Western Wall in Jewish Literature

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R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Kinos Mesoras HaRav, p. 370:

It is noteworthy that the Western Wall is not referred to at all in the Babylonian Talmud or the Jerusalem Talmud and is hardly mentioned in the Rishonim. For example, Maimonides’ letter describing his arrival in Jerusalem does not mention anything about the Western Wall. There is a reference to the Western Wall in the Midrash on the verse from Song of Songs, “Behold, he stands ahar kotlenu, behind our wall, He looks in through the windows, He peers through the lattice” (2:9). The Midrash says (Shemot Rabba 2:2) that this refers to the Western Wall and that the Shekhina is behind the Western Wall, in its shadow. I have always been somewhat skeptical of the authenticity of the midrashic references to the Western Wall, and I suspect they may be of a later period, because the classical Talmudic sources make no mention of the Western Wall. In my view, this kina of Rabbi Elazar HaKalir is one of the earliest documents in which the Western Wall is mentioned.

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Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

45 comments

  1. There actually is mention of the western wall in a passage in zohar. Marc shapiro uses this as possibly indicating that the rav believed the zohar to be of medieval origin.

  2. ” FSG on July 16, 2013 at 9:51 pm

    There actually is mention of the western wall in a passage in zohar. Marc shapiro uses this as possibly indicating that the rav believed the zohar to be of medieval origin”

    The Zohar in current arrangement is from medieval origin can’t really be disputed-of course that the Zohar overwhelmingly is citing Tannaitic/Amoraic era sources can’t really be disputed. That there is a mystical stream to Yahadus can’t be disputed see eg Tanaitic era book Sefer Hayezira even Saadia Gaon wrote a commentary on it.

  3. My only point was the last part, about what prof shapiro adduces from this comment of the rav, which is relevant,as many still believe it is kefirah to claim that the zohar is not completely tanaitic in origin.

  4. What is certain is that the Kotel has replaced Har Haabayit as the focus for pilgrimage today. It is unfortunate that the remnant of Herods retaining wall is the place for prayer and not the place of the Temple itself.

  5. Well, that is because you are not allowed to pray at the Temple Mount, nor have you been for the last 500 years. You are barely allowed to visit there. If you want to know why Israel is the only country in history to reconquer its holiest site and then give it back to an enemy and why it still get complaints about managing the site in spite of this, no comment.

    I have seen suggestions that Shemot Rabbah actually refers to an actual wall on the Temple Mount, which was torn down by the early Christians. But if so, I cannot see why no other Midrash nor a Talmud mentions it.

  6. Yesterday’s kinos gave a mention, as far as I remember.
    notElon – The Arabs are not to blame. In fact, from a Jewish perspective, it is probably better that they are in charge. Imagine it was open to the Jewish public. How many more aveiros (krisos) would people be oiver? Additionally, the actual borders of the mishnayos in Keilim are not clearly known and there is a huge lack of Rabbinic literature to work with, so we are better off waiting for Moshiach, who will be here any minute anway, before visiting the Har HaBayis.

  7. shachar haamim

    “notElon – The Arabs are not to blame. In fact, from a Jewish perspective, it is probably better that they are in charge. Imagine it was open to the Jewish public. How many more aveiros (krisos) would people be oiver? Additionally, the actual borders of the mishnayos in Keilim are not clearly known and there is a huge lack of Rabbinic literature to work with, so we are better off waiting for Moshiach, who will be here any minute anway, before visiting the Har HaBayis.”

    that’s the same argument Jews use for mot moving to E”Y.
    Personally I also use that for not wearing a tallis katan – aside from the fact it’s a mitzvah kiyumis, think about what happens if the strings rip and I have a four cornered garment without kosher tztzis.
    also I shall stop eating matzah on Pesach because I’m worried about the krisus of chametz.
    I’m also going to stop sleeping with my wife because of all those potential issurei nidah I might violate.

    the reason why the Rambam didn’t write anout going to the western wall is because he wrote about going up to the har habayit itself!
    I don’t know if that is a quote of RYBS in the kinot book, but if it isn’t then it is bad editing and leaves the wrong impression about what the Rambam actually did and wrote about.

  8. Of course none of these sources mention the Kotel. Until the Arab conquest, and even well after that, Jews went up to the Har HaBayit not just to pray, but for other communal reasons as well. The Rambam went up to the Har HaBayit. If they prayed at any wall, it was the one on the east side, facing west, the same direction everyone faced in the Mikdash itself.

