The Western Wall Heritage Fund

The Temple and the Western Wall / Rabbi Zalman Koren

The Temple and the Western Wall / Rabbi Zalman Koren

The book of Psalms describes God's appearance in the world as, "From Zion, the finery of beauty, God appeared" (Psalms 50:2). The Sages (b. Yoma 54b) explained that this verse describes the first time God appeared in the material world, and that Zion is the place where the world was created. At this juncture between the material world and the unfathomable reality of the divine lies a stone. It is called Even HaShetiyyah, the Foundation Stone, because the world was created from it.  Later, the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place in the Temple, was built above it, and the Ark of the Covenant on which the divine presence rested was placed in the Holy of Holies.

Adam was created approximately a hundred cubits east of the Foundation Stone. The altar, at which man's sins were atoned, was built on the same spot. As the Sages say, "He was created from the place of his atonement" (Genesis Rabbah 14:8).  Man was created right next to where the Holy of Holies would later stand so that in striving to elevate himself and come closer to his creator, he faces west toward this holiest of places that is the link between the infinite creator and the finite, material world.

Man's turning to the west is related to the idea that "the 'Shechina' (the divine presence) is in the west," which appears a number of times in the writings of the Sages (see, for instance, b. Baba Batra 25a, etc.).  This is based on the verse in Nehemiah (9:6) that points out, "The heavenly host bow down before You."  In other words, the sun, the moon and the stars, which rise in the east and move toward the west are bowing, metaphorically, to their creator, as opposed to ancient peoples who prostrated themselves to the rising sun. (Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed, Book 3:45)

According to the Sages, after Adam had sinned and was banished from the Garden of Eden, he built an altar on this site. The sacrifice he brought at the very place where he was created atoned for his sin. Ten generations later, after the corrupt humanity was destroyed in the Great Deluge, Noah also built an altar at the same site.

Ten generations after that, Abraham arose in the east to teach the people of his generation belief in the one God.  Following a divine command, he left Babylonia and traveled west, to the Land of Israel.  Later, God tested Abraham, and ordered the sacrifice of his son, Isaac, as a burnt offering in the Land of Moriah (Genesis 22:2). After Isaac was bound to the altar that Abraham had built, God ordered him not to harm the boy. He told him that the very act of binding his son proved that Abraham was truly a God-fearing man and that here, at the site of the altar, God would continue to reveal himself.

Abraham sacrificed a ram on the altar in place of his son. Nevertheless, in many places the Sages speak of Isaac, who descended alive from the altar, as if he were a burnt offering (Genesis Rabbah 64:3). They also say that, "The ashes of Isaac exist" (i.e., he was actually sacrificed), and are to be found at the site of the altar.

This, then, is the place where Isaac rose to such spiritual heights that he was seemingly no longer a part of the material world.  This is the place where the material world connects with the divine realms. This connection is established through the human ability to meet God's tests and to transcend the passions evoked by the material world. This ability is what raises humanity to the highest levels and allows it to approach and enter the sacred realms.

King Solomon built the Temple on Mount Moriah, as the Bible (2 Chronicles 3:1) says: "And Solomon commenced to build the House of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah." The First Temple was built on the principle that "the Shechina (divine presence) lies in the west".  Therefore, the most sacred place in the Temple (the Holy of Holies) was located in the western part of the Temple grounds, while its entrance was located in the east. When prostrating in the Temple, worshippers bowed to the west. East of the Temple building, at the place where Adam, the first man, was created and where Isaac was bound, Solomon built the altar.  He built the Holy of Holies over the Foundation Stone, and on that he placed the Ark of the Covenant that held the Tablets of the Law that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. God had appeared above this Ark and called Moses to the Tabernacle in the wilderness of Sinai.

The Temple built by Solomon was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylonia, and rebuilt by Ezra and Nehemiah in the days of King Cyrus of Persia. But this Second Temple was also destroyed because of the sins of the Jewish people and has not been rebuilt. Nevertheless, the Sages taught that even though the Temple was destroyed, the divine presence has not left the site, in keeping with God's promise to King Solomon: "My eyes and heart will be there at all times" (1 Kings 9:3; 2 Chronicles 7:16).

