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Why the Big Deal About the Kotel (Western Wall)?

Why the Big Deal About the Kotel (Western Wall)?



The Western Wall is one of the four walls that supported the Temple Mount. Why is it considered more special than the other three, all of which are clearly visible?


Believe it or not, the Western Wall (sometimes called the Wailing Wall1 or Kotel), is actually the only surviving wall of the Temple Mount. Much of the structure we see today was rebuilt during the 2,000 years since the Temple was destroyed.

There are almost no ancient remains of the northern wall. There is a bit of the eastern wall, as well as almost the entire southern wall. However, none of those walls actually bordered the holy ground of the Temple. The actual southern wall was further north than the existing southern wall, which was built by Herod and enclosed an annexed area next to the sacred ground of the Temple. So the Western Wall is the only hallowed wall that remains.2

How did the Western Wall survive? The Midrash tells a fascinating tale:

When Vespasian conquered Jerusalem, he assigned the destruction of the four ramparts3 of the Temple to four generals. The western wall was allotted to Pangar of Arabia. Now, it had been decreed by Heaven that this should never be destroyed, because the Shechinah (Divine Presence) resides in the west.

The others demolished their sections, but Pangar did not demolish his. Vespasian sent for him and asked, “Why did you not destroy your section?” He replied, “By your life, I acted so for the honor of the kingdom. For if I had demolished it, nobody would [in time to come] know what it was you destroyed. But when people look [at the surviving wall], they will exclaim, ‘From the great building he destroyed, you can tell the might of Vespasian!’”

Vespasian said to him, “Enough! You have spoken well. But since you disobeyed my command, you shall ascend to the roof and throw yourself down. If you live, you will live, and if you die, you will die.”’ Pangar ascended, threw himself down and died.4

What It Means

We read in Song of Songs, “Behold, He is standing behind our wall, looking from the windows, peering from the lattices.”5 The Midrash explains that this refers to the Western Wall. “Why is this so? Because the Holy One, Blessed be He, has taken an oath that it will never be destroyed.”6

Based on this verse, the Zohar states: “The Divine Presence never departed from the Western Wall of the Temple.”7 This is seen as a manifestation of G‑d’s promise to Solomon when the Temple was first built, that “My eyes and heart will be there at all times.”8

The Zohar explains that this idea is hinted to in the word kotel (כותל), which can be broken into two words, כו תל. The word כו is the numeric value of 26, the value of the Tetragrammaton. And the word תל means “hill” or “mountain.” Thus, the Kotel’s very name hints to the fact that G‑d’s Divine Presence is still to be found on the Temple Mount.9

Western Wall of What?

Some people have suggested that the current Western Wall is a part of the Temple itself.10 However, most maintain that the Western Wall is actually a part of the retaining wall that surrounded the Temple Mount.11 Indeed, if one examines the dimensions of the Wall, this seems to be borne out.12

Interestingly, if the Western Wall is actually a supporting wall for the Temple Mount, it would explain a teaching found in Midrash Tehillim that states that “although [the Temple Mount] is [now] a bare mountain, it remains in its sanctity” and then goes on to say that “the Divine Presence never left the Western Wall.” Why is the Temple Mount referred to as a “bare mountain” if the Western Wall was never destroyed? Because the Wall is not on the mountain, but a retaining wall of the mountain.13

Wall to Holiness

Although the intention of the enemies of Israel in leaving the wall intact was to show the glory of Rome and the subjection of the Jewish nation, the opposite transpired. Rome is long buried in the dustbin of history, but the Western Wall has remained as a beacon of hope, signifying G‑d’s eternal promise that His children will ultimately return to the land and that the Temple will be rebuilt.

During the Christian rule of Jerusalem in the Byzantine period (324–638 CE), Jews were barred from entering Jerusalem, except for one time a year, on the 9th day of the Jewish month of Av, which is the day that the Holy Temple was destroyed. On that day the Christian rulers would let the Jews come to the Temple Mount, where they would cry and mourn over the destruction of the Holy Temple. Due to this, the Christians started referring to the Western Wall as the Wailing Wall. [Hillel Halkin, “The Western Wall: ‘Western Wall’ or ‘Wailing Wall’?” The Forward (January 21, 2001), as cited in the Jewish Virtual Library.]
Rabbi Zalmen Menachem Koren, The Beit Hamikdash, p. 39.
This is used as a proof that the Midrash is referring to a supporting wall of the Temple Mount, not to a wall of the Temple itself, as will be explained later.
Eichah Rabbah 1:31 (translation adapted from Soncino ed.).
Shir Hashirim Rabbah 2:26; Bamidbar Rabbah 11:2.
Zohar II:5b.
Zohar II:116a.
See responsa of Radbaz 2:648 and 691; Chayei Adam, Shaarei Tzedek, Mishpetei Eretz 11:8.
Rabbi Eshtori ha-Parchi, Kaftor va-Ferach 6; Ir Hakodesh veha-Mikdash 4:2; Avnei Nezer, Yoreh De’ah 450; Tzitz Eliezer 10:1; Yabia Omer, vol. 5, Yoreh De’ah 27.
Altogether, the height of the Wall is 40 meters, with only 19 meters of the Wall visible above ground. The Wall is 488 meters long, with most of it obscured by Arab houses. These dimensions greatly exceed the length of the Temple wall, which was only 58 meters. Additionally, we know that there were many tunnels built under the Temple, but the Western Wall is built directly on bedrock.
There is considerable debate whether the wall itself shares the same level of sanctity as the mountain. The halachic implication of this debate is whether one may insert his hands into the crevices of the wall while he is in a state of impurity. See Mishkenot Avir Yaakov, vol. 2, 1:1; Avnei Nezer, Yoreh De’ah 450; Minchat Shlomo 3:160.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for's Ask the Rabbi service.
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Geoffrey L Rogg (Yehuda Leib) Israel via May 20, 2016

If the Western wall was part of Herod's Temple complex why is it so venerated as to become an object of adulation in itself. Surely the only true Temple was the first, that of King Solomon as Herod was nothing more than a pretender to the Throne and not a Halachic Jew? Hashem's presence is universal and not represented by any one place which could be coming too close to primitive idolatry, true or false? Reply

Jorge Qro. Mexico May 19, 2016

“Although [the Temple Mount] is [now] a bare mountain, “Although [the Temple Mount] is [now] a bare mountain," Surely this is not literal. Today the Temple Mount is known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif plaza where a famous mosque has been built for Muslims to pray. Jewish people are not allowed to pray there.
In the page I use to follow the count for the Omer, I read:
Today is twenty-seven days, which is three weeks and six days of the Omer.
May the Merciful One restore unto us the service of the Bet Hamikdash to its place, speedily in our days; Amen, Selah. Reply

Anonymous May 18, 2016

very nice. thank you Reply

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