    Eventually the Arabs put a cemetery (still there) up against the eastern wall, according to some precisely to keep Jews away. (Or keep Eliyahu HaNavi, a kohen, from coming through.) The southern wall, at the time, was covered with administrative buildings, as was the southern end of the western wall. (Today that’s all an archaeological park.) The northern wall, due to the geography of the city, barely exists, and in any event it, and most of the western wall, are covered with buildings. And thus Jews found one of the few open spots, today’s Kotel, and started going there. (There’s one other open spot a little further north, the Kotel Katan.)

    Contrary to popular belief, all four walls of the Temple Mount are very much in existence, albeit a little shorter than they originally were, and mostly buried in places. Any midrash about “the western wall being the only one left” and thus having extra kedusha is thus suspect. The best explanation is that they are talking about the western wall of the Mikdash itself, or maybe the Azara, which may have remained standing for some time, or perhaps had extra kedusha because it was closest to the Kodesh HaKodshim. (The same is often given as an “explantion” for the Kotel as well, which is nice, but historically incorrect, as shown above.)

    groinem: Anyone risking karet- i.e., non-religious Jews- is free to go up to the Har HaBayit. It’s davka the ones who take care to go to the mikva, etc. that are given a hard time. If the police guaranteed access, there’d be no extra sins, and lots of extra mitzvot. As to the actual borders, they’re clear as day to anyone who wishes to study them.

  9. lawrence kaplan

    mycroft: Of course, the Zohar cites
    Tannaitic/Amoraic era sources. I don’t know what you mean by “overwhelmingly.” It also “overwhelmingly” quotes–in disguise!–medieval sources. It also “overwhelmingly” engages in fashioning its own creative midrashim attributing them to Tannatic figures.

    Re the Sefer Yetzirah: You are wrong on all counts. 1) Scholars still vigorously debate when it was written. 2) Even if it was written in the Tannaitic period–itself a dubious proposition– there is NOTHNG linking it to the circle of Tannaim. 3) It is not at all clear it is an mystical work. Saadya viewed it as scientific -philosophical work.

  10. I don’t see how this is “bad editing”, or how this leaves any wrong impression; for that matter I don’t see how it’s relevant that the Rambam went up to Har Habayis himself.

    The Rav’s point is clear and stands as written, that the Rambam nmade no mention/ascribed no greater significance to the Western Wall than to any other wall on or around Har Habayis. coupled with no mention of it in Bavli/Yerushalmi, that left the Rav suspect of the authenticity of the famous midrashim regarding the Western Wall.

    It looks to me like some people are just interested in pushing some kind of agenda regarding going up to Har Habayis, and it’s tainting their view of a rather simple paragraph.

  11. Shachar haamim – Is there a mitzva to go up to the Har HaBayis? If there is not, your issues with tzitzis, matzo and your wife are irrelevant. Actually your wife is irrelevant anyway. All the issues have been worked out and we know the halocho on every machlokes in hilchos nidah. If you want to be machmir personally, you can find an eitzah for that. But the Har HaBayis’ machlokes’ have not been decided because they were not relevant for most of history to most Jews. That is why Yidden were always machmir not to go anywhere near the problematic places. The story goes that Sir Moses Montefoire traveled over the makom hamikdosh in a hot air balloon and was ostracized by the Rabbonim in Yerushalayim. Come to think of it, Matzos are the same. We know the halocho so any fear is misplaced.
    The cemetery legend makes little sense. A tamei meis is allowed in the Har HaBayis AFAIK.
    Nachum – the Wakf certainly makes it more difficult for people to go there and make a tourist site out of it. There is just enough for a person to appreciate the Gemoro at the end of Makos.

  12. groinem: Simply put, yes, there is a mitzvah to go up to the Har HaBayit. Look it up.

    And the political reasons for doing so are nothing to sneeze at. In a shiur I attended, R’ Herschel Schachter gave both as justifications for going up.

    “That is why Yidden were always machmir not to go anywhere near the problematic places.”

    Define “Yidden.” Define “always.”

    “The cemetery legend makes little sense. A tamei meis is allowed in the Har HaBayis AFAIK.”

    That has nothing to do with it.(And yes, a tamei meit can go onto the Har HaBayit- that’s the whole point.) The legend states:

    1. The cemetery was placed there so Jews wouldn’t (or wouldn’t be allowed to, by the Muslims) pray there.

    or

    2. Eliyahu, being a kohen, couldn’t go through to bring Mashiach through Sha’ar HaRachamim.

    Of course it doesn’t make sense- for one thing, a kohen might be able to go through a non-Jewish cemetery. But this is the logic of the Arabs of the time, not us.

    “There is just enough for a person to appreciate the Gemoro at the end of Makos.”

