Walking the Camino del Norte, Spain
The area immediately in front of the Wall now operates as a great open-air synagogue, exerting a pull discernible even to nonreligious visitors. It’s divided into two areas: a small southern section for women and a much larger northern section for men. Here, black-garbed ultra-Orthodox men rock backwards and forwards on their heels, bobbing their heads in prayer, occasionally breaking off to press themselves against the Wall and kiss the stones. Women face greater challenges to freely worship at the Wall, whose Orthodox custodians remain deeply uncomfortable with female voices reciting here. Mooted plans for a mixed-sex worship area at the Wall remain hotly debated. One movement, Women of the Wall, opposes the segregation of genders and the smaller space given to women at the Wall, and holds prayers and protests. The issue of gender segregation at the Wall is particularly important to American Jews, though it rarely registers for Israeli Jews. The Israeli government recently backtracked on a much-lauded and sought-after compromise to create a permanent, enlarged egalitarian prayer space in the area of Robinson’s Arch.
To celebrate the arrival of Shabbat, there is always a large crowd at sunset on Friday. The plaza is a popular site for bar mitzvahs, which are usually held on Shabbat or on Monday and Thursday mornings. This is a great time to visit, as the area is alive with families singing and dancing as they approach.
Notice the different styles of stonework composing the Wall. The huge lower layers are made up of Herodian-era stones, identifiable by their carved edges, while the stones above them, which are chiselled slightly differently, date from the time of the construction of the Al Aqsa Mosque. Also visible at close quarters are the wads of paper stuffed into the cracks in between the stones. Some Jews believe that prayers and petitions inserted between the stones have a better-than-average chance of being answered. Prayers posted into the crevices are never thrown away; periodically the Wall attendants will gather all the notes that have fallen onto the prayer plaza, and they are interred along with the next deceased person to be buried on the Mount of Olives. Prayers are also accepted in digital form: an online form on the Kotel website allows you to send a prayer to be printed by the Wall custodians and taken there.
On the men’s side of the Wall, a narrow passage runs under Wilson’s Arch, which was once used by priests to enter the Temple. Look down the two illuminated shafts to get an idea of the Wall’s original height. Women are not permitted into this area.
Modest dress is recommended for visitors (if in doubt, cover from shoulders to knees), and a head covering is required for men (kippot are available if you don’t have one). Photography is prohibited on Shabbat; point your lens respectfully at other times. If you’re visiting on Shabbat and want to plant a paper prayer in the Wall, write it before you arrive as writing isn’t permitted in the plaza during this time.