Jewish tradition teaches that the world began at the Foundation Stone, which is in the center of the Temple Mount. Also according to Jewish tradition, when Abraham was commanded to prepare his son Isaac for sacrifice, they traveled to the Temple Mount and Isaac was bound at the very spot of the Foundation Stone. “And Abraham called the name of that site ‘God will see,’ as it is said this day, on the mountain God will be seen” Genesis 22:14.
Later, the First and Second Temples were situated on the Temple Mount. When Rome destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E., only one surrounding wall of the Temple Mount remained standing (the Western Wall is not part of the original Temple, rather one of the supporting walls for the Temple Mount).
For the Jews, this remnant of what was the most sacred edifice quickly became the central object of yearning in Jewish life. Throughout the centuries, from around the world, Jews made the difficult pilgrimage to the Holy Land and immediately headed for the Western Wall (in Hebrew called “haKotel” meaning simply “The Wall”) to pray to God. The prayers offered at the Western Wall were so heartfelt that gentiles began calling the site the “Wailing Wall.”
During the rebirth of Jewish assertion in the Holy Land, a young Israel fought a bitter War of Independence in which the Western Wall fell into Jordanian hands.
For the following nineteen years, from 1948 to 1967, Jews were tragically not permitted to visit the Western Wall. During the Six Day War of 1967, paratroopers led by Motta Gur broke through to the Old City through the Lion’s Gate. The Western Wall and Temple Mount were liberated, the city of Jerusalem was reunified, and the Jewish people were again able to come to the Western Wall to pray. One of the first to reach the Western Wall in the 1967 Six-Day War was Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, who helped revive a traditional Jewish custom by inserting a written petition into its cracks. It was later revealed that Dayan’s prayer was that a lasting peace “descend upon the House of Israel.”
The massive stones of the Western Wall invite worshipers to pour their hearts out to God, through verbal prayer or hand-written notes that are stuck in-between the cracks of the rock. The wall is both a symbol of destruction, a witness to the Temple that once stood beyond its walls, and the redemption of the Jewish people who have returned to Jerusalem. Millions of visitors, Jews and non-Jews alike, come to the Western Wall every year in order to be moved by and connect to this truly inspirational landmark.
Upon arriving to the Western Wall, one will immediately notice that men and women are separated by a partition. Next, one will notice the many, diverse prayer groups convening at the Wall.
The following is a guide to some of the different groups that you will find at the Western Wall:
Hassidim – Hassidic Judaism, which started in 18th century Europe, is a branch of Orthodox Judaism that focuses on the mystical and spiritual aspects of Judaism. Common practices among Hassidic Jews include frequent immersion in ritual baths (called mikvahs), and the inclusion of wordless melodies in prayer. Many distinct sects of Hassidim exist today, each one with a particular style of dress. Thus, Hassidic Jews can be identified from other types of Jews by their distinct clothing such as long, dark jackets (called bekeshas) and black fur hats (called shtreimels).
Litvacks - Litvacks originally descended from Lithuania but nowadays represent a major stream of Israeli religious Jews. The Litvack community places a strong focus on rational Talmudic study, and their prayer is often serious and focused. Litvacks can be identified by their dress of white shirts, black suits and black hats.
Sepharadim - Sephardi Jews, who all at one point originated from Spain, hail from communities from Morocco to Syria, and Greece to Iran. Much of the traditional dress from these counties has been been lost, but there is still a strong tradition of unique tunes and chanting which were sung in the original communities.
Carlebachers - Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (1925-1994) was a Jewish musician, Rabbi, teacher and composer who revolutionized Jewish music in the 20th century. Through his music, storytelling and captivating personality, Carlebach reached out and touched people from all walks of life. His influence on Jewish prayer exploded after his death, and his songs can be heard sung enthusiastically at the Western Wall. Close followers of Carlebach can be identified by their bright, hippy clothing and joy in their service to God.
Birthright Participants – In an effort to strengthen Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people, tens of thousands of young Jews travel to Israel for a free ten-day trip of personal discovery. For most Birthright participants, this is their first time traveling to Israel and experiencing a traditional Shabbat. Birthright participants can be identified by their large groups of young, secular Americans.
Yeshiva Students – A right of passage for many American Jews is to spend a year after graduating high school immersed in Torah study in the Holy Land. Not only does the Western Wall inspire these students in their prayer, but it also serves as a convenient “meeting point” to catch up with friends who are studying at different yeshivas in and around Israel.
The central prayers for Friday evening are called “Kabbalat Shabbat” or “Welcoming the Shabbat,” which begin with the six psalms 95-99 and 29. The traditional Friday night prayer service has been recited by Jews throughout the world for centuries. Expressions of joy, praise, longing and pain are encapsulated in the prayers. The pinnacle of the Kabbalat Shabbat service is a special prayer called Lecha Dodi. In this prayer, composed by the Kabbalists of Safed in the 16th century, the welcoming of Shabbat is compared to the intense anticipation, joy, love and celebration of a groom welcoming his bride. The words- “Come, my Beloved, to meet the Bride, let us welcome the Shabbat” are repeated in every stanza.
One will notice that every group at the Western Wall sings the Friday night prayer to a different tune and with a different atmosphere. Some are serious, some joyous, some full of song, and some quite and introspective. Incredibly, all are reciting the same prayers which have been adopted around the world and throughout the Diaspora as the liturgy for accepting the Shabbat.