Palestine Calling
by
W. M. Christie

Chapter XXIV

The Wailing Wall at Jerusalem


The "Kothel Ma'arabi," or Western Wall, also known as "The Wailing Place of the Jews," is part of the circumvallation of the Temple Court. It lies to the south of the Bab es-Silsileh (Gate of the Chain), and is overlooked by a building at that gate which bears the name of el-Mehkemeh. It consists of huge blocks of stone, some of which are drafted in the old Jewish fashion. Part of it may date back to the time of Solomon, but what mainly concerns us is that it was part of the enclosure of the Temple as re-built by Herod, and destroyed by Titus in the year 70 A.D.

We hope to show that, after the destruction of the Temple and city, and especially after the second fall of the Jewish State in 135 A.D., this western wall became the special shrine of the Jewish people, and the "kibla" (prayer-direction) of its devotions. Now this word, kibla, is Arabic, and we generally use it in connection with Islam, and think of the turning of the Moslem to the Ka'aba at Mecca. But the idea of a kibla, or prayer direction, was not originally Arabic, but derived from the Jews.

To understand this we must look at the relations between Muhammed and the Jews with whom he had to deal. He sought to gain them as converts, and, with this in view, he was prepared to make concessions to them. In this connection the first kibla selected was Jerusalem, and in the Koran (Surah xvii. 1) we find the decision on this point: "Praise be to Him, who transported His servant from the sacred temple (of Mecca) to the further temple (of Jerusalem), the circuit of which we have blessed." Hitherto neither Arabia nor Islam had any Kibla, otherwise it would not have been rejected. Besides we have the further evidence that the Jews told him that he "did not know where to find his kibla, till we pointed it out to him." Thereafter, disappointed with the Jews, Muhammed, in November, 623 A.D., altered the kibla to Mecca, as recorded in "Surah," ii. 163 seq., "The fools will say, What hath turned them from their kibla, toward which they formerly prayed? We shall cause thee to turn to a kibla that shall please thee. Turn therefore thy face toward the holy temple (of Mecca), and wherever ye be, when ye pray, turn toward the same. . . . They will not follow thy kilba, neither shalt thou follow their kibla."

Thus we see that Muhammad got the idea of a kibla from the Jews, that after a time he abandoned theirs and selected another for Islam, and also, that their central shrine in Jerusalem, whatever it was, stood in the same relationship to Judaism as did the kibla at Mecca to the Moslem world. Furthermore, the records and action of all parties show that it had a long and worthy Jewish history behind it before the advent of Islam.

But was the Western Wall the central shrine? We must look back over the history of the previous centuries. When the Temple was destroyed the sacrificial system ceased, and changes had to come. Political ambitions were abandoned, and it was declared, "The Law is the heritage of Israel" (T. B. Succah, 42. a). Prayer took the place of sacrifice, and it does so till the present day in the Mussaf prayers. Then the Temple could not be entered. Without sacrifice the people were ceremonially unclean, and they were self-excluded from the Holy Place. Besides, there was uncertainty as to the exact position among the ruins of the Holy of Holies, and one might unwittingly tread there. What was to be done? The Old Testament had made provision; Jerusalem was of necessity the shrine. "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget" (Psa. 137:5). "I will worship toward Thy Holy Temple" (Psa. 5:8). And of Daniel we read that when he prayed "his windows were open in his chamber toward Jerusalem." Accordingly, prayer toward the Holy House took the place of prayer within the precincts.

