If you ask Israelis what the Wailing Wall is, many of them will tell you that it is the most sacred place to Jews in the world and that it was part of the Second Temple. Both of these beliefs are incorrect. Two thousand years ago when the Temple was still standing, the Western Wall had no meaning whatsoever.
Visiting the Wailing Wall
The Wailing Wall is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. From Friday evening to Saturday evening you are not allowed to take photos or smoke in the perimeter. Knees and shoulders must be covered. For information about tours through the Wailing Wall Tunnels, click here.
The history of the Wailing Wall
In order to understand what the Western Wall is, you must go back three thousand years. King Solomon built the First Temple. The Temple stood on the top of Mount Moriah, on the stone from which Jews believed the world was created, known as the Foundation Stone.
This is also the place where Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac. The Temple stood for four hundred years until the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in 586 BCE. The Holy Ark and the Ten Commandments, which were in the Temple, vanished with its destruction, and the Jews were expelled from the Land of Israel.
Seventy years later, the Jews were permitted to return and they built the Second Temple. The Temple was renovated a number of times until King Herod (who ruled between the years 37 BCE and 4 CE) decided to rebuild the Temple. He had a problem though – the Temple stood on the peak of a mountain where there was only limited space.
King Herod, who was known for his massive building projects, decided that he would build four huge supporting walls around the mountain peak and thus transform it into a great level platform. On this man-made platform he rebuilt the Temple. The Western Wall is actually a small part (about one-seventh) of one of the large supporting walls.
In the year 70 CE, during the Jewish rebellion against the Romans, Jerusalem was conquered and the Temple was destroyed. After the rebellion Jews were not permitted to return to the area of the Temple, and the Kotel was the closest that Jews could come to that area. The Western Wall, and not the Southern or Eastern Walls, is the most sacred because the Temple – and within it the Holy of Holies – was not in the center of the platform, but was built closer to the western side. Up until today, the most sacred place to Jews is the Temple Mount itself.
The Temple that Herod built was the holiest place in the Roman Empire. Non-Jews were also permitted to ascend to the platform, but just to the farthest part of the Temple. Only Jews were allowed to come closer to the Temple; and closer than that, only men; and even closer than that, only the “Cohanim” (priests); and the Holy of Holies – the holiest of rooms within the Temple – could only be entered by the High Priest himself, and that only once a year on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the most important day in the Jewish calendar.
And what was in the Holy of Holies? In the First Temple it contained the Ark and the Ten Commandments, but in the Second Temple the room was empty – or more precisely, it was full of the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence of God. Believers – Jewish, Christian, and Muslim alike – all need holy places (such as mosques, churches, synagogues, graves, and holy stones), but in the end they all believe in one God who cannot be seen and whose image cannot be depicted. So it actually makes sense that the Holy of Holies was an empty room.
If you’re traveling on a modest budget, you can also purchase my Booklets, in which I basically wrote down everything that I say on my 3 most popular tours: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and the Judaean Desert. I also added maps, pictures and graphics which will enable you to be your own guide. The booklets are only sold outside Israel, so order now and come prepared! Or download as a PDF or EPUB (e-book).