Highlights of the Western (Wailing) Wall
A very unique event takes place at the Western Wall three times a year when the Priestly Blessing is said by the gathered Cohanim over the public during the Passover, Shavuot and Succoth (Feast of Tabernacles) holidays. Thousands of the descendantants of the priestly tribe, today Cohen and Levites, gather at the Western Wall Plaza once during the above mentioned holidays covered by Tallits (prayer shawls) to pronounce in unity the blessing over the people of Israel. The blessing can be found in Numbers 6, 24-26. The sight is very impressive and unlike any other religious rite.
According to Jewish tradition, the location on Mt. Moriah is where the creation of the world began, where Abraham bound Isaac, and Jacob dreamt of the ladder to heaven. Moslems believe that Mohammed ascended to heaven from the Mount (Al-Haram al Sharif in Arabic) during the Night Journey. And of course, much of Jesus’ life and work occurred within steps of the Western Wall itself.
What is today known as the Western Wall and visited by millions of people from around the word every year was built by King Herod in the 1. Century BC when he expanded the area surrounding the Second Temple. The site has been at the heart of Jewish identity and faith during 2000 years of exile and is still revered as Judaism’s holiest site. The reason for such is that what was once one of the four surrounding walls around the Temple was the area closest to the Holy of Holies in the Temple. The Holy of Holies is believed to have been situated where the Dome of the Rock is standing now and is not accessible to Jews due to Muslim domination of the area and Jewish religious restrictions. So the closest available place for Jewish worship is the Western Wall where religious celebrations and swearing in ceremonies are performed on a regular basis in addition to individual prayer.
Plants at the Western Wall
While the Western Wall is a spiritual home to millions, it is also the physical home for a variety of plants and animals. Small lizards dart among the stones. Swallows, sparrows and doves nest among the cracks. But it is the sight of roots taking hold from solid rock that never ceases to amaze me. At least six distinct plants grow out of the Western Wall.
Henbane is the most common plant in the Wall. The Hebrew name for this plant is Shikaron, or “drunkenness” – not surprising since the plant is poisonous & intoxicating!
The Henbane plant; photo courtesy Pamela Levine
The ancients used Henbane for magic, witchcraft and love potions. Egyptians suffering from toothache smoked Henbane in search of relief. The Greeks believed Henbane led to the gift of prophecy and that the dead in Hades wore crowns of Henbane as they walked along the River Styx. Shakespeare too knew of Henbane’s powerful and often dangerous qualities — Hamlet’s father was murdered when a tincture of henbane was poured in his ear. Henbane was used in Germany during the Middle Ages to make Pilsner beer. Utilized as an anesthetic in the first hospitals in the Holy Land, today alkaloids derived from Henbane are used in pain killers and anti-spasm medications.
Other plants in the Wall include Podosnoma, a typical rock plant, able to penetrate stone with its roots in order to extract water; Sicilian Snapdragon often found on the higher sections of the Wall; and Horsetail Knotgrass, which is mentioned in the Talmud as an antidote for snakebite and Phagnalon, a small plant found scattered along the Wall.
Perhaps the most beautiful plant growing in the Western Wall is the purple and white flower of the Thorny Caper, a plant native to Jerusalem.
The thorny caper plant; Photo courtesy Pamela Levine
The sages compared the Jewish people to the caper for their ability to survive even after being cut down to the roots, and to thrive in the most inhospitable conditions. Today, in the hottest days of summer, the distinctive flower continues to bloom. The Israeli restaurant critic, Daniel Rogov notes that the “Pharaohs invariably packed some of these into their tombs to add spice to their voyage to the beyond; Moses found them a tempting addition to his food while he was wandering through the Sinai; and Mohammed considered them a great treat.”
All this is forgotten when enjoying capers in a lovely crisp salad, or atop a piece of fresh fish. When it comes to capers, small is best. The small buds of the caper are prized because the bigger capers are bitter. This is not easy work, however. The caper plant has prickly thorns, and the buds must be picked quickly before they open. Like olives, capers cannot be eaten fresh. They must be pickled in brine, usually of vinegar, salt, and peppercorns.
Caper plant; photo courtesy Pamela Levine
Delicious or not, the capers of the Western Wall, along with all the other plants growing out of the cracks of stone, remain untouched. They are part of the stark beauty of the Wall. The rocks of the Western Wall support the roots of these plants in a very material way. Invisible, but equally strong, is the meaning and comfort the Western Wall offers millions of people around the world – just as it has done for more than 2000 years.
The Western Wall is open for visitors 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, free of charge. Visitors are expected to dress modestly and respect the traditions of the site. No photography on Sabbaths and holidays allowed. For watching the Priestly Blessing arrive early! Wheelchair accessible from the road.
Many locals and students will visit at sundown on Fridays and celebrate Kabbalat Shabbat (or the welcoming in of the Sabbath). It is a time of much singing and dancing at the plaza.
Nearby Places of Interest
The Western Wall Tunnels, the Temple Mount, the Old City, Jewish Quarter, City of David, Davidson Center, the Mughrabi Gate
By Martha Kruger