Others would rub their hands in paint and make palm prints on the Wall, or engrave their names in the stones with a penknife or a blade. There were also many who drove nails into the wall as a sort of good-luck ritual before traveling abroad.

“In pictures from the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century, the Wall appears to be decorated with inscriptions ... nearly every place a human hand could reach,” wrote historian Dr. Yair Wallach in an article entitled “The Hebrew Inscriptions on the Stones of the Western Wall.”

In the 20th century, protests against the defacing of the wall began to be heard. “Blasphemy unparalleled anywhere in the world,” wrote historian Joseph Klausner, who visited the Wall during his journey to the Land of Israel in 1912. In 1931 the custom of writing on the Wall ceased. According to a law drawn up by the British, “It shall be held to be a matter of common interest to Moslems and Jews alike that the Western Wall should not be disfigured by having any engravings or inscriptions placed upon it or by having nails or similar objects driven into it.”

Muslim-Jewish tensions

From the end of the 19th century until the present day, the Wall has been at the center of more prolonged and complicated conflicts between Jews and Muslims than any other site in the country. Starting at the end of the Ottoman period and during the expansion of the Yishuv ‏(Palestine’s pre-state Jewish community‏), its status rose to that of a site of worship and a symbol of national renewal, as Dr. Dotan Green of Bar-Ilan University explains. In his article “The Struggle Between Jews and Arabs over the Western Wall,” he reviewed the strife between Jews and Muslims for the right to pray near the Wall. “Struggles [were] often accompanied by attacks and acts of animosity,” as he put it.

The Jews had to pay a tax to the Ottoman authorities in return for a visit to the Wall, and also had to pay the leaders of the adjacent Mughrabi neighborhood, whose residents had a tendency to harass Jewish worshipers. The physical conditions in the vicinity were not exactly inviting: The prayer area was small and lacked any shelter from the elements. Worshipers were thus exposed to the broiling sun in the summer, and to cold and wet weather in winter. Visitors also encountered many Jewish and Muslim beggars, who crowded the alleys leading to the area; broken stones were scattered about, along with refuse and excreta of donkeys and camels.

Various sources document the Jews’ efforts to clean the refuse and filth en route to the site, as well as the disrespect, humiliation and hostility they encountered. There is documentation of a number of attempts by Jews over the years to purchase property in the Wall area and to evacuate the Mughrabi neighborhood. These efforts failed, for economic, religious and political reasons.

Among the Jews involved in such attempts were future first president of Israel Chaim Weizmann, British financier and philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore and philanthropist Baron Edmond de Rothschild − who arrived in the Holy Land with his wife in 1887 and visited the Western Wall. After he saw the neglected area he decided he wanted to buy it and bestow it upon the local Jewish community. However, his negotiations with the governor of Jerusalem and authorities in Kushta ‏(Istanbul‏) went nowhere.

On Passover in 1920, after the end of Ottoman rule and the advent of British Mandatory control over Palestine, masses of Arabs on their way back from the mosques on the Temple Mount attacked Jews on their way to the Wall. Eight years later, on Yom Kippur, Jews put up a barrier separating men and women in the Wall compound. The Arabs saw this as a violation of the status quo, the British removed it and riots among both Arabs and Jews broke out at the site.

Later what had begun as protests against erection of the flimsy barrier escalated into a deadly wave of violence that washed over the entire country and came to be known as the 1928-1929 disturbances: 133 Jews were killed and more than 300 wounded.

In the 20th century a tradition began to take root, whereby the Western Wall was said to be the spot where the Prophet Mohammed tied his flying horse Al-Buraq after the journey from Mecca to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Because of this, the 1928-1929 disturbances are called the “Al-Buraq Revolution” by Arabs.

Historians have found that this version of the story of the winged horse developed only after the Jews began to attribute importance to the site, and that it was politically motivated.

An international panel of inquiry, called the Wailing Wall Commission, was established in 1930 by the British government to determine Muslim and Jewish rights to the area. The League of Nations approved establishment of the body. The commission instituted a shaky status quo, which was maintained until the end of the Mandate. The main points: Ownership of the Wall remained in Muslim hands, and Jews had the right to pray in the area in front of the Wall − which the local authorities were required to ensure. Subsequently, the British published new instructions for conduct in the area, which were detrimental to the Jews. These included prohibitions on bringing in benches, tables chairs and partitions, as well as Torah arks, and also on blowing the ram’s horn at the Wall on holy days.

The British governor of Jerusalem, Ronald Storrs, apparently once said to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine: “My dear friend, why are you insisting on this old stone wall? I’ll build you a wonderful wall of large and beautiful Jerusalem stone.” To which Kook, according to legend, replied: “There are people with a heart of stone and there are stones with human hearts.”

In the wake of the international commission, the character of the site changed and it began to be subject to supervision. For the first time a rabbi of the Wall was appointed, Yitzhak Avigdor Ornstein, who served in the position until he was killed in the War of Independence. A police guard post was also built there. The British prohibitions did not achieve their aim: Jews continued to gather near the Wall and saw it as a symbol of their national rebirth; The Arabs, for their part, continued to claim the Jews had no right to it. During the riots of 1936-1939, too, Jews were often attacked in the streets leading to the Wall.

Lightning operation

After passage of the United Nations Resolution on the partition of Palestine in 1947, hostilities erupted in Jerusalem and access to the Western Wall was blocked. Indeed, for 19 years − from the War of Independence to the Six-Day War − the Old City was cut off from West Jerusalem. The Wall, then under Jordanian rule, remained abandoned. Jews would climb up to an observation point on Mount Zion to see “the place beneath which lies the Western Wall,” until Jerusalem was liberated on June 7, 1967.

The iconic photo, taken by David Rubinger, of Israel Defense Forces Paratroopers at the Kotel after it was taken became one of the most famous images in the history of the state.

After the war the Mughrabi neighborhood was demolished in a lightning operation. After the rubble was carted away, the area at the Wall intended for worship was considerably enlarged and a prayer section was established. Since then the site has become a major site of worship and also an official site for various gatherings, including swearing-in ceremonies for soldiers.

In recent months the Western Wall has been the site of protests by members of the Women of the Wall organization, demanding that women be allowed to pray there − in the women’s section − wearing tallitot and tefillin. They are far from the first women, of course, to be drawn to the Wall. Writer and educator Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi wrote in 1908 of women worshipping there: “Here are the stones of the Western Wall, the sanctified stones, saturated in sadness and desolation. They are not silent stones, for they have absorbed the sufferings of the Jews of all the world. The mothers of Israel weep here for a son before the Lord of the Universe. Here they have pressed up again the walls, for many generations.

“I too wished to press up against the stones and weep but the tears choke my throat and I do not weep. My hand is outstretched, touching the stones, my eyes are closed and my head rests upon the cold stone. There are no words of prayer in my heart. Sadness throbs within me over our fate, over what was done to us: the destruction of the people, that we are still mired in exile, that our land is still in its desolation. I did not feel hot tears pouring from my eyes, as they did from the eyes of the mothers next to me. I shifted my gaze from the worshiping women to the worshiping men, and the sadness became a feeling of bitterness and anger.

“There arose in me the need to fling at the Wall my bitterness against the wailing, to beat my head upon the stones, to cry out over the evil of the decree: We shall no longer live in mourning for the destruction, we shall revive the ruins, we shall redeem our land. And, see the marvel! The spreading plants hanging by a thread emerge from the cracks in the stones of the Wall and stand out, borne upon the stones. From where have they suckled their vitality? Was it not from the tears of mothers?”

British officers inspect the Wall after the 1936 riots. Credit: U.S. Library of Congress

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