The Western Wall: Behind the Bricks and Mortar

May 16, 2017

by: Ilse Posselt, BFP News Correspondent

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Photo: Mark Neyman/gpophoto.gov.il

It is a sight singular to Jerusalem. Friday afternoons, when the sun starts its descent, the shops shut their doors tight, the hum of peak traffic quiets to a hush and the sidewalks in the City of Gold fill with people heading in one direction. Fathers with sidelocks walk in step with their young sons, tassels from their tallitot trailing in their wake. Mothers clutch prayer books and the hands of little ones dressed in Shabbat (Sabbath) finery. Groups of yeshiva (religious school) students join the joyful procession flowing to the gates of the Old City, through the tiny alleyways and finally on to the Western Wall.

Here, in the shadow of the ancient stone structure that has stood as the focal point of the Jewish faith for nearly 2,000 years, Jerusalemites gather week after week to welcome the Shabbat with singing, dancing and prayer.

The Most Sacred Spot in Jewish Faith

The HaKotel HaMa’aravi or the Western Wall arguably tops the must-see list of those who visit Israel’s capital. No trip to the City of Gold is complete without standing in the shade of the majestic stones, shrouded in the fragments of generations of whispered prayers to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Thousands of petitions to the Almighty, scrawled on scraps of paper and tucked into the clefts, bear silent witness to those who come here to petition the God Who proves Himself faithful.

Photo: Yonatan Sindel/info.goisrael.com

Located in the midst of Jerusalem’s Old City, the Western Wall is considered the most significant and holy site in all of Judaism. It is the only structure that remained intact after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in AD 70 and today continues to stand as the only tangible reminder of the two Temples that once adorned Mount Moriah.

Today, the Western Wall is the religious, cultural and national heartbeat of the Jewish people.  No matter the time of day or night, in sunshine or freezing rain, you will always find faithful Jews tucked close to the wall, fingers touching the rough surface, lips moving in praise and petition. The Kotel is also the equivalent of a mammoth outdoor synagogue with daily study and prayer services. And it serves as the ideal spot for special events, such as swearing in ceremonies for the Israel Defense Forces as well as bar and bat mitzvahs.

Building the Wall

Photo: EMarais/bridgesforpeace.com

The tale of the Western Wall starts in 19 BC, when King Herod decided to renovate and enlarge the Temple compound. Before the rather grandiose project, the Temple took up limited space on Mount Moriah. However, the ambitious king created a great plaza around the Holy Sanctuary, large enough to accommodate the influx of Jews required to visit the Temple on Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles when Jerusalem’s population would swell from 200,000 to 1,000,000.

To construct this plaza, Herod built a box-shaped platform around the Holy Sanctuary, enclosed by retaining walls. Although not part of the Temple itself, the outer walls proved an impressive piece of architecture: massive stones weighing between two and 100 tons, slotting together to form a structure of five meters (16 feet) thick. Once completed, the glorious Temple stood as the heart, soul, pride and joy of Jerusalem.

Less than a century later, the conquering Roman army reduced the once-glorious Second Temple to nothing but smoldering rubble. All that remained was the retaining wall on the western side of the Temple Mount.

According to Roman-Jewish historian, Josephus, the Romans left the section of the outer wall intact for a specific purpose: “demonstrate[ing] to posterity what kind of city it was and how well fortified which the Roman valour had subdued.”

Behind the Bricks and Mortar

 Today, 2,000 years after the Roman army left utter destruction in its wake, the Western Wall remains the only physical reminder of the glory of the Second Temple. Yet the significance that draws hundreds of thousands of Jews and Gentile visitors to the Kotel every year goes well beyond the tangible.

In 1 Kings 9:3, God promises Solomon that He Himself has consecrated the Temple and that His eyes and heart will remain there perpetually. Moreover, Scripture teaches that the Holy of Holies served as the inner sanctuary of the Temple where the presence of the Almighty dwelt.

Photo: Mark Neyman/gpophoto.gov.il

The layout of the Second Temple echoed that of Solomon’s First Temple and the Tabernacle before that. On the eastern most side was the entrance to the outer court with its brazen altar and laver wash basin, surrounded by the eastern part of the retaining wall. Then came the Holies, with the golden altar of incense, the menorah and the table with the showbread. Finally, on the west side stood the Holy of Holies with the Ark of the Covenant where the presence of the Almighty rested—enclosed by the western section of the retaining wall, the only part of the Second Temple the Romans left intact.

The direction of the last tangible remnant of the Beit HaMikdash, or God’s holy house, is no coincidence. When standing in front of the Western Wall, gazing at the sea of pale blocks that Herod’s builders slotted into place more than two millennia ago, your gaze rests automatically on the spot where the Holy of Holies, the place where the Almighty vowed to dwell forever, was located. This is the understanding—and promise—that fills the hearts and minds of every Jew who offers praise and petitions in the shadow of the ancient stones. Prayers are not directed towards a wall, no matter how significant or historic. They are poured out to the Holy One of Israel.

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