“The Shechina [Divine Presence] will never move from the Western Wall” according to an ancient tradition (Exodus Rabba 2.2). Originally, this saying did not refer to the present Western Wall which is part of retaining wall of the Temple Mount but to the western wall of the Temple-building. Since nothing remains of the original Temple wall, this saying is nowadays often applied to the Kotel, the current Western Wall. The ruins of the original western wall of the Temple building on the Temple Mount were still present during the Crusades when the Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela visited Jerusalem sometime between 1159 and 1172. He reported that “the Western Wall is one of the [remaining] walls of what was once the Holy of Holies…. All the Jews come to pray before this wall.”
The British Royal Commission that was established in 1930 to determine the respective claims of Moslems and Jews at Western Wall also confirmed that Jews continued to pray on the Temple Mount Western Wall after the destruction of the Second Temple. “According to tradition, the Jews’ wailing-place at that time seems to have been the stone on Mount Moriah where the Mosque of Omar now stands.”
There is no evidence that the present Western Wall was used as a site for prayer prior to the Ottoman conquest of Jerusalem in the 16th century. Rabbi Ishtori Haparchi (1280-1366), the earliest Holy Land geographer, does not mention the Western Wall in his encyclopedic work Kaftor v’Ferah, even though he devotes an entire chapter to Jerusalem geography. A footnote by the editor of the 1899 edition of Haparchi’s book states that “in the author’s day and for many years thereafter the Western Wall (where we pray nowadays) was covered with earth and all the Jews went to pray at the Eastern Wall of the Temple Mount and outside the gates of the Southern Wall.”
Al-Mutawakil Taha, deputy minister of information in the Palestinian Authority disputed recently on a Palestinian government website that the Western Wall was a retaining wall of the Temple compound. “This wall has never been a part of what is called the Jewish Temple” the report claimed. “However, it was Islamic tolerance which allowed the Jews to stand before it and cry over its loss.” A U.S. State Department spokesman said, “We strongly condemn these comments and fully reject them as factually incorrect, insensitive and highly provocative.”
The same Palestinian report claims that not one stone in the wall came from the time of King Solomon.The “study” also contends that the path next to the Western Wall was never a public road, but was established only for the use of Muslims living in the area or making their way toward the mosques on the Temple Mount. “The Zionist occupation falsely and unjustly claims that it owns this wall, which it calls the Western Wall or Kotel,” but “Al-Buraq Wall is in fact the western wall of Al-Aksa Mosque.” Taha added that the Jews had never used the site for worship until the Balfour Declaration of 1917. During the British mandate in Palestine, the number of Jews who visited the wall increased to a point where the Muslims felt so threatened that they started a pogrom in August 1929, where a large number of Jews were killed. By skillfully combining facts (the wall was not part of the Temple, it contains no stones from the time of Solomon) with outright lies (Jews never used this site for worship prior to 1917), Taha wants to establish a new reality. What are the facts?
In 1517 the Ottoman armies of Suleiman the Magnificent captured Jerusalem. In 1542 Suleiman completed the rebuilding of the walls around the city that had been in ruin for centuries. Fourteen years later he instructed his court architect to prepare the Western Wall of the Temple Mount as a place for Jewish prayer. He issued a firman that established for all times the right of Jews to pray at the Western Wall. This royal decree was said to have been issued to compensate the Jews for relinquishing their rights to pray on the Mount itself. This firman was still in effect in the nineteenth century. One contemporary observer noted that “no one is molested… by the Mahomedans, as we have a very old firman from the Sultan of Constantinople that the approach [to the Western Wall] shall not be denied to us, though the Porte obtains for this privilege an especial tax, which is, however, quite insignificant.” Note that Suleiman, a Muslim ruler, acknowledged in this decree that Jews had had rights on the Temple Mount since ancient times.
In the first few centuries after the sultan designated the Western Wall as a Jewish place of prayer it was used infrequently, certainly not as regularly as it is used nowadays. The fact that access to the area was difficult and, at times, dangerous, as well as the fact that until 1967 the area was only a narrow alley, mitigated against its frequent use. But it did serve as a place of prayer for the past five hundred years.
