Visiting the Western Wall
There are a some things that you “must” do in any city. Kiss the Blarney Stone. Walk the Golden Gate Bridge. Get the view from the top of the Eiffel Tower. But few of those musts are as contemplative as visiting Jerusalem and placing a prayer in a crack of the Western Wall.
We arrived in the city late on a Friday afternoon, and had just enough time to stroll through the cacophony of the marketplace before heading over to the wall. Known as the most holy site in the Jewish faith, its significance lies in the fact that it is the last remnant of the original retaining wall which surrounded the Second Temple, which was built over 2,000 years ago. After the temple was destroyed in AD 70, the Jews were exiled from the city, and it became a place of pilgrimage where they would return to lament their loss (it was long known as the Wailing Wall for that reason). Now it is essentially an open-air synagogue, with divided sections for men and women to pray independently.
We arrived in the early evening with a flood of Hasidic men, women, and children who all took their places up close to the wall, many of them hastily began davening to ensure that they’d finish the prayer, which can take up to 45 minutes to recite, before the sun set. A warning tone sounded, announcing that an hour remained before Shabbat began, and signaled to us that it was no longer appropriate to take photographs.
For a while, I stood just watching the men and women whispered their prayers, seemingly into the cracks of the wall, while others would stand and place their hands, cheeks and foreheads up against the stone.
I saw three generations of women approach, a mother, grandmother and infant, and smiled as the younger woman placed the child’s hand up against the wall. Finally, I pulled out my notebook and wrote a small prayer onto a scrap, then approached the ancient stones and looked for some small crevice to insert it. I tucked mine into a precariously small nook, which was already stuffed. The cracks are full of tiny pieces of paper, as tradition holds that prayers placed within the wall have a stronger chance of being answered. Touching the stones, they seemed to almost swell with significance. It was hard not to be awed.
I couldn’t help wondering what happens to my – and all of those prayers – so I was interested to learn yesterday that there is an annual spring cleaning at the wall, and the prayers are removed with wooden sticks dipped in the mikveh or ritual bath, and buried at the Mount of Olives Cemetery in Jerusalem. It’s currently underway at the wall in preparation for the arrival of tourists for the Passover and Easter celebrations.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Insider’s Tip: Visiting the Western Wall is often enough of a pilgrimage for people, but if you want more, be sure to book a reservation at the Western Wall Tunnels to see the excavated wall on an underground tour.
A narrow crevice between the Arab District and the original wall has been cut out, and the result is in effect a “time tunnel” allowing visitors to see the historic structures that served as entranceways to the original temple. Along the route, there are some interactive areas which describe how the stones were cut and moved, and how the thousands of years of building in Jerusalem came to cover up most of the wall. Small guided tours must be booked in advance before your arrival.
Photos: Above, Janelle Nanos; Below, Israel Ministry of Tourism