The Sages also learn this from the verse in Psalms, "With my voice, I call to the Lord, and He answered me from his holy mount to eternity." (Psalms 3:5). They commented, "Even though the mountain is now bare, its holiness endures." At present, the human-divine dialogue does not take place through a constructed and consecrated Temple, but through the exposed mountain where the Temple once stood. It is from there that God answers humankind. (Midrash Psalms 11:3; Exodus Rabbah 2:2)

The rabbis found further evidence that the divine presence now rests on the holiest place on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in a verse from the Song of Songs. In its literal sense, the verse describes the lover rapidly approaching the beloved. The lover has almost reached her, but he is still standing behind a wall. He stands there, although he has not yet entered the house, and peers inside.  The verse states, "The voice of my Beloved! Behold, it came suddenly to redeem me, as if leaping over mountains, skipping over hills.  In His swiftness to redeem me, my Beloved is like a gazelle or a young hart.  I thought I would be forever alone, but behold!  He was standing behind our wall, observing through the windows, peering through the lattices." (Song of Songs 2:8-9).

As in all the verses in the Song of Songs, this too has been interpreted as a metaphor for the relationship between the divine presence and the people of Israel. The verse describes the approaching redemption. The situation we are in today is similar in that the lover (representing God) has not arrived yet to redeem us, but he is waiting behind the wall and watching over us from there. (See Exodus Rabbah; Psalms Rabbah; Song of Songs Rabbah, 2; Pesikta Rabbati, haChodesh).

According to the Midrash, this wall mentioned in the Song of Songs is none other than a wall of the Temple. In other words, not only does the Temple Mount continue to exist and maintain its holiness, there is actually one wall in existence, behind which the divine presence seemingly rests.  Nowadays, the dialogue between man and his creator ("With my voice, I call to the Lord, and He answered me from his holy mount to eternity.") takes place through this wall, the Western Wall, which is none other than the external wall of God's holy mountain.

A chronicle of the destruction of the other walls and a description of how and why the Western Wall survived was preserved in Lamentations Rabba (Ch. 1:31).  According to this source, Titus divided the task of destroying the four walls to four of his nobles. Pangar, Duke of Arabia, was assigned the task of destroying the Western Wall, but unlike the other three nobles, who fulfilled their orders, Pangar didn't fulfill his task. In fact, there are very few ancient remains to be found along the northern wall of the Temple Mount. Similarly, the ancient eastern wall was almost entirely destroyed, and very few remnants remained from its central sections.  It has also been determined that those remains that can be found at the extreme ends of the wall lie outside the sacred areas of the Temple Mount, which might explain why the nobles were not as meticulous in destroying them. It seems that the Southern Wall also survived the destruction, and a large section of it can still be seen today. This wall, however, also lies outside the sacred areas whereas there are no remains of the ancient Southern wall, which ran along the border of the sacred areas and stood to the north of this wall. The Midrash is, therefore, correct in determining that three nobles fulfilled their tasks, and only Pangar, the fourth, did not fulfill the wicked Titus' orders.

The Midrash continues and states that Titus asked Pangar why he failed to complete his assignment.  Pangar answered that he did it for the glory of Titus, since if nothing had remained of the walls, future generations would not have known of the power of the Jewish Temple.  This way, however, they would be impressed with Titus' huge victory and ability to destroy a Temple of such magnificent proportions...  While the Midrash does not mention the Temple Mount explicitly, it does speak about the walls, leading us to conclude that it is not discussing the walls of the Temple itself, as we might understand from other Midrashim, but of the retaining walls.

In fact, visitors to the Western Wall, and even more so, to the Western Wall Tunnels, can stand in awe of the enormous stones from which the Temple was built.

