What is the significance of the Western Wall / Wailing Wall in Jerusalem?
The Western Wall is a 2,000-year-old retaining wall built on the western side of the temple mount in Jerusalem. Thus, it is not part of the city walls; it's not even King Solomon's original wall on the west side of the temple mount. Rather, it dates from the time of Herod the Great. Herod decided to expand the second temple (Zerubbabel's) and the plaza around it. He built tall retaining walls that followed Solomon's original design on the east side but expanded the walls on the north, west, and south sides, nearly doubling the size of the hilltop. Today's Western Wall was built during this widening of the temple mount plaza.
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The Jews consider the Western Wall a holy place (more so than the other three remaining support walls) because of its proximity to where the Holy of Holies was situated in the temple. Called the Ha-Kotel Ha-Ma'aravi in Hebrew, the Western Wall is the site of continual prayer. Many Orthodox Jews write out their prayers on slips of paper and insert them into cracks in the wall; others visit daily to lament the loss of the temple and to recite from the book of Psalms. The plaza extending in front of the Western Wall functions as an open-air synagogue every Sabbath.
The Western Wall starts in the Lower City and heads NNW to the Fortress of Antonia. The visible part of the Western Wall where prayers are held extends for 187 feet. The rest of the Western Wall (the entire structure is 1,600 feet long) is blocked by buildings or runs underground, but there are tunnels running from north of the plaza to the northwest corner of the wall. It's there that Jewish men can access a small alcove, the nearest they can get to the former location of the Holy of Holies. Originally, the Western Wall had a great stone staircase that started at the southwest corner of the temple mount, followed the western wall, and then turned east to allow access to the temple mount. That staircase was destroyed long ago, and all that remains of the original are a few courses of stone that stand proud halfway up the wall; the ruins of the staircase are called Robinson's Arch. Recently, a ramp was built at the same place, leading to Mugrabi Gate—the only gate used by non-Muslims to reach the temple mount. South of the ramp is a prayer platform; north of it is the plaza associated with the Western Wall.
Jews and other non-Muslims are forbidden from singing, praying, or making any "religious displays" on the temple mount itself, so the Western Wall is the closest that Jews can get to the site of the temple to worship. Christians have sometimes called the Western Wall the "Wailing Wall" because of the lamentation that often takes place there, but Jews find the term derogatory. For those who can't visit the Western Wall, there is a website on which to place a note, complete with a live camera shot of the prayer plaza.
The engineering of Herod's 1,600-foot-long wall is impressive. Two thousand years later, his Western Wall comprises the foundation and over half of the exposed wall. The wall has been repaired or built upon at least twice since its original construction, most likely by Muslim rulers. Excavation of the tunnels began in the mid-1800s by the British. Jerusalem, like most ancient cities, was re-built upon its own ruins, so the tunnels did more than reveal the length of the wall; they also served to expose roads from the time of Jesus and cisterns from long before, as well as evidence of the battle against the Romans in AD 70.
For more on the Western Wall, take a look at Google Maps. You can find images of where the Jews pray, the ramp to the Temple Mount, and buildings around the wall.
The Western Wall is important to Jews because it is the closest geographically they can get to the former site of the temple without being under Islamic jurisdiction. This will not always be the case. Daniel 9:27, Matthew 24:15, and Revelation 13:14 say that at the midpoint of the tribulation the Antichrist will place an image in the Jewish temple for people to worship. This prophecy implies that, at some point prior, the Jewish temple will be rebuilt. Isaiah 2:2–4 and Ezekiel 40:1—46:24 describe the restoration and the use of the temple during the Millennial Kingdom. We are fortunate that, while Jews pray to God facing a stone wall built by a long-gone king, the Holy Spirit chooses to dwell within us personally, making the Western Wall a fascinating piece of history but not essential to our faith.
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