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For the week ending 3 June 2006 / 7 Sivan 5766

Writing on the Wall

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman - www.rabbiullman.com
The Color of HeavenArtscroll

From: Mordechai Housman

Dear Rabbi,


What is the source for the custom of putting notes into the Western Wall. I understand that it sort of "prays" for us while we are away, but if this is correct, what's the source? Thank you.


Dear Mordechai Housman,

Putting notes of prayer between the ancient stones of the Western Wall is a very old custom, and it’s not clear exactly when and why this custom began. It has to do with the idea that although G-d listens to heartfelt prayer from anywhere, some places are more auspicious for the prayer to be received and granted.

For example, when Joshua entered the Land of Israel with the other spies to help prepare the Jewish people’s entry into the Land, we find that he went out of his way to go to Hebron to pray at the burial site of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs for success. We find a similar phenomenon regarding prayer at Rachel’s tomb, and at the burial sites of other righteous and holy people such as Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in Meron.

This is all the more so regarding the remnants of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the focal point of the Jewish people’s prayers from around the globe on their way through the Heavenly Gates. It is clear from the Talmud (Nedarim 23a) that even after the destruction of the Temple, Jews would visit the Temple Mount to pray. Ancient sources also state that the Divine Presence will never cease from the Western Wall, which was the closest to the Holy of Holies (Midrash Rabba: Exodus 2:2, Song of Songs 2:4). For these reasons, Jews have prayed at the Wall in all ages if they were able to do so.

What about those who were unable to make the difficult, often dangerous, pilgrimage of prayer? They would ask those who were going to Jerusalem to pray on their behalf. It is very likely that rather than burden the traveler by having him remember so many individual prayers, people wrote their requests in notes for him to read at the Wall once he arrived. Over time, perhaps because of the restrictions the non-Jewish rulers placed on how many Jews could visit the Wall and for how long, it became very difficult for the few visitors to read the many notes of all of the members of their respective communities. For lack of a better choice, they placed the notes in the wall, relying on G-d “to read the notes Himself”.

Still, there is an indication that one may intentionally have a note placed between the stones with no intention that any person read them. A story is told of the “Ohr HaChaim”, Rabbi Chaim ben Atar (1696-1743), who had a beloved disciple who was very poor. The rabbi wrote a note on parchment and told his student to place it between the stones of the Western Wall. On his way to the Wall, a great wind blew his hat off his head. However, he refused to fetch it, for fear of dropping the parchment. Then the wind blew off his kippah. Having no choice but to fetch it, as he stretched for the kippah, the wind blew the note from his hand. When he told the rabbi what happened, the Ohr HaChaim took it as a sign of Heavenly decree and decided not to write another note. Later, a rolled parchment was found blowing through the streets of Jerusalem, addressing the Divine Presence on behalf of a poor Torah scholar, and signed Chaim ben Atar (Ta’amei HaMinhagim, p. 270).

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