The holiest place in Judaism is the Temple Mount where the Second Temple stood until it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. Mistakenly, the Western Wall is generally thought to be the holiest site, but prayers at this location are a relatively recent phenomenon, which were prompted, ironically, by a Muslim conqueror.
After the destruction of the First Temple, the area on which it was built, the Temple Mount, came to be known as Har Habayit.
When the Romans razed the Second Temple, they left one outer wall standing. They probably would have destroyed that wall as well, but it must have seemed too insignificant to them since it was not part of the Temple itself, just a retaining wall surrounding the Temple Mount. It held no special significance, according to F.M. Loewenberg, until the 16th century when Sultan Suleyman I (
the Magnificent) ended nearly 300 years of Mamluk rule and established the Ottoman Empire. Suleyman restored Jerusalem’s city walls in 1536 and encouraged Jews who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal to settle in the city.
In 1546, an earthquake devastated the region and damaged the Temple Mount and the surrounding area. Suleyman ordered the rubble of homes adjacent to the western wall to be cleared for a prayer site for the Jews. Suleyman issued a firman (decree) that Jews had the right to pray there for all times. This decree remained in force and was honored by his successors for more than 400 years. The area, which Loewenberg notes was previously unknown to the Jews, became the second holiest place for Jews and a site of pilgrimage.
Throughout the centuries Jews from throughout the world made the difficult pilgrimage to Palestine, and immediately headed for the Kotel ha-Ma'aravi (the Western Wall) to thank God. The prayers offered at the Kotel were so heartfelt that gentiles began calling the site the “Wailing Wall.” This undignified name never won a wide following among traditional Jews; the term “Wailing Wall” is not used in Hebrew.
The Western Wall was subjected to far worse than semantic indignities. During the more than one thousand years Jerusalem was under Muslim rule, the Arabs often used the Wall as a garbage dump, so as to humiliate the Jews who visited it.
For most of that period, the area in front of the wall was a narrow alley only 4 meters wide and 28 meters long (less than six percent of the wall's total length of 488 meters) boxed in by a Muslim neighborhood known as the Mughrabi Quarter. According to Loewenberg, Jews did not regularly visit the Wall. They came on special occasions, such as Tisha B'Av, or to pray for help with personal problems. Later, the alley would become packed during festivals and Shabbat. Regular prayer at the Wall did not begin until the late 19th or early 20th century. By 1941, the popularity of visiting and praying at the Wall led the British-appointed chief rabbis to issue regulations for proper behavior at the Wall, which included the separation of men and women (the British did not permit the erection of a mechitzah).
For nineteen years, from 1948 to 1967, the Kotel was under Jordanian rule. Although the Jordanians had signed an armistice agreement in 1949 guaranteeing Jews the right to visit the Wall, not one Israeli Jew was ever permitted to do so.
On the second day of the 1967 Six-Day War, Israeli paratroopers entered the Old City and took control over the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. Several days later, the houses of the Mugrabi Quarter were bulldozed to create the large plaza that exists today in front of the Western Wall, which allows thousands of worshippers to visit the site at one time. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, meanwhile, agreed the Muslim authorities (the Waqf) would retain control over the Muslim holy places on the Temple Mount. Jews were to have free access to visit, but they were prohibited from praying there to avoid conflict with the Muslims.
One of the first to reach the Kotel during the war was Dayan, who helped revive a traditional Jewish custom by inserting a written petition into its cracks. It was later revealed that Dayan's prayer was that a lasting peace
descend upon the House of Israel. The custom of inserting written prayers (kvitlach) into the Kotel's cracks is so widespread that some American-Jewish newspapers carry advertisements for services that insert such prayers on behalf of sick Jews. Twice a year, cleaning teams using long sticks remove tens of thousands of the prayers from the crevices and bury them in bags on the Mount of Olives.
The mystical qualities associated with the Kotel are underscored in a popular Israeli song, a refrain of which runs: “There are people with hearts of stone, and stones with hearts of people.” A rabbi in Jerusalem once told me that the Hebrew expression “The walls have ears” was originally said about the Western Wall.
In addition to the large crowds that come to pray at the Kotel on Friday evenings, it is also a common gathering place on all Jewish holidays, particularly on the fast of Tisha B'Av,, which commemorates the destruction of both Temples. Today, the Wall is a national symbol, and the opening or closing ceremonies of many Jewish events, including secular ones, are conducted there.
Unfortunately, even a symbol as unifying as the Kotel can become a source of controversy in Jewish life. Ultra-Orthodox Jews have long opposed organized women's prayer services at the Wall; prayer services they maintain, may only be conducted by males. On occasion they have violently dispersed such services, throwing chairs and other “missiles” at the praying women. A separate area is available for women to pray, but they are prohibited from wearing prayer shawls normally worn by male worshippers, singing, or bringing Torah scrolls to the Wall. On occasion, women have defied the authorities and been harassed by men or arrested by the police.
On January 31, 2016, the Israeli government approved the creation of an “egalitarian” prayer space where non-Orthodox Jewish men and women can pray together at the Western Wall. This decision was met with praise from Jewish leaders across the globe, and opposition from Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Israeli citizens and members of the government. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that the creation of this space was a “fair and creative solution,” to rising tensions at the site.
The advocacy group Women of the Wall called the decision a victory, with the government recognizing that, according to the organization's chairwoman, “that there is more than one way to be Jewish.” The new prayer space was to be created South of the mens and women's prayer sections of the wall, in an area known as Robinson's Arch. The first Reform, mixed-gender prayer service to ever take place at the Western Wall was held at this new space on February 25, 2016.
In 2017, the government reneged on the deal to create the new egalitarian prayer space and defied a Supreme Court request to reconsider the decision. The government decision was widely viewed as a response to the opposition of religious parties in the coalition. Netanyahu reportedly feared his government might collapse if he allowed the creation of the prayer space and his partners pulled out of the coalition. The decision sparked an uproar outside Israel, especially among leaders of the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements in the United States. The issue was far less controversial among Israelis, who tend to either be observant or secular and do not affiliate in large numbers with the Reform or Conservative movements.
...there is no ancient Jewish tradition that designates the Western Wall as a sacred site. Instead, it was designated as a place of prayer less than five hundred years ago by a Muslim ruler. It took more than three centuries for the wall to attract the Jewish masses and, only in the last 150 years, has it become Judaism’s most sacred site. Yet, even if this place was not intrinsically holy (let alone as holy as the Temple Mount), or even if it had not been so designated by Suleyman the Great, it has become sanctified over time as Jews have increasingly utilized it for prayer.
Sources: Yair Ettinger, “More Than 150 Reform Rabbis Hold Mixed-gender Service at New Western Wall Prayer Space,” Haaretz (February 25, 2016).
Isabel Kershner, “Israel Approves Prayer Space at Western Wall for Non-Orthodox Jews,” New York Times (January 31, 2016).
Isabel Kershner, “Israel Suspends Plan for Egalitarian Prayer Area at Western Wall,” New York Times, (June 25, 2017).
Judy Maltz, “Israel’s High Court Sends Clear Message to Government: Reconsider ‘Frozen’ Western Wall Deal,” Haaretz, (August 31, 2017).
F.M. Loewenberg, “Is the Western Wall Judaism's Holiest Site?” Middle East Quarterly, (Fall 2017).
Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History, (NY: William Morrow and Co., 1991). Reprinted by permission of the author.
“Workers in hazmat suits collect prayers from ‘God's mailbox’ in Jerusalem,” Reuters, (March 31, 2020).
Photo courtesy of Jack Hazut, J.H.M. Photography