Dating from the Second Temple period, the Western Wall commonly refers to an 187-foot (57-meter) exposed section of ancient wall situated on the western flank of the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem. The wall functioned as a retaining wall, built to support the extensive renovations that Herod the Great carried out around 19 c.e. It is a sacred Jewish religious site that has appeared in multiple folktales.
Over the centuries, land close to the Western Wall became built up. Following the Six-Day War (1967), a large plaza for prayer was created that stretched from the wall to the Jewish Quarter. Archaeological finds have revealed a much shorter section known as the Little Western Wall, which is located close to the Iron Gate.
The Western Wall is venerated by Jews as the sole remnant of the Temple. Since the seventeenth century, it has become a place of pilgrimage and prayer for Jews, as it is the closest accessible site to the “Holy of Holies,” which lies on the Temple Mount, access to which was permitted to Jews by the Muslim authorities until 1917 and by the British authorities during the Mandate period (1917–1948). During the Jordanian occupation of the old city of Jerusalem (1948–1967), Jews from Israel were not allowed to visit the site.
Every year on Tisha Be’Av large crowds congregate at the wall to commemorate the destruction of the Temple. The Western Wall Plaza is the site of worship and public gatherings, including bar mitzvah celebrations and swearing-in ceremonies of newly full-fledged soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces, following basic training.
The Western Wall is mentioned several times in the Midrash (Shemot [Exodus] Rabba 2:2; Bamidbar [Numbers] Rabba 11:2; Shir Ha’Shirim Rabba 2:4; Eicha Rabba 1:3; Midr. Kohelet Zuta 7:8; Tanḥuma, Shemot 10, and more). All these refer to the western wall of the temple and not to the present Western Wall. According to these midrashic sayings, God promised that the Western Wall would never be destroyed and the Shekhinah (The Divine Presence of God) never moved from the western wall of the temple. According to the Zohar, the word kotel (wall) is made up of two parts: ko, which has the numerical value of God's name, and tel, meaning “mount,” which refers to the temple, that is, the Western Wall (Zohar, Vol. II [Shmot]; Mishpatim 116:1). These sayings were the basis for the sanctification of the Western Wall as a holy place.
According to Jewish custom, one is obligated to feel grief and rend one's garment upon visiting the Western Wall. This custom is based on the Babylonian Talmud (Mo’ed Katan 26:1).
There is a practice of placing slips of paper containing written prayers in the crevices of the wall. The earliest account of this custom is by Abraham Isaac Sperling in his book Sefer ha’minhagim u’mekorei ha’dinim (The Book of Customs and Origins of Laws) (1891). There is a legend about Rabbi Ḥaim ben Atar (1696–1743), who wrote an amulet on parchment and advised a poor man to place it between the stones of the wall in order to obtain help from God. Recently, the Israeli Telephone Company has actually established a fax service to the Western Wall, so that petitioners can send notes to be placed in the wall.
An old custom of removing one's shoes upon visiting the wall has faded over the years and is no longer observed. Other customs that no longer exist involve inserting one's finger into cracks in the wall to receive God's mercy, putting a palmprint with blue paint on the wall or inserting a nail into a crack in the wall before going on a journey. This last custom is based on the biblical verses: “And I will fasten him as a peg in a sure place” (Isa. 22:23); “and to give us a nail in His holy place” (Ezra 9:8). Another custom is measuring some stones with a woolen thread and putting the thread around the loin of pregnant women to relieve the pain associated with childbirth or to prevent a spontaneous miscarriage.
Some people rented houses with a window that faced the wall. This custom was based on a biblical verse about Daniel: “His windows were open in his upper chamber toward Jerusalem” (Dan. 6:11). There are many legends and traditions connected with the wall. A legend that was probably created in the fifteenth century recounts that on the night of Tisha Be’Av the candles in Mosque of Omar (Al-Aqsa Mosque), which is near the Western Wall, burn out. Another tradition states that when water starts trickling through the stones of the wall, it is a sign of the advent of the messiah.
The Israel Folktale Archives (IFA) at the University of Haifa holds about thirty folktales about the wall. Many legends concern miracles that occurred to worshipers who came to pray near the wall (IFA 1002, 3542, 10680, and 11827). A Yemenite-Jewish story that is found in the IFA in two versions (IFA 1026 and 3096) and appears also in other communities (IFA 10613, 12990, 13575, and 13848) tells of rioters who tried to hurt Rabbi Shalom Sharabi (1720–1777) when he came to pray near the wall, and their limbs were paralyzed as a punishment. An Iraqi-Jewish legend (IFA 489) tells about a stone used for the purpose of idolatry that is stuck in the wall and prevents salvation. There are also some modern jokes about the wall: A tourist is looking for the “Wailing Wall” and is directed to the office of the income tax (IFA 17712); a groom brings his bride to the wall to teach her about “speaking to a stone” (IFA 21590).
See also: Bar and Bat Mitzvah; Jerusalem and the Temple.
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