2016-06-07

At God's holy hill

As a small boy, I remember seeing pictures of the Western Wall in a Bible atlas that my dad kept on the same shelf as Fox’s Book of Martyrs. I remember studying the photos of devout Jews weeping at the “Wailing Wall” in Jerusalem at the site of what was once God’s holy Temple.

At God's holy hill

And so, it was extraordinary last February to find myself visiting there with my daughter, wife and son-in-law. We spent a Monday morning there. In the left photo, the faithful pray sitting and standing. At right, our group walks up toward the entrance to the Western Wall.

 

Photo by Rob Kerby, Beliefnet Senior Editor

At God's holy hill

This photo, taken around 1860, shows walls built within feet of the historic wall. Local Jews call it Kotel, which some say is a Hebrew play on words – using a number associated with God and the word “hill” – thus, “God’s Hill.”

At God's holy hill

"God's Hill" actually better describes what is above the wall – the Temple Mount, the place where once stood David’s Temple. The artwork shown here is a depiction of what the area looked like when the rebuilt Temple was expanded by King Herod around 19 b.c.

At God's holy hill

For centuries, Jews were denied access to this, their holiest site. After the Romans crushed the Bar-Kokhba revolt in 135 a.d., the Temple was destroyed and most of Jerusalem with it. Jews were actually banned from the city for hundreds of years – resulting in the worldwide diaspora or exile of Jews to every corner of the Earth.

At God's holy hill

There is no certainty about where the Temple’s sacred Holy of Holies was located amid the hilltop ruins. Thus many devout Jews refuse to set foot on the Temple Mount itself – lest they accidentally step into a sacred area that could only be entered by the High Priest once a year seeking forgiveness for the nation’s sins. Thus developed the practice of praying at the base of the mount – at the western retaining wall of the outer courtyard.

At God's holy hill

When the Roman Empire became Christian under Constantine, Jews were allowed to enter Jerusalem once a year, on the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av, to lament the loss of the Temple and pray here at the Wall. Over the years, efforts were made by various Jewish groups to purchase the property, but Muslims also consider the site holy, saying it was at the Western Wall that the Prophet Mohammed rested his horse – and from a stone now inside the Mosque of Omar he ascended into heaven. Only after the Six-Day War of 1967 were Jews guaranteed daily access to the Wall.

At God's holy hill

The height of the Wall from its foundation is estimated at 105 feet with only about 62 feet exposed. The remainder is covered with rubble from the last 2,000 years. Archeologists say the Wall consists of 45 rows of stones, 28 of them above ground and 17 underground. The first seven visible layers are believed to be from the earliest period – at least 2,100 years ago, possibly dating back to Solomon’s Temple hundreds of years earlier. This layer is composed of enormous limestone blocks believed to have been quarried at either Zedekiah's Cave or at the Ramat Shlomo quarry three miles away.

 

Photo by Rob Kerby, Beliefnet Senior Editor

At God's holy hill

Most of the Wall’s stones weigh between two and eight tons each, but one in the northern section is estimated at 570 tons. The next four layers were added in the 7th century. The next fourteen layers are from the Ottoman period and attributed to Sir Moses Montefiore who in 1866 arranged that further layers be added “for shade and protection from the rain for all who come to pray by the holy remnant of our Temple.” The top three layers were placed by the Mufti of Jerusalem between 1920 and 1967.

 

Photo by Rob Kerby, Beliefnet Senior Editor


At God's holy hill

Today, the Western Wall is open to everyone. However, all visitors are asked to be respectful.

 

Photo by Rob Kerby, Beliefnet Senior Editor

At God's holy hill

Prayer books are available from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation – free for anyone to use.

 

Photo by Rob Kerby, Beliefnet Senior Editor

At God's holy hill

Following tradition, men and women are separated by a screen. Both are asked to cover their head in respect to God – caps and scarves are provided free of charge.

 

Photo by Rob Kerby, Beliefnet Senior Editor

At God's holy hill

It is extraordinary to see how personal a moment it is for so many visitors. They come from a wide variety of traditions.

 

Photo by Rob Kerby, Beliefnet Senior Editor

At God's holy hill

One tradition is to place personal prayer requests in the gaps between the stones – yes, that’s Pope Benedict XIV during his visit a few years ago.

At God's holy hill

On the day we visited, quite a number of families were celebrating their sons’ 13th birthday with a Bar Mitzvah celebration, the traditional Jewish passage to manhood. Here a father helps his son put on traditional tefillin – two small boxes containing scripture. One is placed on the forehead, the other strapped to an arm.

 

Photo by Rob Kerby, Beliefnet Senior Editor

At God's holy hill

As part of the observance, 10 men must be in attendance – praying with the young man and observing as he reads from scripture. Some young participants offer their thoughts on the reading.

 

Photo by Rob Kerby, Beliefnet Senior Editor


At God's holy hill

While some such celebrations at the Western Wall are quiet and simple, others are quite festive and traditional – including canopies, friends blowing ram’s horns, drummers, a cantor, perhaps even a rabbi. An important part of the event is the young man reading from the Torah – traditional scrolls containing the first five books of the Bible. 

 

Photos by Rob Kerby, Beliefnet Senior Editor

At God's holy hill

On the morning that we visited, there was considerable hubbub as multiple Bar Mitzvahs took place simultaneously. Only men surrounded the youngsters officially entering manhood. Women peeked over the walls and partitions. 

 

Photo by Rob Kerby, Beliefnet Senior Editor

At God's holy hill

Here a young man is directed by his father to the appropriate passage while a cameraman hired by the family records the event for posterity.

 

Photo by Rob Kerby, Beliefnet Senior Editor

At God's holy hill

Here is another 13-year-old in tefillin in front of a Torah. Some families bring their own scrolls from their congregations at home. The Western Wall Heritage Foundation also has Torahs available to borrow.

 

Photo by Rob Kerby, Beliefnet Senior Editor

At God's holy hill

Then afterwards, it’s time for family snapshots with the historic Wall in the background. On Sabbath Days, cameras are not permitted. Most Bar Mitzvahs in the plaza take place on Mondays and Thursdays. Then it's off for a festive meal with family and friends.
 

Photo by Rob Kerby, Beliefnet Senior Editor

At God's holy hill

It’s a setting that has seen thousands of years of history, war and redemption.

 

Photo by Rob Kerby, Beliefnet Senior Editor


At God's holy hill

Yet it is also a place for quiet reflection … amid the swirl of worship, prayer, celebration and emotion. This is where King David walked. Here the Prophets preached, the Crusaders battled and an ancient nation was reborn after 2,000 years of exile.

 

Photo by Rob Kerby, Beliefnet Senior Editor

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