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Parshas Teruma – Halachos of the Western Wall

This week’s parashah describes the first stages in the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle)- the first holy abode constructed by the Children of Israel during their journeys in the wilderness. The commandment to construct the Tabernacle, “You shall build a Mikdash for Me, and I shall dwell among you” (Shemos, 25, 8) brings to mind the Mikdash or Temple that ultimately replaced the Tabernacle, in the days of King Solomon.[1]

We take the opportunity to discuss a topic that many may be only slightly aware of: The true halachic status of the Western Wall—the Kosel Hama’aravi.

The Western Temple Wall?

Chazal state in Midrash Rabba, Bamidbar 11:2 and in Shir Hashirim 2:26: “‘Behold, He stands behind our walls’: Behind the Western Wall of the Temple. Why is this so? Because The Holy One Blessed He has taken oath that it will never be destroyed.” The holy Zohar learns further into this quote (Shemos 5b): “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 imply that the Western Wall, as we see and know today, is a remnant of the Temple itself.

In the light of these sources, there are some authorities who have stated that the Wall is, indeed, a relic of the holy Temple, the Western Wall of the azarah, where sacrifices were offered. This is stated in Radvaz (vol. 2, no. 648, 691) and Chayei Adam (Shaarei Tzedek, Mishpetei Eretz, chap. 11, no. 8), and mentioned by a number of other 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 Wall of the Temple Mount. To familiarize the reader with the Wall, we will briefly describe its dimensions.

The height of the Wall that is visible above ground is 19 meters, and includes 27 rows of stone. These were built over five different time periods:

  1. The seven bottom rows date back, according to most researchers, to the time of the Second Temple. Some date them back to the time of the First Temple. Each one of the stones in this layer is approximately 1.05 meters tall. Together they reach the 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 stone 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 Suliman. Some claim that they were added by Moses Montefiori.
  5. The top three courses were added in recent times (1924) by local Arabs.

All of the dimensions above refer to the part of the Wall that is above ground. Most of the Wall, however, totaling a height of 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 Wall, 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 is founded 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, indeed, is stated as a simple fact by Kaftor Va-Ferach (Rav Ashtori Ha-Parchi, chap. 6), and is mentioned as “obvious” by Rav Yechiel Michel Tuchtchinsky (Ir Hakodesh Vehamikdash 4:2), explaining 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.[2]

Ritual Defilement in Approaching the Wall

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 in Keilim, chap. 1,8 teaches us that the Temple Mount is of greater holiness than Jerusalem, as those who are ritually defiled are banned entry (with a defilement [tumah] related to menstrual bleeding or seminal emissions). Assuming the Wall as being part of the Temple- the area by which we approach it is the Temple Mount, and entry of those ritually defiled is forbidden.

On account of this concern, as we mentioned above, Ridvaz was wary of approaching the Wall.

However, as many authorities conclude, the Wall can be safely assumed to be part of the walling of the Temple Mount. Therefore, it would be permitted to approach the Wall, even in a state of ritual impurity. This conclusion is also reached by Yabia Omer (see note 1), who writes: “It is clearly permitted to approach the Western Wall, even after something impure left a person’s body, as the common custom—and ‘a custom of Israel is Torah’.”

The common custom of approaching the Wall, even in a state of ritual impurity had already been noted by Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank. He bases his opinion that the Wall is not part of the Temple on this custom. Rav Ovadya concludes: “One who is stringent on this matter is questionable.”

Pressing Fingers into the Wall

Many are accustomed to pressing notes into the Wall’s crevices, or touch the wall and finger its cracks. Even after the assumption that the Wall is indeed wall of the Temple Mount, and not the wall of the Temple itself, we must still question the permissibility of this practice.

The Gemara (Zevachim 32b) teaches us 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 only one limb- is considered equal to a full entry, and is therefore prohibited.[3]This raises the question: Is placing one’s fingers into the cracks and crevices of the Wall 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 (Rav Yehoshua Meschel Gelbstein, vol. 2, chap. 1, no. 1). He concludes that the practice is forbidden. He mentions that this was also the opinion of Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin, who was shocked to hear of individuals who inserted bits of clothing between the stones of the Wall.

On the other hand, Avnei Nezer (loc. cit.) writes that the walling of the Temple Mount holds no innate holiness. The Temple Mount was sanctified by Beis Din walking within it, and Beis Din did not walk on the wall itself. Therefore, it was never sanctified. According to this reasoning, it would be permitted to insert one’s fingers into the crevices of the Wall.

A similarly lenient opinion is voices by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach in Minchas Shlomo 3:160. 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. Indeed, Minchas Elazar is quoted (in Masa’os Yisrael, Yom Beis) stating that the saintly Or Hachayim sent a note to be inserted into the Wall.

It is interesting to note that the Steipler is quoted 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 (Orchos Rabbeinu, vol. 1, p. 319). Yet, the Steipler is also quoted as having said that if somebody immersed in the mikvah on that day, there would no longer be room for concern.

Deriving Benefit from the Wall

A final issue which we wish to discuss is the question 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 state 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) similarly teaches about stones or coins of hekdesh that fell into the hands of the Greeks. This precept is based on an interpretation of the verse, “The attackers came, and profaned it.” This opinion is cited in the name of Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin.

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

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 prohibition of deriving benefit from the Wall, Iggros Moshe writes that this would transgress the prohibition of “you shall not do so to Me”. Shaarei Zion (7) adds that the prohibition of lacking proper awe for the Mikdash and its surroundings is also transgressed by this action.

In summary:

  • Most authorities agree that the Western Wall was part of the wall surrounding the Temple Mount; not the wall of the Temple.
  • Because of this, it is permitted to approach the wall, even in a state of ritual impurity.
  • According to several authorities, one should be careful not to insert one’s fingers into the crevices of the Wall. Some, however, permit this practice, and even those who are stringent, permit doing so after immersion in a mikvah.
  • According to several authorities, one must be careful not to (intentionally) derive benefit from the Kosel. Thus, one should not lean on the Wall, cool oneself off by touching it, and so on.

[1] As Rabbeinu Bachya explains, the Tabernacle is also termed Mikdash (Temple), because it was fashioned according to the spiritual model of “Upper Mikdash.”

[2] See, at length, Yabia Omer (Rav Ovadya Yosef, vol. 5, Yoreh De’ah, no. 27).

[3] According to Rambam (Bias Mikdash 3:18), this is a Rabbinic prohibition, whereas according to Raabad, it is a Torah prohibition.

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