    “or that matter I don’t see how it’s relevant that the Rambam went up to Har Habayis himself.”

    It’s relevant because if he did, we know it’s muttar.

    I’ve never appreciated the churban more than when on the Har HaBayit. It’s a mess.

  13. The Western Wall was such a strong Jewish icon than in 1967 the first soldiers to reach the area entered the Temple Mount . . . and kept on going in order to get to the Kotel. And of course that is where all those iconic photos were taken.

  14. Yossib, can you explain why that is so, merely saying it does not make it true, just rude.

  15. Shachar haamim – Is there a mitzva to go up to the Har HaBayis?

    When I was in yeshiva, one rav said it was a kiyum of the mitzvah deoraita of “mora mikdash”. (Well, either that or a bittul of “mora mikdash”, of course, depending on your attitude.)

    The Western Wall was such a strong Jewish icon than in 1967 the first soldiers to reach the area entered the Temple Mount . . . and kept on going in order to get to the Kotel.

    Many secular Jews are and were ignorant, unfortunately.

  16. http://www.meforum.org/3556/temple-mount

    A comprehensive article on visits to har habayit after the churban. I found one questionable assertion, you might find more, but overall it’s very good.

  17. By the way, according to Hebrew Wikipedia, Ethiopian Jews slaughtered a parah adumah as late as 1952 and used its ashes into the 1970s. It probably wouldn’t have met our standards, though.

  18. Which leads one to wonder if those standards are akin to those for, say, the ben sorer umoreh, i.e., written so as to be impossible, and, if so, why they’d do that.

  19. lawrence kaplan on July 17, 2013 at 8:51 am

    “mycroft: Of course, the Zohar cites
    Tannaitic/Amoraic era sources. I don’t know what you mean by “overwhelmingly.” It also “overwhelmingly” quotes–in disguise!–medieval sources. It also “overwhelmingly” engages in fashioning its own creative midrashim attributing them to Tannatic figures.””
    I meant that the Zohar is a medieval compilation that a lot of its sources go back to the Tanaatic/Amoraic period.

    “”Re the Sefer Yetzirah: You are wrong on all counts. 1) Scholars still vigorously debate when it was written. 2) Even if it was written in the Tannaitic period–itself a dubious proposition– there is NOTHNG linking it to the circle of Tannaim. 3) It is not at all clear it is an mystical work. Saadya viewed it as scientific -philosophical work””
    I am not a scholar-read the book once -unlike an incoming mashgiach at RIETS who attributes the book to Avraham avinu I did not find that a credible possibility-taanatic/amoratic period if medieval Sadiah near beginning of period would be commenting on a very recent book and attributing it almost 3000 years before. I prejudiced by 20th century mind have trouble seeing it as a scientific work.

  20. It is a mitzvah to go to the Har Habayit. Torah learning. We do not know the location of the cheil or heichal precisely because we refuse to go up there, gather evidence, and debate it. Instead we make the tacit and wrong assumption that the cheil was at the base of the mountain and the heichal covers the whole top of it. We should be careful not to tread to far, but you cannot rule on what you refuse to see.

  21. “We do not know the location of the cheil or heichal”

    Except we do, thanks especially to the work of the Ritmeyers. There’s a lot of smoke blown around, but that’s basically all it is.

  22. Nachum,
    What is the basis for your assertion that there is a mitzva to go up to Har Habayis?

  23. The mitzva of re’eiah, which still applies. Ask R’ Schachter.

  24. Why would there not be a mitigating issur of lo yerau fanay reykam?

  25. Allow me to amend my question – in Rambam Chagiga 1:2 it’s clear that going to the Azara without a Korban is not only an issur of lo yerau but also not a mitzva of reiya. That being the case, how can there be a mitzva of going up to Har Habayis for reiya bizman hazeh?

  26. Furthermore, the Rambam states that the mitzva of reiya is to go to the azara with a Korban. Even if you hold kidsha leasid lavo, there is no azara, so I’m not clear how nowadays we could have a mitzva of reiya at all?