It is generally supposed that approach to Jerusalem was forbidden to the Jews from the year 70 A.D., but we find no clear evidence for such a statement. On the contrary, we find Jewish residents there between 70 and 75 A.D., and Jewish rabbis visiting the city. The story is told of R. Jochanan ben Zakkai, the the head of the Sanhedrin at Jamnia, meeting the daughter of a certain Nakdimon ben Gurion in deep poverty (T. B. Bethuv. 66 b). But more to our purpose is another bit of fully authenticated history of the first century also. In Siphre on Deut. 11:15 (and also in T. B. Maccoth 24 b; and Mid. Echa Rab., on v. 18) we read of Rabban Gamliel II., R. Jehoshua, R. Elazar ben Azariah and R. Akiba going in company to worship at Jerusalem. Reaching Har-haz-Zophim, they rent their clothes. Passing among the ruins, they saw a fox come out of the ruins of the Holy of Holies. They must accordingly have passed down the west side of the ruined Temple, and the Holy of Holies was passed on the way to the kibla. This route leads to the Western Wall, and to no other possible place for prayer. We date the incident not later than 95 A.D.

After 135 A.D. attempts were made to extirpate Judaism, and the severest possible laws were made. Reading the Law, the Sabbath, Circumcision, and the ordination of rabbis were forbidden, and the Jews were prevented approach to Jerusalem. But with the accession of Antoninus Pius (138) these regulations were to a great extent ignored, and if they did not become a dead letter, they at most served the purpose of a taxation that probably went into the pockets of those having local authority. That Jews did pray at the ruins during the succeeding years we have ample evidence. In T. B. Ber. 3 a, we learn that Rabbi Jose (fl. 140-170) did so, and he tells of his experiences there.

That the place of devotion had all along been the Wailing Wall becomes for us a certainty, when we examine the evidences of a somewhat later date. In Midrash Shemoth Rabba, Sect. ii, on Exodus 3:1, there is a discussion on the movement of the Shechinah, and it concludes with the statement: "The Shechinah has never moved from the Western Wall (Kothel Ma'arabhi), for it is said (Cant. 2:9), "Behold He standeth behind our wall." This statement was made by R. Acha, who flourished at the beginning of the fourth century, and it shows that, as a kibla, the Western Wall was then of old standing. The same interpretation is given by a group of anonymous writers about the year 340 A.D. (Shem. Rab. on i. 9). Their words are, "This One is standing behind our wall, i.e., behind the Western Wall, of which the Holy One, Blessed be He, has sworn that it should never be destroyed." The same interpretation finds a place also in Yalkut Shimoni on Shir, ii. 9) the author of this work is said to be the ancestor of the Adler family), who lived in 1300 A.D., but drew from ancient sources. Objection might be taken to this method of interpretation of the Song of Solomon, but it is a perfectly legitimate Jewish rule designated "remez" or "indication," and to this method Christians themselves resort, especially in their explanation of Matthew 2:23.

Our purpose is served by these references, when they show that the Western Wall was Israel's sacred central shrine from what were ancient times in 320 and 340 A.D., and that the same conditions prevailed in 1300 A.D.

Incidental references to the pilgrimages are found at various times throughout the centuries. Thus Rabbi Levi (350 A.D.) tells us (Mid. Echa. Rab. on i. 17) that in the olden time pilgrims went up to Jerusalem with enjoyment that ceased not day nor night, but now silent we go up and silent we go down. Then Rabbi Berechiah, during the Gaonic Period (689-1056) has the same story to tell: "Formerly they went up with the voice of joy and praise, but now weeping they go up and weeping they go down" (ibid.).

But we are not dependent on Jewish authority alone for our evidences. It is true that Christian pilgrims cared little for Jewish things, and seldom mentioned them, but we have the testimony of three notable writers. In the year 333, the Pilgrim of Bordeaux tells of the Jews being permitted to visit for prayer and weeping "the pierced stone." The expression is peculiar, and we cannot but think that in the word "pierced" we have a misunderstanding and that we should read "memorial stone." The difference is in the confusion of Qoph for Kaph, a well known frequent source of error. His words are, "Not far from the statue of Hadrian is the pierced stone to which the Jews come yearly, and they anoint it, and bewail with groaning, and rending their garments, they thus depart."

