Page last updated at 12:17 GMT, Monday, 29 September 2008 13:17 UK

Jerusalem Diary: Monday 29 Sept

Clearing up notes pressed into Western Wall
The prayers, hopes and wishes are treated with due reverence

By Tim Franks
BBC News, Jerusalem


About a dozen men were scrabbling hard at an old, cracked wall. From time to time, they would stab a wooden pick inside the the jammed crevices, as if they were microscopic dental hygienists trying to scrape clean a vast, uneven mouth.

They were in action because this Monday night is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Twice a year, before Rosh Hashanah, and before Passover (in March/April), the Western Wall has a spring clean.

Thousands - the supervising rabbi says it is millions - of pieces of scrap paper are winkled out of the cracks in the wall, swept into plastic bags, and buried.

On each piece of paper is written a prayer, or a hope, or a wish. Most are scrawled in situ. These days you can also text or email a prayer, which will then be printed and wedged in for you.

It doesn't harm the wall - it is what holds the wall together
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz
The wall - in Hebrew, the Kotel - is popularly known as the Wailing Wall, because Jews venerate it and mourn it in equal measure: it is the last remaining part of the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in the year 70.

Supervising Tuesday's clean-up was Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Kotel's very own rabbi.

He says the first known note was placed inside the fissures around the massive base stones, 300 years ago - a message that had been sent by the Moroccan rabbi Haim Ben Atar.

According to Rabbi Rabinowitz, the spirit of the tradition can be traced back even further. Solomon, builder of the First Temple, said that it should be a place where God would answer every prayer, whether uttered by a Jew or not.

Even among Jews, says Rabbi Rabinowitz, 2,000 years ago, before the liturgy was codified, "everyone prayed in their own way."

In the 1967 war, Israel conquered and then occupied East Jerusalem. The Israeli authorities quickly bulldozed the old Moroccan quarter, in front of the Western Wall.

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz
Rabbi Rabinowitz says publication of people's prayers is sacrilegious
They built a plaza to accommodate what they expected would be huge numbers of tourists and visitors. As those visitors have come, so have the prayers, stuffed into the wall.

Rabbi Rabinowitz is relaxed. "It doesn't harm the wall," he told me. "This is the Wall of Tears: it has been filled with requests and tears and prayers for the past 2,000 years: that is what holds the wall together."

After they have been picked out and swept up, the notes are buried on the Mount of Olives, as a gesture of respect to God and to people: to God, because Judaism prohibits the destruction of anything with God's name on it; to people, because the paper is their prayer.

Equally, it is not the done thing to fish out somebody else's piece of paper, and read it.

That is precisely what one sharp-eyed young man did, when Barack Obama came to visit in July. Mr Obama's prayer was plucked out, photographed, and published in an Israeli newspaper.

Such action is "sacrilegious", says Rabbi Rabinowitz. As the scraps of paper tumbled to the floor on Tuesday, they may have looked like so much rubbish. But this was a clean-up under precise, religious monitoring.

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'The Israeli authorities quickly bulldozed the old Moroccan quarter, in front of the Western Wall'?

Moroccan Palestinians?
David Guy, Rehovot, Israel

Although you refer to 1967 you don't mention that when East Jerusalem was under Jordanian control after they annexed it in 1948, Jews were not allowed to visit the wall.
Martin Smith, London

Rabbi Rabinowitz: "This is the Wall of Tears: it has been filled with requests and tears and prayers for the past 2,000 years...". We keep hearing this number. But is there actual evidence (proof) that this wall is 2,000 yrs old? As far as I know, it is medieval.
Julius, Philadelphia, USA

I placed a prayer in the wall on my birthday in May of this year and I did wonder what happened to them. It's nice to know they are treated in such a respectful way.
Simon Manley, UK

Of course while mentioning that the Moroccan Quarter was demolished (only 135 buildings) immediately post the 1967 war, Tim Franks neglects to mention that the Jordanians similarly demolished a third of the buildings in the much larger Jewish Quarter and expelled all its residents. Fundamentally, the Wall has been the spiritual and physical focus of the Jewish faith for thousands of years but has been mistreated and abused by disinterested rulers for almost as long. No history or description of the Wall is complete without understanding this.
Joanne Bell, London, UK

Just a small correction. In the article it is written regarding the Kotel that " is the last remaining part of the Second Temple...." This is incorrect. The Southern and Eastern retaining walls still stand as do the steps on the Southern side. The Kotel (Western wall) is so important because it is the wall closest to the location of the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. Also, remains of the temple were used partially in the construction of the Al Aqsa Mosque located on top of the Temple Mount platform.
Yaakov ben Moshe, Tel Aviv, Israel

Good reporting, interesting entry.
Aviv Vida, Porland, OR USA

The Hebrew name of the Wall ("the Kotel") is the Kotel HaMaaravi, in English the Western Wall, the remnant of the western side of the platform on which Herod had the Temple constructed. The name, the Wailing Wall, (in Frank's paragraph 5) may be of Christian origin and is not used by Jews.
Avraham Altman, Jerusalem, Israel

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