In this context, we can say that while the Temple was still standing, the human-divine dialogue took place via the Temple itself, specifically through the western part of the Temple, where the Holy of Holies was located. The western side of the mountain becomes exceptional when the dialogue takes place in the absence of a Temple, since the divine presence never left the mountain's Western Wall.

This assertion that the remaining Western Wall is a wall of the Temple Mount, behind which the divine presence lies, is mentioned explicitly in an ancient lamentation, written by Rabbi Eleazar haKallir, a paytan (liturgical poet) who lived in Eretz Israel toward the end of the Byzantine period. He expressed the ideas in Lamentations Rabba in these words:

(Before) he (Titus) began to enter the gateway to the Temple Mount
(He planned) its destruction by his four chief marshals
the Western Wall was left as a memorial
and (although the Divine Presence remained) standing behind our wall
yet he did not plead his (own) cause
(From the Lamentations for Tisha B'Av)

The Zohar (Book 2, Shemot 5b) depicts another aspect of the Western Wall and the relationship between humankind and its creator. It refers to the Western Wall as Rosh Amanah, "The fruits of your faith from its earliest beginnings".  The term comes from a verse in Song of Songs (4:8), in which the lover says to the beloved: "With me, will you be exiled from the Temple, O bride, with Me.  From the Temple until you return; then to contemplate the fruits of your faith from its earliest beginnings from your first arrival at the summit of Snir and the mountain of Hermon, the lands of Mighty Sichon and Og, as impregnable dens of lions, and mountains of leopards."." According to a literal interpretation of the verse, Lebanon, Amana, Senir, and Hermon, names mentioned in the text, are mountains in northern Israel, and the Midrash also relates to this verse in its geographical context. For example, in Exodus Rabbah (Chap. 53) and other sources, it says that at the time of the Ingathering of the Exiles, when the dispersed people of Israel will reach Mount Amana (on the border of the Land of Israel), they will sing praises to God. The Midrash interprets the word tashuri (which is commonly translated as "look," or "gaze") as being derived from the word shir (song). In many other Midrashim, however, the names of the mountains mentioned in this verse are interpreted differently. For instance, the name Amana is connected with the word emunah, or "faith."

The Zohar also interprets the name Amana in terms of faith. It continues: "'From the top (head) of Amana.' From whose head? From the heads of those who have faith. And who are they? Jacob and his sons." It continues: "'Gaze out from the summit of Amana': from the site of the heavenly Temple and the site of the earthly Temple, as Rabbi Yehudah said that the 'The Divine Presence has never left the Western Wall of the Temple, as it is written, 'Behold, he is standing behind the wall.' This is the First of Covenants for all living things.'"

There were restrictions on Jewish settlement in Jerusalem throughout the Byzantine era, as in the period following the Bar-Kochba rebellion.  However Jews were allowed to return during the Early Muslim Period (the Muslims having captured Jerusalem in 638 B.C.). The Scroll of Ahima'az, a historical document from that time (written in 1050 C.E., 4810 A.M.) distinctly describes the Western Wall as a place of prayer. As Jews were not permitted access to the Temple Mount at that time, it seems certain that the document, which mentions the Western Wall, is actually referring to an area adjacent to the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount where Jews gathered to pray.

Another early document that describes the Western Wall as a place where all the Jews gathered to pray dates from the end of the Crusader period (approximately 1170 C.E., 4930 A.M.). The document, which can be found in The Journeys of Benjamin, by the famous Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela, is not the only document from that period to describe Jewish prayers at the Western Wall.

The historical documents referring to the Western Wall point to the history of the Jewish community in Jerusalem. The growth of the Jewish community in the early years of the Ottoman era, approximately 500 years ago, led to an increase in such historical documents from that period of time.

Between the War of Independence and the Six Day War, the Western Wall was completely inaccessible to Jews for perhaps the only time in history since the Roman period.  That situation changed dramatically after the Six Day War.  Ever since then, the Western Wall has become a center for all Jews, regardless of their affiliation. We can now say that we have been privileged to see the realization of the words of the Zohar regarding the Western Wall, which is described as the "the fruits of your faith" for all living things.

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