Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 2 January 2010 / 15 Tevet 5770

Wailing Western Wall

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

From: Regina

Dear Rabbi,

I am interested in learning about the Wailing or Western Wall. Can you explain to me how this sacred place began (history) and how it has evolved over the years? My teacher is teaching us this subject in my Jewish religion class. However, I want to learn more by asking you. Thank you in advance.

Dear Regina,

The Western Wall is really only of secondary importance and holiness. That’s because the mountain which the wall surrounds and the Temple that once stood atop it is what’s really significant about the site. Let me explain.

The holy mountain in Jerusalem upon which the Temple was built is called Mount Moriah. According to Jewish tradition and Scriptures, it was from this Mount that G-d first created Earth (Yoma 54b), upon which Adam was formed (Sanhedrin 38b), Cain, Hevel (Gen. 4:1-4) and Noach (Gen. 8:20) offered their sacrifices to G-d, Abraham bound Isaac (Gen. 22:1-3) and Jacob had his prophetic dream (Gen 28:11,16-18).

It was this Mount which G-d revealed would be the future site of the Temple (Deut. 12:10,11), was purchased by King David for that purpose (2 Sam 24:18,24-25) and upon which Solomon built the First Temple in 825 BCE (2 Chron. 3:1). Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, rebuilt as the Second Temple by Ezra and Nehemiah in 352 BCE (over 1000 years before Islam built its mosques on the ancient Jewish site) and then destroyed by the Romans resulting in the Diaspora of the Jews till this day.

The Temple was built by constructing a retaining wall all the way around the mountain that was used to level off an arch-supported, hollow platform surrounding the top of the mountain. [As a model, consider a cone surrounded by a box, where the tip of the cone protrudes from a hole in the top of the box]. It was on this platform, called the Temple Mount, where the Temple was built over the tip of the mountain protruding above the platform; the innermost section of the Temple, called the Holy of Holies, was actually built around the exposed mountaintop itself. The platform was originally 250m by 250m, and later expanded in Second Temple times to its present size of 300m by 480m (app. 12 soccer fields, 3 by 4) where the Temple itself was not in the center but rather toward the northwest corner of the Temple Mount.

When the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the retaining walls around the mountain remained in tact to support the elevated platform of the Temple Mount. While the retaining wall on the eastern side of the Mount remained exposed, uneasy access prevented it from becoming a focal point for prayers. Over time, most of the other retaining walls were rendered unfit either because they were covered by the Arab quarters built to the north and west of the Mount or because they buttressed the mosques built over the western and southern walls. Thus, only a relatively small part of the retaining wall was exposed and not in front of the mosques – and this was in the western retaining wall.

As mentioned above, since the ancient Temple was toward the northwest of the Mount, this was also the closest exposed section to the location of the ancient Temple. It therefore became the most accessible, palpable and significant remnant of the holy Temple to the Jews, who gathered there over the millennia since the destruction to lament that tragedy and express their longing for the redemption and rebuilding of the Temple.

That’s why (this part of) the Western Wall is also called the Wailing Wall. It’s holy only insofar as it surrounds the holy mountain and served to support the Temple Mount and the Temple. But what a Jew really expresses by visiting, praying and weeping at that site is his hope that the full glory of the Mount, which has since been usurped by others, will be restored to its original owners, the Jews, who were, and still are, the source, foundation and inspiration for others’ interest there in the first place.

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