Parashas Terumah describes the stages in the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), the construction that served the Children of Israel during their journeys in the wilderness.

The commandment to construct the Tabernacle uses the word Mikdash: “You shall build a Mikdash for Me, and I shall dwell among you” (Shemos 25, 8). Rabbeinu Bachya explains that the Tabernacle is also termed Mikdash (Temple), because it was fashioned according to the spiritual model of “Upper Mikdash.”

We take the opportunity to discuss the halachos of the Kosel Ha’maaravi, the Western Wall that many thousands visit as the holiest place to the Jewish People. What are the relevant halachos for approaching the Wall? Is it permitted to touch the Wall or insert one’s fingers? What are the halachos for the Har HaBayis? We will discuss these questions, among others, below.

The Western Temple Wall?

In discussing the Western Wall, the first question we must answer is the nature of the wall: Is this the wall of the Mikdash itself, or a wall that stood at the boundary of the Temple Mount?

Some sources in Chazal indicate that the Wall was part of the Mikdash itself. Based on the Pasuk, “Behold, He stands behind our walls” (Shir Hashirim 2:9), the Sages teach (Bamidbar Rabba 11:2; Shir Hashirim Rabba 2:26): “[This means] behind the Western Wall of the Temple. Why is this so? Because The Holy One Blessed He has taken an oath that it will never be destroyed.”

The holy Zohar (Shemos 5b) goes further, based on the same passage: “The Shechinah has never departed from the Western Wall of the Temple, as the verse states, ‘Behold, it stands….’” Furthermore, Chazal state in Tanna de’bei Eliyahu (Chap. 30): “Once more, Rabbi Nathan entered the Temple, and found it destroyed, yet one wall continued to stand. He exclaimed: What is the nature of this wall?”

These sources seem to indicate that the Western Wall, as we see and know today, is a remnant of the Temple itself.

Indeed, in light of these sources some authorities state that the Wall is a remnant of the holy Temple, the Western Wall of the Azarah, where sacrifices were offered. This is noted by Shut Radvaz (vol. 2, no. 648, 691) and Chayei Adam (Shaarei Tzedek, Mishpetei Eretz, chap. 11, no. 8), and mentioned by several additional authorities. Indeed, when Ridvaz (see responsa of Ridvaz, no. 38) made his first pilgrimage to the Western Wall, he was afraid to approach it.

Wall of the Temple Mount

Contrary to what is assumed to be the meaning of the previous quotes, the physical dimensions of the Wall suggest that it is not the wall of the Temple, but rather a wall that enclosed the Temple Mount. To familiarize the reader with the Wall, we will briefly describe its dimensions.

The height of the Wall visible above ground is 19 meters, and includes 29 rows of stone. These were built over five different time periods:

  1. The seven bottom rows date, according to most researchers, to the time of the Second Temple. Some date them back still earlier. Each one of the stones in this layer is approximately 1.05 meters tall. Together they reach a height of 8.75m.
  2. Above this there are four rows of newer, smooth stones, which some date back to Arab times. Others claim they were added during the Second Temple era. These stones total a height of 5.8m.
  3. Above these eleven rows are another four rows (2.2m) of newer stone, dating back, according to some, to the Hadrianic era.
  4. Another eleven rows of smaller stones were added later, perhaps in the times of Sultan Suleiman. Some claim that they were added by Moses Montefiori.
  5. The top three courses were added in recent times (1924) by local Arabs.

All the dimensions above refer to the part of the Wall above ground. Most of the Wall, however, totaling an additional 21 meters, remains buried underground. The excavated parts include another 19 layers of ancient stone.

The Wall was originally 488 meters long, extending 81 meters to the right of the visible part, and 350 meters left. Most of this length is either built into Arab houses, or is underground and can be seen in the “Kotel Tunnels”.

These dimensions greatly exceed the length of the Temple wall (58 meters). Furthermore, the Wall stands on rock, whereas it is known that under the Temple there were tunnels. A number of other proofs have led researchers to believe the Wall belongs to the Temple Mount, and not the Temple itself.