In the year 360, in Sermon xii., Gregory of Nazianzen tells a like story, and he is followed, about 400, by Jerome, who, in his commentary on Zephaniah 1:15, says that, until his day, the Jews were not allowed to enter Jerusalem, except for wailing, and that for a price they were permitted to shed tears over the ruin of the city. The testimony especially of the first of these three witnesses makes quite clear that the Wailing Wall is meant, and this testimony is in fullest agreement with the contemporary Jewish authorities. A reference by Eusebius of Caesarea (ob. 340), the Church historian, belongs to the same period, and bears a like testimony (H.E. iv. 6).

The evidences as to the surrender of Jerusalem to the Moslem world in 636 A.D. are late and conflicting. Bar Hebr├Žus (1226-1286), says that the Christians made terms with Omar for the exclusion of the Jews, while we learn from Isaac Chelo (1333) and other sources, that the site of the temple was pointed out to Omar by an aged Jew, agreement being made that, in return for this service, he was to preserve the Western Wall. We can hardly think that Omar dealt hardly with the Jews, for he had such confidence in them that he entrusted to them the making of his coinage. At all events the status quo was not changed.

The associations of the Western Wall touched the whole life of the Jewish world right down through the Middle Ages. Poets sang of it, and pilgrims looked forward anxiously to pending visits. Israel's sweetest singer since the days of the Psalmists has much to say, and he died a martyr's death, while singing beneath some wall of the Holy City. We select these lines from the poems of Jehudah hal-Levi (ob. 1140): "Would that one might give me the wings of eagles, that I might moisten with my tears thy dust. . . . Shall I not take pleasure in thy stones and kiss them, and the taste of thy clods shall be sweeter to me than honey. . . . There the Shechinah dwells for thee, and thy Creator has opened, against the gates of the sky, thy gates. . . . I will choose for my soul to be companion in the place where the Spirit of God is poured upon thy chosen ones. . . . I will fall upon my face to thy ground, and I will take much pleasure in thy stones, and thy dust will be dear unto me."

Benjamin of Tudela visited Jerusalem in 1165, and his record is as follows: "In front of it (the Mosque of Omar) you see the Western Wall, one of the walls which formed the Holy of Holies of the ancient Temple; it is called the Gate of Mercy, and all Jews resort thither to say their prayers, near the wall of the court-yard."

The close of the Crusades brought a time of more generous toleration to the small number of Jews left, and, apart from the grasping greed of tyrannical pashas, the Jews seem to have enjoyed a workable freedom, and there seems to have been no hindrances in the matter of the Wailing Wall. In 1322, Estori Parchi a careful and accurate writer, finished his work, "Kaftor wa-Pherach," on the ancient and holy sites in Palestine. In Section vi, he speaks of the Wailing Wall, and tells that it was the use and wont of the Jews to pray there.

In 1481 we learn from Meshulla, of Volterra, that on the 9th of Ab, the Jews met for prayer near the place where the Temple was situated. He probably mentions this as the most prominent of their services, when they came as a community.

In 1495, Obadiah de Bartinora writes (Letter 1): "In the midst of the city, near to the Holy House, there is a place, open and empty, to which the community, after prayer, resorts, that they may pray opposite to the Holy House, for from there they see the Holy and Fearful Place."

Shortly thereafter (1517) the Turks took Jerusalem. They had from the day of the Expulsion from Spain, treated the Jew with consideration, and we are assured they did the same in Palestine. It is continually asserted that Selim I granted the Wailing Wall to the Jews, by Firman (charter). This may have been so, but it was hardly necessary, as in matters of religion and communal rights, the conqueror came in with the obligation of maintaining the status quo. Questions on the point were never raised.

In 1640 a pilgrim from Carpi, whose name is unknown, wrote his son a letter which has been preserved in Luncz's "Jerusalem," v. 74, and which is interesting on account of his confirming what others had said as to the relationship of the Jews to the Wall, but more so in virtue of his testimony to there being an ordered arrangement of the Ritual of the Wailing Wall from the previous century at least. His evidence is of great value, as it shows that the Jews had liberty in the ordering of their service. The right to do so has never been challenged, and the present order was drawn up by Rabbi Samuel (author of "Minchat Shemuel") at the beginning of the nineteenth century. He gave it the name of Sha'are Dim'ah, or "The Gate of Tears." Since his time it has been frequently printed under various names.