Early descriptions indicate that people who faced very critical problems would come to the Wall to pray for Divine help. It was also customary for Jerusalem Jews to assemble at the Wall during the first ten days of the month Av to recite evening prayers (maariv) and elegies (kinot). Pious Jews would come every Thursday night to recite tikkun hazot, a special prayer asking for God’s mercies. Others had the custom to assemble near the Western Wall on Friday afternoons to welcome the Sabbath (kabalat Shabbat). And still others recited the musaf-prayer on Sabbaths and holydays at the Kotel. While it did not attract he masses, the Western Wall served as an important place of prayer for centuries.
Reb Gedalyah who came to Jerusalem from the city of Siemiatyce, Poland, in October 1700 describes the role that the Western Wall occupied in Jerusalem Jewish life at the beginning of the 18th century. “Every Shabbat morning, immediately after leaving the synagogue, [Jerusalem Jews] walked to the Western Wall, but actually [they did] not walk to the Western Wall because it was far away and it was necessary to walk through the alleys and market places in white Shabbat coats.” Instead they walked to a high spot in the Jewish Quarter from which both the Wall and the Temple Mount were visible. There they recited those psalms that mention Jerusalem and Zion.
By the 19th century visits to the Western Wall (which was then known as the Wailing Wall) became more frequent. One observer reported, “This wall is visited by all our brothers on every feast and festival; and the large space at its foot is often so densely filled up, that all cannot perform their devotions here at the same time. It is also visited, though by less numbers, on every Friday afternoon and by some nearly every day.” But regular prayer services, three times a day, did not take place at the Western Wall until the beginning of the 20th century.
Following the 1948 War of Independence, the Jordanian army occupied East Jerusalem, including the Old City and all of its Christian and Jewish holy places. For nineteen years no Jew was allowed to approach the Western Wall. This absolute ban was strictly enforced, despite provisions in the Armistice Agreement that called for free access to all holy places. Once the Jordanian army was dislodged from the Old City, access to the Western Wall was once again possible. The first Jewish service at the Wall took place even while the fighting was still going on in other parts of the Old City.
The Western Wall is not the only place to which Jews have a legal right that was confirmed by Muslim rulers. The Italian architect-engineer of the Pasha of Jerusalem reported in an 1864 book that the Jews have rights to the entire city of Jerusalem! This is his report: When, the news of the death of Abdul Megid and the accession of Abdul Azis reached Jerusalem on July 8, 1861, Jerusalem Jews requested that the governor Surraya pasha restore to them the keys of Jerusalem, according to a right which they claimed on the death of one sultan and the accession of another. They brought forward sufficient proofs to support their demand, so that the pasha did not refuse it, but referred it to his ordinary council, consisting of the mufti or chief officer of religion, the khadi or chief judge, and other persons of distinction, natives of the country. Their decision was in favor of the claim of the Israelites since the whole council was aware that the Jews were the ancient owners of the country. Subsequently Said pasha, the general of the army, accompanied by the officers of his staff and some members of the council, and followed by a crowd of sight-seers, went to the Jewish quarter where he was met by a deputation of Jewish elders and conducted to the house of the chief rabbi, who received the pasha at the door, and there was publicly presented with the keys. The pasha was then entertained with the utmost respect at the divan of the rabbi; refreshments, coffee, and tobacco, were served, and then the rabbi (not having a garrison to defend the keys) restored them with many thanks to the general, who was escorted back by the elders of the Jews to the governor of the city, Surraya pasha, to give an account of his mission, and show him that none of the keys were missing. So, in 1861, the Jewish nation possessed for one hour the keys of Jerusalem, which were delivered over to them by the Arabs in consequence of the unvarying tradition which they had preserved. [Ermete Pierotti, Customs and Traditions of Palestine, 1864, pp. 75-77].
*MEIR LOEWENBERG is a professor emeritus at Bar-Ilan-University in Israel, was born in Germany. Together with his wife he lives in Efrat, a town 22 kilometers south of Jerusalem. At the age of 12 he immigrated together with his parents and brothers to the United States. He is a graduate of Harvard University (A.B.), Columbia University (M.S.), and Wayne State University (Ph.D.). After many years of work in community centers he became a professor at Saint Louis University, Adelphi University and New York University. He immigrated to Israel in 1971 and became a professor of social work at Tel Aviv University and Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of many books and articles in professional journals.