This is stated as a simple fact by Kaftor Va-Ferach (Rav Ashtori Ha-Parchi, chap. 6), and mentioned as “obvious” by Rav Yechiel Michel Tuchtchinsky (Ir Hakodesh Vehamikdash 4:2), who explains that other commentaries were misled by their understanding of the above statements of Chazal. This position is also affirmed by Avnei Nezer (Yoreh De’ah 450), Binyan Zion (1:2), Tzitz Eliezer (10:1), and others (see, at length, Yabia Omer (Vol. 5, Yoreh De’ah no. 27).

Levels of Defilement

First and foremost among practical ramifications of the Wall’s definition and status is the question of approaching the Wall in a state of ritual defilement.

The Mishnah (Keilim 1:6-9) delineates ten levels of spatial Kedushah within the Land of Israel, which is holier than all other lands. The first three levels are walled cities in Israel, which are holier than the rest of the Land (3); Jerusalem, which is holier than other walled cities (2); and the Temple Mount, which is holier than Jerusalem (1).

The sanctified areas in Jerusalem—part of today’s Old City—correspond to the Israelite desert encampment (Tosefta, Keilim 1:10; Sifri, Naso 11; Rambam, Beit Habechirah 7:11). The encampment included three levels. The innermost area, which contained the Mishkan, was called the Machaneh Shechinah. Next was the Machaneh Leviyah, the encampment of the Levites. Most external was the Machaneh Yisrael, which is where the rest of the Jews camped.

After entry and settlement of the Land of Israel, the Azarah (Temple Courtyard), starting at Sha’ar Nikanor (the Nikanor Gate) in the east and including the Beit Hamikdash, was the Machaneh Shechinah; the Har HaBayis was the Machaneh Leviyah, while the rest of Jerusalem (based on its original parameters, which are different from today’s Old City) was the Machaneh Yisrael.

The verses in Bamidbar 5:2-4 that describe the laws pertaining to the desert encampment would seem to indicate that individuals with all types of tumah (ritual impurity) were barred from all three camps. However, Chazal explain (Sifri, Naso: 4; Pesachim 67a-68a; Rambam, Biat Mikdash 3:1-2) the specific rules:

Depending of the level of defilement, people in different conditions are excluded from each of these areas. By biblical law, a metzorah (somebody afflicted with tzara’as) is excluded from Machaneh Yisrael, and cannot enter Jerusalem at all. A tamei meis is barred from Machaneh Shechinah alone, but is permitted within Machaneh Leviyah—he can ascend to Har HaBayis, but cannot enter the Azarah (see Tosefta, Keilim 1:7; Pesachim 67a; Sotah 20b).

Yet, because of the special stringency of a tamei meis entering the Azarah and the Mikdash—this incurs the kares penalty (see Bamidbar 19:13, 20; Rambam, Bias Mikdash 3:12-13)—the Sages decreed that he may not approach the Azarah, but must stop at the Cheil, which surrounded the perimeter of the Mikdash (see Aruch Hashulchan Ha’Atid 11:5). This is the same boundary that applied to non-Jews (Mishnah, Keilim 1:8).

An intermediary level of defilement is tumah hayotzei megufo (an impurity emanating from the body), which includes a niddah (menstruation), yoledet (post-partum), zav, zavah, and a ba’al keri, one who experienced a seminal emission. The latter, which is the most relevant form of tumah concerning the ascent to Har HaBayis, is noted by the Gemara (Pesachim 67b-68; Tamid 27b), though omitted by the Rambam (Beis Habechirah 7:15; Bias Mikdash 3:3). Most commentaries explain that even the Rambam agrees that the ba’al keri is forbidden from entering the Temple Mount (see Mishnah Lemelech).

These types of tumah are removed by waiting the requisite period of time, immersing in a mikvah, and waiting for the sun to set (before sunset the person has the status of a tevul yom: he is permitted on Har HaBayis but cannot go to the Ezras Nashim (Rambam, Bias Mikdash 3:5-6; Beis Habechirah 7:17).

Distance from the Wall

Because of the concern that the Western Wall might be a part of the Mikdash, the Ridvaz, as noted above, was wary of approaching the Wall.

However, as many authorities conclude, the Wall is assumed to be part of the wall of the Temple Mount. Therefore, it is permitted to approach the Wall, even in a state of ritual impurity. This conclusion is reached by Yabia Omer (see note 1), who writes: “It is clearly permitted to approach the Western Wall, even after an impure emission from the body. This is the common custom, and custom of Israel is Torah.” Rabbi Yosef concludes that it is improper to be stringent on this matter.

