The Western Wall Today

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

The Kotel (Western Wall) is 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.

Although 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.

READ: These American Jews are Looking Beyond the Western Wall — to Prayer on the Temple Mount

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 B’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 Israeli Independence Day or Holocaust  Remembrance 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.

Praying can be seriously funny.

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.

Other ceremonies reflect current political events as in the case of demonstrations concerning distressed Jewish groups in Russia, Syria, or Ethiopia. A particularly impressive event takes place on the eve of the anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, when thousands of yeshiva students from all over the country, stirred by the ideology of the Gush Emunim movement, come to the Kotel carrying torches.

Observing Tisha B’Av

Tisha B’Av, which falls in mid-summer when the sun has dried up vegetation everywhere, is a Fast Day that commemorates the destruction of both the First and Second Temples and has become a fundamental observance at the Kotel. Dressed in slippers, sneakers, or other footwear without leather, observant Jews come to spend part of the day and night at the Wall. Heightened solemnity intermingles with pronounced intimacy. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, boyfriends and girlfriends, yeshiva students share mats or blankets spread out both inside and outside the synagogue plaza. On this night (and day) all the Jewish communities and ethnic groups, all the religious tendencies–including the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic “mitzvah tank,” which provides phylacteries (tefillin) for the afternoon prayers — are present. Individual and collective, communal and national, can be found, compounded with one another.

The police guard the area all night long. Ultra-national groups may try to reach the Temple Mount, while pseudo-messiahs and would-be prophets both lament the existence of the Diaspora and announce the imminent reunification of the people. Inside the synagogue area and outside, pilgrims read the biblical Book of Lamentations, chant dirges, or fraternize in this unique setting of a foodless picnic in which daily needs are hardly a distraction. A mourning ceremony animated by a pervasive but disorganized sociality, Tisha B’Av, since the retaking of the Wall, has emerged as a point in time and space in which the meeting of messianic aspiration and national sentiment has been crystallized.

This process is reminiscent of the famous conceit of the Talmudic sage, Rabbi Akiva. When asked why he laughed upon seeing a fox running through the Temple ruins, Akiva assured his puzzled colleagues that his mirth stemmed from his witnessing the evidence of the prophecies of destruction and the implicit certainty that this guarantees the fulfillment of the prophecies of redemption.

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.

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