While the first and second temples of Jerusalem are now nothing more than rubble and ashes, the masses of pilgrims still have reason to pass through the Dung gate to the Western Wall. This 50 foot stone block retaining wall which supported the platform, on which the temple once stood, was once a part of the actual Temple complex and is one of four surviving walls today. Some of its stones actually date back to the time of Herod the great who rebuilt the temple.
The Jewish people prefer to call this site the ‘Western Wall’ as opposed to the ‘Wailing Wall’ as one travel writer once called it. On this holy ground the Jewish people come to mourn the loss of their empire. They mourn the cities of David and Solomon and the destruction of the temple on the Mount just above this wall. The prayers often take on the form of chanting and singing,
Here the Jews contemplate the many hardships endured throughout their history as they pray for the return of the glory of the ancient past. The western wall is treated as the synagogue and so men must cover their heads. The Torah is read aloud on Thursday mornings and Bar Mitzvahs are a common sight on Saturdays.
On looking at the plaza one realises that there are no trees planted in the courtyard. This is a sign of mourning until the third and final temple remains unbuilt. The whole area is divided into two sections one for women and one for men. There is ancient custom of leaving petitions in the cracks of the walls. It is now even possible to fax your prayers to the western wall from any part of the world. It is believed that requests left between these huge stones of the wall will get special attention from God as this is the only part of the temple complex that survived the Roman destruction.
The wall has been revered by believers for nearly 1900 years. The Plaza in front of the western wall was opened three days after the Israelis captured this part of the city from the Jordanians in June 1967. 600 shanties housing North African Muslims were bulldozed to make way for a space that would accommodate the tens of thousands of pilgrims whose dream have always been to prayer in Jerusalem.
In the first few weeks after the Western Wall was reopened more than 500,000 people made their pilgrimage to see it. Most Jews are happy to make a trip to the wall however Orthodox Jews forbid Jewish faithful from visiting the area of the Temple Mount because the exact site of the Holy of Holies has not as yet been found. Only the high priest was allowed to set foot on the ground beneath the Holy of Holies and that too only one year. So the theory is that believers in treading this area might accidentally walk across the Holy of Holies violating one of the most sacred of Jewish laws.
Jewish believers approach the wall with care. Men go to the left, women to the right and when they leave, as an act of reverence, they back away still facing the wall, they never turn their back to something so holy and sacred. The wall is also the centre of Jewish social life and all manner of important state ceremonies take place here. Even army recruits are sworn in at the wall so. The Western Wall has gates of its own; some leading to prayer areas and others leading to the tunnels below the wall. Here, deep underground, it is possible to find more gates leading to the Temple Mount. Most of the alleyway are long narrow and straight conforming to the grid pattern set up before Jerusalem was complete destruction by Emperor Hadrian after the Jewish revolt in 35AD.
Fr. Warner D'Souza is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Bombay. He has served in the parishes of St Michael's, Mahim, St Paul's, Dadar East, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Bandra and at present is the priest in charge of St Jude Church, Malad East. He is also the Director of the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum and is the co-ordinator of the Committee for the Promotion and Preservation of the Artistic and Historic Patrimony of the Church.