In addition to approaching the Wall, many press notes into the Wall’s crevices, and touch the wall or finger its cracks. Even under the assumption that the Wall is the perimeter of the Temple Mount, there is a question as to the permissibility of this practice.

The Gemara (Zevachim 32b) teaches that a ritually impure person who stretches his hand into the inner sanctuary transgresses a Torah prohibition. The principle is that partial entry—even of a single limb—is considered full entry, and therefore prohibited (the Rambam, Bias Mikdash 3:18, sees this as a rabbinic prohibition, while the Raabad maintains it is a Torah violation). This raises the question: Might placing one’s fingers into the cracks and crevices of the Wall be forbidden? Does the thickness of the Wall possess the same holiness as the Temple Mount it once encircled?

This question has been discussed by Mishkenos Abir Yaakov (Rabbi Yehoshua Meschel Gelbstein, vol. 2, chap. 1, no. 1), who concludes that the practice is forbidden. He mentions that this was also the opinion of Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin, who was shocked to hear of individuals who inserted cuttings of cloth between the stones of the Wall.

On the other hand, Shut Avnei Nezer (ibid.) writes that the wall of the Temple Mount has no inherent holiness. The Temple Mount was sanctified by Beis Din walking within it, and since Beis Din did not walk on the wall itself, if follows that it was never sanctified. Based on this reasoning it is be permitted to insert one’s fingers into the crevices of the Wall, even in a state of ritual impurity.

A similarly lenient opinion is voiced by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach in Minchas Shlomo (Vol. 3, no. 160). He writes (based on Rambam’s ruling) that the prohibition of “partial entry” is rabbinic by nature, and the Sages never decreed the prohibition of partial entry on somebody who cannot make a full entry due to the wall that stands in his way. Shut Minchas Elazar is moreover quoted (in Masa’os Yisrael, Yom Beis) as stating that the saintly Or Hachayim sent a note to be inserted into the Wall.

It is interesting to note that the Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (the Steipler) is cited as having been particular not to place fingers in the crevices of the Wall. The Chazon Ish is also quoted as having taken a stringent position on this matter (Orchos Rabbeinu, vol. 1, p. 319).

Of course, the entire concern applies only to somebody who has not immersed himself in a mikvah since becoming ritually impure. The Steipler mentions that for men immersion on the same day may be sufficient to alleviate any cause for concern.

Deriving Benefit from the Wall

A final issue that warrants discussion is the matter of deriving benefit from the stones of the Wall. Is it permitted to sit in its shade, hang items on it or to enjoy its cool touch on a hot summer day?

Some authorities rule that there is no prohibition of deriving benefit from the Wall, because the original holiness of the Wall was profaned when it fell into enemy hands. The Gemara in Avodah Zarah (52b) presents a similar position concerning stones or coins of hekdesh that fell into the hands of the Greeks. This opinion is cited (by the Moadim Uzemanim) in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin (but he prohibited inserting one’s hand).

However, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch (Moadim Uzemanim 5:350) writes that this principle does not apply to a construction that is connected to the ground. He adds that even if the stones became profane, it is possible be that by returning to Jewish rule (after the Six Day War) the stones regained their original sanctity.

Shut Iggros Moshe (Yoreh De’ah 4:63) likewise writes that the stones of the Wall retain their sanctity. He explains that because a Divine oath promises that the Kosel will not be destroyed, it follows that the Wall has never truly fallen into enemy hands, and its holiness cannot be profaned. In addition, he explains that only items that were destroyed by the enemy or taken as loot were profaned. The stones of the Wall that remained unharmed were not.

Based on his ruling, Rav Moshe warns against taking small chippings of the Wall home as a souvenir. Aside from the Biblical prohibition of deriving benefit (the issur of me’eelo) from the Wall, Iggros Moshe writes that this transgresses the Biblical prohibition of “you shall not do so to Hashem, your G-d.” Shaarei Zion (7) adds that the prohibition of lacking proper awe for the Mikdash and its surroundings is also transgressed by this action.

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