Jewish people believe that a divine presence rests within the Western Wall,, so they leave hand-wtitten prayers on scraps of paper (kvitlachim) and insert them in cracks in the Wall in the hope they will be answered. The Wall has been a place of veneration for Jews for centuries and now it is a must-see for most visitors to Israel as well as a popular destination for Israelis. More than ten million people visited the Wall and left notes in 2011. Diplomats and foreign officials come to the Wall when they visit Israel in a symbol of unity and solidarity with the Jewish people, and the Wall has become an international symbol of peace and hope.
Although the Wall has been a popular place for prayer since the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., the earliest example of placing notes at the Western Wall occurred in the mid-16th century. Rabbi Gedaliah of Semitzi visited Jerusalem and the Western Wall in 1699 and wrote the first recorded evidence of prayers being written down and left in the cracks of the Wall. The Wall became a popular destination during the 19th century as technology afforded more people the ability to travel the globe.
More than one million prayer notes are placed in the crevices of the Western Wall every year, and there are services and individuals who will take your printed prayers and place them in the Wall for you if you are not in Israel. Though the Wall is considered the holiest place in Judaism; people of all faiths, including Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, place notes in the Western Wall when they come through Jerusalem's Old City.
When US President Barack Obama was running for office in 2008 he visited the wall on a trip to Israel and placed a note inside which was then removed afterwards by a Seminary student. The student sold President Obama's prayer note to Maariv newspaper which subsequently published the note. The note read: "Lord, protect my family and me. Forgive me my sins and help me gaurd against pride and despair. Give me the wisdom to do what is right and just. And make me an instrument of your will". The newspaper endured much criticism in the weeks following the publication, including from the Western Wall's chief Rabbi and other news outlets for violating the sanctity of an individual's prayer at the wall by publishing it.
Twice per year, before Rosh Hashanah and again before Passover, the notes on the Wall must be cleared out and room must be made for the large groups of new individuals coming to leave their hopes and dreams in the cracks. The Western Wall's chief Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz and a team of individuals first take a ritual bath or mikveh to cleanse themselves, and then work to carefully take the notes out of the Wall with brooms and wooden sticks so as not to harm them. The notes are then placed in bags without being read by the people clearing them out, and buried in the cemetery on the Mount of Olives to the East of Jerusalem’s Old City. These slips of paper are treated the same as pieces of Torah scrolls or damaged prayer books and are forbidden to destroy. Twice per year the stones on the wall are also checked for stability and hold.