“Kotel” – The atmosphere in the Old City of Jerusalem, in the plaza before the “Kotel,” on the night of Tishah B’Av, is unique in its holiness. Thousands of Jews are gathered before the only remains of the SecondTemple, on the night that commemorates the destruction of both of the Jewish Temples, and is the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. The atmosphere of mourning is palpable. On the other hand, on eachShabbat, dancing Jews come to the “Kotel” to celebrate very close to the holiest spot on earth, and the atmosphere then and on the Festivals, when on Sukkot thousands of Jews come to the “Kotel” with their “Lulavim” and “Etrogim” and with joy on Pesach and Shavuot thousands come to be in the precincts of holiness, the joy is equally palpable.
Adjacent to the Plaza of the “Kotel” there is a “minyan” which at the present time is the closest Jews can approach on a regular basis the “Kodesh HaKodoshim,” the Holy of Holies, that was the most sacred part of the Beit HaMikdash.
Physically, the “Kotel,” or Wall, is part of the western supporting wall of the Temple Mount. After the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E., the Western Wall remained standing and indeed, there is a Midrash in Shemot Rabbah, that “The Shechinah (the Divine Presence) never leaves the Western Wall.” Jews came to what was then called the “Wailing Wall” to lament the destruction, and to pray for the coming of the Mashiach, and the rebuilding of the Temple.
Excavations in 1867 revealed that 19 more rows than those visible lie buried underground beneath the visible ones, reaching down to a paved road that ran along the foot of the wall. And underneath that road lie yet another nine rows that constitute the foundation of the wall and which have never been uncovered. Those rows may date back to the First Temple of Solomon.
The lower stones are immense; over one meter in height and more than three meters long. Some are as long as twelve meters, and weigh over 100 tons. They were probably quarried at the Cave of Zedekiah near the Damascus Gate. The Wall has withstood repeated earthquakes over the centuries.
The Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent gave exclusive rights to the Jews to use a small area for their prayers. That area was a twenty-two meter long and three meter wide strip of land closed off by a wall running parallel to the “Kotel.” It remained more-or-less the same till December of 1947. From then until the third day of the Six-Day-War, Jews were barred by the Arabs from approaching the “Kotel.” The Old City of Jerusalem and the “Kotel” were captured by paratroopers during that War. Famous photographs show paratroopers crying and Rav Moshe Goren, Chief Chaplain of the IDF, blowing the Shofar. The last stanza of a poem by Haim Hefer called “The Paratroopers Cry” is the following:
“…How does it happen that paratroopers cry?
How does it happen that they touch the wall with great emotions?
How does it happen that their weeping changes to song?
Perhaps because these boys of nineteen, born at the same time as the state,
Perhaps because these boys of nineteen carry on their shoulders two thousand years.”