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Emet m'Tsiyon

Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Western Wall ["Wailing Wall"] in the 19th Century

The Western Wall of the Temple still stands as a remnant of the ancient Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Remnants of the ancient walls include the southern and eastern walls, in particular, as well as the subsurface part of the Temple Mount. Herod and his engineers, when they rebuilt the Second Temple, created or enlarged a platform --that is, a flat, horizontal upper surface-- over what was originally a mountain. To support the platform Herod and his engineers employed a unique system of what are believed to be stone tubes. This system in still in place under the surface. This is one reason why the illegal building work lately done on site by the Waqf [trust for Muslim communal property] is so dangerous. As said, the outer walls, which are structurally retaining walls, remain. The lower layers of huge stones which can be seen on the eastern, southern and western walls are original and apparently left in place by the Romans, by their Byzantine successors, by the Arab conquerors, the Crusaders, and later rulers of Jerusalem. However, large stones that had fallen from the mount during the Roman destruction, were reused for other structures. Upper layers of stone in the Western Wall are more recent, and no doubt necessary to preserve the structure. Some of the very latest layers, put in place in the 19th century, were meant to prevent or discourage Muslims on the Mount from throwing stones down at the Jewish worshippers below.

Jews have been praying at the current location of the Western Wall plaza for hundreds of years, a time interrupted by Jordanian rule between 1948 and 1967. The plaza prayer area is one where the Western Wall is exposed. However, the Wall still exists for its full length [480 meters?] but is concealed by buildings [mainly from the Mamluk period]. The concealed portion of the Western Wall can be seen on tours through the Western Wall tunnel. Here is a 19th century testimony about the Wall prayer area
and what it meant for the Jews at the time:
. . . it is so to speak a synagogue without a roof, a sacred place of prayer for a people without a homeland in its very own homeland
And in the original French:
. . . c'est pour ainsi dire une synagogue sans toit, lieu sacré de prières d'un peuple sans patrie dans sa patrie même.
[Gérardy Santine, Trois Ans en Judée (Paris: Hachette, 1860)

Here is Jewish testimony before the Wailing Wall Commission set up by the British government in 1929. This was at a time when Arab nationalists --led by the British-appointed mufti of Jerusalem [later a notorious Nazi collaborator], Haj Amin el-Husseini-- were challenging Jewish rights at the Western Wall. The witness was Rabbi Isaac Yehezk'el Yehuda, an elder of the Sefardic Community, whose family seems to have come from Iraq:

. . . After my grandmother's father, the great and pious Kabbalist Rabbi Abdullah. . . immigrated to Palestine in 1841, my grandmother's mother. . . was accustomed to go to the Wailing Wall every Friday afternoon, winter and summer, and remain there until candle-lighting time, reading the Book of Psalms and the Song of Songs. In those days the city was forsaken and desolate. There were no Jews at the Wall before noon, but as the day progressed they would begin to arrive for the Sabbath-Inauguration service. . .
When I was six years old my father began to take me there to pray with his rabbi. . . Eliezer Halevi. . . on the eve of the Sabbath. We would finish our prayers when the sun was still shining. There were tables with large lanterns upon them which the Ashkenazim lit in honor of the Sabbath. Sometimes. . . we would pray with the Hasidim and their rabbi, Eleazar Mendel Biedermann. Prayers would end after dusk . . .
As a youth I used to go to the Wailing Wall between morning and afternoon prayers on Yom Kippur. . . The Hasidic rabbi, Moses Meshil Gelbstein, would be there with his followers chanting the Additional service. Sometimes they would be reading the Torah portion. . . An awning was stretched across the courtyard and there were tables, a Holy Ark, a Torah scroll, chairs and benches there. The weak old people would sit on feather pillows. Prayers were conducted quietly and peacefully. The local residents would pass by without disturbing the worshippers.
. . .
I also remember that, when Russia was fighting the Turks in 1878, the government asked the Jews to pray for the Turks' success at the Wailing Wall. The pupils of the Sephardi and Ashkenazi Talmudei Torah [Torah school] were escorted there by an honor guard of soldiers.
. . . the sainted kabbalist Rabbi Rahamim Antebbi, was one of the "Mourners of Zion." He wore no shoes, but only open sandals. . . without stockings. . . He was in the habit of visiting the Wailing Wall every midnight, winter and summer, to recite midnight lamentations and weep [over the destroyed Temple]. Neither rain nor wind prevented him from appearing there nightly until the day he died. . .
[quoted in Yehoshua ben Arieh, Jerusalem in the 19th Century: The Old City (Jerusalem: Ben Zvi, 1984), pp 312-314]

Note the importance of the place to the Jews, its centrality in their religious worship. This was because it took the place of the ancient Temple as a remnant of the Temple. The Ottoman rulers not only recognized the right of the Jews to pray in this place, but even requested that they pray for an Ottoman victory in a war with Russia at the Wall, even sending troops to escort Jews to pray there.
As noted above, Arab nationalists and Muslim bigots challenged Jewish rights at the Western Wall prayer place [not a plaza at that time, more like a wide alley] in 1929. Again today, Arab nationalists and Muslim bigots [fanatics of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad stripe] deny totally Jewish rights at the Western Wall. Now they are supported by certain Western governments who may not forgive the Jews for surviving the Nazi Holocaust, and in any case, accept the Arab lies.
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Coming soon: More from Gérardy Santine about Jews in Jerusalem in the 19th Century.
Poems of Zion, etc.


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