  27. definitions:
    always – when there great Talmidei Chachomim in Jerusalem, including mavericks such as R’ Akiva Yosef Schlesinger and the early Talmidei HaGro, they were extremely careful not to go close to the Har HaBayis. There were many ‘tichtige’ (sorry I forget the translation) people in Jersualem with a lot of time on their hands who could have bribed the right Arabs to get into the site. They would start walking to Meron for Lag Ba’Omer on Chol HaMoed Pesach (not the Talmidei Chachomim, but people who tried to find extra mitzvos). If there would be a way to get to to the Har HaBayis without risking Kares, they would have found it, trust me.
    Yidden – Do you want the etynological origin of the word, or the sociological translation. Either way, your point is facetious and I should not have to answer it.
    The political reasons are not to be sneezed at because of an un-referenced source of Rabbi Schechter?! Sorry, but if you think we have to close our minds and mouths because a Gadol spoke, then the Minchas Yitzchok’s Teshuva (5:1) should close down this whole thread. Please don’t treat us as fools and make an intelligent argument, not name-dropping.
    I never suggested that the Rambam’s going up was irrelevant, that is a misattributed quote. BTW, I would hardly think that just because the Rambam did it it is muttar. The Halachic process does not allow us to use one Rishon to silence dissent. If others disagree, we must figure out how to decide, not use a de’ah yechido’oh. I am not suggesting the Rambam is a yochid, but the story is not over after the Rambam did it.

  28. I personally suspect that the Western Wall was elevated to its current status by the Zionists, who made a great fuss about the Kosel, creating a hot spot for trouble with the Arabs. I suspect that before then it was a place for Tefilos just like the Kever of Shimon HaTzadik etc. not a focal point for everyone. People visited sporadically and the ‘cold’ Litvaks never really visited, preferring to direct their energies to self-improvement and Torah study. Again, this is just a theory.

  29. groinem: Jews never set foot inside Me’arat HaMakhpela until 1967. There’s clearly no issur there. (The one they did it was the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, and riots ensued.) So why would you think they’d be able to enter the Temple Mount?

    Look, you can say whatever you want. But it’s an inescapable halakhic fact that entry to most of the Temple Mount has no halakhic issues whatsoever, and entry to most of the rest (the halachic Har HaBayit) is muttar if you’ve been to a mikva. The rest comes down to defining boundaries of the azara proper, and some of us trust “secular” sources like archaeologists. If you don’t want to, then there’s nothing to discuss.

  30. By the way, your point about “Zionists” is probably wrong historically, but regardless: It certainly seems like charedim today who are (often violently) protective of the “holy” “beit knesset” that the Kotel supposedly is, and yet don’t seem to care about what’s above.

  31. Nachum,

    Any substantive response to the points I raised about which indicate that there is no mitzva of reiya/no mitzva to go up to har habayis nowadays?

  32. No. I heard one of the most prominent poskim of today say it’s a mitzvah; I trust he knows what he’s talking about.

  33. I don’t see the relevance of mora mikdash in this context. If anything, mora mikdash, along with all of its issurim, is a reason to stay clear of Har Habayis.

  34. Groinem, et al. — On the Kotel as a “holy site” for Jews, in the section Decline of the Mamluks 1399-1517, Simon Sebag Montifiore writes in Jerusalem (p. 342 in the UK edition):

    There was now a settled Jewish community of about 1,000 in what became the Jewish Quarter. They prayed in their Ramban synagogue, as well as around the gates of the Temple Mount (particularly at their study house by the Western Wall) and on the Mount of Olives, where they began to bury their dead ready for Judgement Day. But they had come to revere the Christine shrine of David’s Tomb (which had nothing to do with the real David but dated from the Crusades), part of the cernacle, controlled by the Franciscans. The Christians tried to restrict their access, so the Jews complained to Cairo — with unfortunate consequences for both. The sultan of the day, Barsbay, outrages to discover that the Christians held such a site, travelled up to Jerusalem, destroyed the Franciscan chapel and instead built a mosque inside David’s Tomb. A few years later, one of his successors, Sultan Jaqmaq, seized the whole of Mount Zion for Islam. And it got worse: old restrictions were enforced, new ones devised. […]

    Later in the book (p. 439) he also notes about his great-great uncle…

    In March 1866, Montefiore now a widower of eighty-one, arrived on his sixth visit and could not believe the changes. Finding that the Jews at the Western Wall were exposed not only to the rain but to occasional pelting from the Temple Mount above, he received permission to set up an awning there – and tried unsuccessfully to buy the wall, one of many attempts by the Jews to own their holy site.

    If I have time tomorrow morning, I will type in an interesting passage from Goldhill regarding the 6-Day-War story mentioned earlier in the thread.

  35. There was an attempt to buy the Har HaBayit as well.

    I think Moreh Mikdash may extend to defending Jewish sovereignty over the site, if only by civilian presence.

