The Western Wall Today

The sole remnant of the ancient Temple plays a role in observing festivals in modern times.

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Excerpted with permission from Meanings of the Western Wall, which appears in The Life of Judaism (Harvey E. Goldberg, ed.) published by the University of California Press.

Just as the Kotel (Western Wall) sets the stage for the integration of time, person, and collectivity, it is also the setting in which the annual cycle, individual and communal histories, and consecrated space come together.

In ancient times, the Temple was the focus of mass pilgrimages, three times during the year, as prescribed by biblical law. Pilgrims from all over the land came to the spot chosen by God to "place His name there" (Deuteronomy 16), and during the Second Commonwealth both pilgrims and contributions reached the Temple from the Diaspora.

western wall in jerusalemAlthough the Temple has not been standing for close to two millennia, the memory of these events has been preserved in the synagogue liturgy, particularly in the "additional prayer" of the festivals, which recalls the former sacrifices and the ascent to the Temple. The fact that the pilgrimage festivals are a major occasion for present-day visitors to the Kotel places ancient expressions of collective memory in metonymic relation to a contemporary "place of memory," creating a sense of continuity, and perhaps even identity, between their devotional visit and that of their ancestors.

Each festival attracts thousands to the Wall, but each takes on a special atmosphere reflecting the requirements of the holiday. The first night of Passover represents the most intense ingathering of the family during the ritual year, and travel to the Kotel later in the week is preceded by careful preparations to bring food from home that has been made according to the strict Passover rules. Even when the Wall is not the focus of celebration, as during Lag Ba'omer, 33 days after Passover, when more than 100,000 Israelis flock to Meron, it stays in contact with the ritual pace of the people. It also accommodates, easily, modern festivities and solemnities; the sameness of place provides a persuasive link between the old and the new.

The Kotel thus appears to be the natural setting for modern celebrations such as Independence Day or Holocaust Day, even as the forms of these recently established celebrations evolve amid debates over their significance. In some of these ceremonies religious themes are given prominence, while in others the national component clearly dominates.

In the energetic Friday evening dance to the Kotel from the Jewish quarter on the part of young male yeshiva students, it is difficult to untangle the political overtones from the religious commitment. The meshing of modern Israeli identity and traditional religious symbols is salient at military swearing-in ceremonies, which have become more frequent at the Wall since the previous favorite site, Masada, has relinquished its primacy. In these ceremonies the recruit, after his basic training, holds a Bible in one hand, a rifle in the other, and is told that without the Book he is nothing but a murderer.

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Danielle Storper Perez is a researcher in sociology and anthropology who lives in Israel.