The Western wall was fully recognised through all the centuries as a place of public worship for the Jews, and real restrictions have never been laid upon them. We give two further examples, each different in kind. When Napoleon was in the country, in 1798, the Jews were suspected of favouring and desiring to help him, and were accordingly threatened with death. Led by Mordechai el-Gazi, they gathered at the Western Wall for prayer and protest. In 1856 the first efforts of Reformed Judaism were being made by the opening of a school in Jerusalem. This was opposed by the Orthodox, who on this occasion likewise gathered for prayer at the Wailing Wall.

Further, at the present moment I have in my hands an official document, dated at Jerusalem in Sivan 5631 (1871), and intended for use in Arabistan, Kurdistan, Georgistan, the Gate of Hejaz, Great Peres (Persia), Little Peres, Hindia, Damascus and Bagdad. The twelve rabbis in Jerusalem, who signed this document, and added three communal seals, evidently knew of no doubt or question concerning the Wailing Wall, for had they known of any, they would not have dared to sign and seal it, and therein to promise to pray for their friends, "To the God of Heaven, these three prayers--Evening and Morning and Midday--to the God of the Holy Place, this Gate of Heaven, before the Shechinah, our Help, 'Behold this One is standing behind our wall,' the Kothel Ma'arabhi, our prayers shall be directed. May the Lord, our God, be with you. May the Lord of Hosts protect you."

Surely we have said enough. All the evidences, down through the ages, prove that the Jews have an indisputable right to this sacred site. The evidences, too, are of the best possible kind, as they are to a great extent incidental, and in not one single case has there been advocacy in connection with any matter in dispute. Until the present crisis arose, there never was a dispute that required settlement. The first doubts to be expressed, either on the right of the Jew to the site, or as to the nature of the services there are produced by a community that is itself immigrant (the Moghrabiyeh). Directly and indirectly the Arab invaders and the Turkish conquerors fully recognised the right of the Jew. In Turkish days, in 1894, we have seen beside the Wailing Wall benches, seats, and carpets--all the arrangements for private or united synagogal service, and no objection raised.

The Turk permitted the Ritual of the Wailing Wall to be printed in Jerusalem, and the Turkish censor was ever on the alert. The Turkish Government also permitted the Mizrahi Pictures to come in freely through every custom house in the land, and these pictures, hung in every Jewish home in Palestine, claimed and received recognition that the Wailing Wall was the central Jewish shrine for the whole world.

Thus to every Jew throughout the world to-day that picture is an evidence of his inviolable right. For the sake of our Christian friends we will describe it. It is a symbolical picture, generally presenting Moses with the Two Tablets, and Aaron with the Censer in hand, while between them the Wailing Wall is seen, setting forth this as the shrine of Israel's faith, where the God of prophet and priest is to be met.

And, finally, there is the evidence of the Synagogal Seals of a number of the communities in Jerusalem. In the centre there is engraved as a badge or symbol a picture of this same wall. It was a kind of "coat of arms," almost equivalent to the "tughra" in Turkish official use. Documents impressed with such seals passed regularly back and forward between the Jewish and the Turkish officials through long years without a single question. What a splendid opportunity there was here for persistent "bleeding" on account of "illegal use of arms," but the question never arose.

The Israelite is conservative in matters of faith and practice, and does not lightly seek for change. The past for him is sacred and is to be maintained. We have here his most ancient and most sacred devotional centre, the holiest place in the world to the devout Israelite. He has a prescriptive right to it, provable, as we have shown, for eighteen centuries, and who has a better claim to anything on earth. To interfere with the Jewish right in this Sacred Wall would be a violation of every principle of righteousness and honour.

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