  36. Goldhill’s narrative on pp. 171-2 of The Temple of Jerusalem (Harvard, 2004) provides the right nuance on the story mentioned above, in my view:

    The story of the capture of Jerusalem in 1967 is one that all Israelis know. Motta Gur, later Israeli Chief of Staff, looked down over the city, grabbed the microphone of the signal transmitter of his jeep and gave his brief speech to the troops: ‘The Temple Mount, the Western Wall, the Old City. For 2,000 years our people have prayed for this moment. Let us go forward to victory.’ The troops drove on, and soon he sent his famous message to the HQ Central Command: ‘The Temple Mount is ours: repeat, the Temple Mount is ours.’ As the soldiers fought through the streets and alleys, a paratrooper yelled, ‘The Western Wall! I can see the Wall,’ and from the Temple Mount and elsewhere his comrades rushed down to join him. They had fought for thirty-two hours, and now they leant against the wall, wept and prayed.

    It need not be emphasized that this is a story from the point of view of the victors. How it is read will depend on the politics of the reader. What is equally telling, however, is how the capture of the Temple Mount, the site of Solomon’s Temple and Herod’s Temple, leads to prayer at the Wailing Wall. The soldiers – and the story – find emotional release at the outside wall of the platform for the Temple. Two thousand years of history have worked their force on the imagination: for centuries the only spot the Jews could reach was this pavement outside the Temple Mount. It had become so full of religious awe and yearning that it was the one place truly to excite the feelings of the soldiers, and indeed, the feelings of hundreds of thousands of Jews who have visited the site since. This is not just because for most orthodox Jews it is against religious law either to go on the Temple Mount or to try to rebuild the Temple before the Messiah comes. It is a paradigm of how the Temple must always be a monument of the imagination. Over history and in history it is always being reconstructed, replaced, repictured.

  37. So they were ignorant of Jewish history and Jewish law, and blind to the political implications. Mazal tov.

  38. Nachum – they never set foot with an entourage. But there are plenty stories about Arabs who were bribed.
    Your quoting of a ‘prominent posek’ is even worse than your R’ Hershel Shechter name-dropping. Be a man and quote your sources and their explanations instead of saying names. Minchas Yitzhok was also a ‘prominent posek’ and he has a Teshuva explaining the Issur.
    Sir Moses Montefoire built a building on Kever Rachel. How many non-chassidic Talmidei Chachomim went there too often? Even in recent history, R’ Chaim Shmuelevitz is the only one AFAIK.
    The idea of holy places as a regular part of worship, in today’s days, seems to be a Muslim relic. Living amongst the dominant Muslim culture, Sefardim adopted similar ideas and imported it to Ashkenazi jewry. Besides chassidim, cemeteries were for funerals, and for amei ho’oretz for yohrtzeits.

  39. Nachum – they never set foot on har habayis with an entourage like the LR. But there are plenty stories about Arabs who were bribed.
    Your quoting of a ‘prominent posek’ is even worse than your R’ Hershel Shechter name-dropping. Be a man and quote your sources and their explanations instead of saying names. Minchas Yitzhok was also a ‘prominent posek’ and he has a Teshuva explaining the Issur.
    Sir Moses Montefoire built a building on Kever Rachel. How many non-chassidic Talmidei Chachomim went there too often? Even in recent history, R’ Chaim Shmuelevitz is the only one AFAIK.
    The idea of holy places as a regular part of worship, in today’s days, seems to be a Muslim relic. Living amongst the dominant Muslim culture, Sefardim adopted similar ideas and imported it to Ashkenazi jewry. Besides chassidim, cemeteries were for funerals, and for amei ho’oretz for yohrtzeits.

  40. For the record,
    I have contacted a few close talmidim of Rav Schachter (I believe he is currently in E”Y) and have been told that Rav Schachter does not believe that there is no mitzva of reiya in going to Har Habayis. Nachum, you are mistaken in attributing this incorrect position to him.

  41. Sorry, that should read “does not belive that there is a mitzva of reiya in going to HH”

  42. Why would the Rambam have mentioned the Western Wall as a prayer location? In his time, there was a shul on Har HaBayit, which surely would have exceeded any kedushah to the alley next to the giant stone box.

  43. The “prominent posek” I meant *is* R’ Schachter. I actually saw him in Tzfat last week but didn’t ask him about this, but I heard it out of his own mouth about nine years ago. Take your pick.

    I have no idea what you mean by criticizing visitation of holy places. I personally have never been in a single one, because I’m a kohen. But I think we can all agree that the Har HaBayit is the one big exception.

  44. I have confirmed with Rav Schachter – he does not hold that there is a mitzva of reiya in going up to Har Habayis bzh”z. He says that Rav Akiva Schlesinger says in his Tshuvos that there is an inyan to see the makom hamikdash on the regalim, and this can be accomplished by viewing the makom hamikdash from the rooftops in the Old city. Bottom line, there is no mitzva of reiya in going up to Har Habayis.

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