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The Western Wall: “Western Wall” or “Wailing Wall”?

Is it "the Western Wall" or "the Wailing Wall"? Jews nowadays make a point of saying "Western"; non-Jews say both; and the question, which has hitherto seemed a semantic one tinged with religious and national overtones, has now become part of the wrangling over President Clinton's proposed Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. In the words of the Israeli political and military analyst Ze'ev Schiff, writing in the Hebrew daily Ha'aretz:

"What is the length of the Western Wall? Is it confined to the wall facing the space traditionally used by Jews for prayer, which is only 58 meters, or does it include the entire western retaining wall of the Temple Mount? The Palestinians demand that any diplomatic settlement adhere to the shorter length, known as "the Wailing Wall." Israel insists on "the Western Wall"...whose length is 485 meters.

Let us try to shed some philological light on the matter.

There is no doubt that the Hebrew term ha-kotel ha-ma'aravi or "Western Wall" is far older than "Wailing Wall." Thus, for instance, in Shemot Rabba, a midrashic collection of exegeses on the book of Exodus from the seventh or eighth century C.E., we find the saying attributed to Rabbi Acha (himself a fourth-century scholar) that, even after the destruction of the Temple, "the Shekhinah [God's presence in the world] never leaves the Western Wall."

There is some doubt, though, whether Rabbi Acha was actually referring to today's Western Wall rather than to the ruined west wall of the Temple building itself, since there is no mention by any similarly early source of the custom of praying or mourning at today's wall. Indeed, in the early centuries after the destruction of the Temple, Jews were prohibited by the Roman authorities from entering the city of Jerusalem at all, and the customary place for mourning the Temple was the Mount of Olives, which overlooks the Temple Mount from the east. A description of this rite is given by the fourth-century Church Father Jerome, who observed Jews on The Mount of Olives on the Ninth of Av, the day of mourning for the Temple, wailing and lamenting while they looked down on its ruins. The earliest clear use of ha-kotel ha-ma'aravi in the sense of today's "Western Wall" is by the 11th-century Italian Hebrew poet Ahima'az ben Paltiel. This, too, though, may predate the actual use of the wall by Jews for prayer, since it is not until the 16th century that we hear of the wall being used for that purpose

The English term "Wailing Wall" or its equivalent in other languages dates from much later. In fact despite its hoary sound, "Wailing Wall" is a strictly 20th-century English usage introduced by the British after their conquest of Jerusalem from the Turks in 1917. In the 19th century, when European travelers first began visiting Palestine in sufficient numbers to notice the Jews there at all, the Western Wall was commonly referred to as "the Wailing Place," as in the following passage from Samuel Manning's "Those Holy Fields" (1873):

A little further along the western [retaining] wall we come to the Wailing-place of the Jews.... Here the Jews assemble every Friday to mourn over their fallen state.... Some press their lips against crevices in the masonry as though imploring an answer from some unseen presence within, others utter loud cries of anguish.

The "Wailing-place" was a translation of El-Mabka, or "the Place of Weeping," the traditional Arabic term for the wall. Within a short time after the commencement of the British Mandate, however, "Wailing Wall" became the standard English term, nor did Jews have any compunctions about using it. Only after the Six-Day War in 1967 did it become de rigueur in Jewish circles to say "Western Wall"— a reflection of the feeling, first expressed by official Israeli usage and then spreading to the Diaspora, that, with the reunification of Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty, there was no longer anything to wail about. Henceforward, the wall should be a place of celebration.

This happened so quickly that it is difficult to find a Jewish book written after 1967 in which the term "Wailing Wall" occurs. Gradually, the non-Jewish world began to fall in line, so that "Western Wall" predominates in contemporary non-Jewish usage too, though "Wailing Wall" can still be found there. Muslims, for their part, use neither term, "El-Mabka" having fallen out of favor in the 1920s with growing Arab-Jewish tensions over rights at the wall. The Palestinians then began calling it "El-Burak," after the name of Mohammed's horse that was supposedly tethered there on the prophet's legendary night ride to Jerusalem and heaven.

But in Hebrew it has always been ha-kotel ha-ma'aravi, at least for the last thousand years. Or rather, this is its full form, which Israelis rarely use in ordinary conversation. In Israel one generally hears no more than ha-kotel, "the Wall," the subject being clear, since the everyday Hebrew word for "wall" is kir and kotel is used only in special idioms. Perhaps as part of his carefully prepared package of compromises, Mr. Clinton could prevail upon both sides to do the same and drop both "Wailing" and "Western."

Source: PHILOLOGOS column by Hillel Halkin from the Forward, (January 12, 2001).