The survival of the Western Wall alone among the four retaining walls of the Herodian Temple Mount invites inquiry. Was it accidental or intentional? And, either way, what are we to make of it?
A search for ha-kotel ha-ma’aravi in the compendious Bar-Ilan University data base indicates that the term — when applied to the “Western Wall” as it is understood today, rather than as a designation for one of the four principal facades of the Temple — has been in use for only about a century, and its appearances are limited almost exclusively to contemporary responsa literature.
Historically, the earliest dated reference to the Western Wall appears in the itinerary of a Christian pilgrim from Bordeaux who visited Jerusalem in 333 C.E. The Emperor Constantine had banished Jews from Jerusalem and forbidden them to live even within sight of the city. Only on Tisha b’Av were they permitted to enter, briefly, and approach the Western Wall: “to which the Jews come every year, and anoint it, and lament themselves with moans and tear their clothes, and thus depart.”
While the Wall was clearly identifiable in the 4th century, it did not make its premier appearance in a Jewish source until about the 7th century. The Midrash Rabbah 1:5 on the book of Lamentations (Eikhah) tells the story of the Roman emperor Vespasian, who spent 3½ years besieging Jerusalem. After conquering the city, he divided the destruction of the four city walls among four of his dukes, with the Western Wall falling to the Duke of Arabia. Three of the dukes destroyed their lots but the Duke of Arabia maintained his. When Vespasian summoned him to ask why he had not destroyed his lot, he replied: “Had I destroyed my lot as the others destroyed theirs, the kings who will succeed you would never know what a great edifice you destroyed. Since I did not destroy it, however, your successors will be able to see it and they will say, ‘Look at the great edifice he destroyed.’”
A contemporary Midrash Rabbah to Shir ha-Shirim (2:9) on the verse “Behold he stands behind our wall” (kotelenu) states: “Behind the Western Wall of the Temple, for God had sworn that it would never be destroyed.” It had been decreed in heaven that the Western Wall would never be destroyed because the Divine Presence (Shekhinah) resides in the west.
In answer to our opening question, the implication of these midrashic sources is that the survival of the Western Wall was both accidental and intentional. The Duke of Arabia may have been acting under a selfish impulse to glorify the Roman conquest, but he was only acting out a role that had been preordained for him by God. (In the midrashic account, Vespasian sentences the duke to a cruel death; though the ruler is pleased with the vainglorious explanation, he is miffed by the violation of his direct order.)
Crediting the Duke of Arabia with the survival of the Western Wall is not accidental, either; it seems, rather, to reflect the zeitgeist of the period during which this midrash was probably written. In 638 C.E., the Caliph Umar conquered Jerusalem from the Byzantine Christians. A Muslim Hadith (midrash) reports: “When Umar bin al-Khattab conquered Jerusalem, he found a lot of garbage on the [Foundation] Rock that had been deposited by the Christians [al-Rum] to vex the Jews [Bani Isra’il]. Umar spread out his cloak, collected the garbage, and instructed the other Muslims to collect it with him.”
This theme reprises itself in a Sephardic Jewish folktale about the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Upon conquering Jerusalem in the 16th century, he saw that people were coming from as far away as Bethlehem to dump garbage on a particular site on the Temple Mount. Suleiman responded by strewing gold coins about the refuse. As people began to dig in search of the coins, the mound of detritus dwindled, the Western Wall gradually emerged from beneath it, and the sultan had it anointed with rose water.
Paradoxically, then, we have both an early classical Jewish source and a relatively late Jewish folktale acknowledging a debt to Arabs for the survival of the Western Wall — something that ought to give us pause as we contemplate the contemporary state of Jewish-Muslim relations, in general, and the contentious status of the Western Wall plaza and the Temple Mount, in particular.email print