Judaism’s holiest site is also one of the most unpleasant places to visit.
It was a beautiful, partially cloudy spring day in Jerusalem on Tuesday, with temperatures reaching 25 degrees Celsius in the shade. A perfect day for strolling around nearly any part of the city, with one truly glaring exception: the Western Wall Plaza. The glaring whiteness of the plaza pavement reflected the heat, and the complete absence of trees, buildings and pergolas ensured that there was not a speck of shade. The result is an almost unbearable experience for worshipers and tourists who congregate at the Judaism’s holiest site. The situation will only become worse with the arrival of summer.
Light-skinned tourists, mainly from Europe, seem to turn bright red within minutes of standing around the plaza. But all visitors, regardless of skin tone, find that they are sweaty, uncomfortable, dazzled by the glare and desperate for a bit of shade. About 20 people could be seen on Tuesday crowded together, almost lying down, to take advantage of the shade offered by a low fence on the western part of the plaza. Another group huddled in a patch of shade near the bathrooms. The tour guides quickly whisked their groups away from the broiling plaza to shadier spots.
“I was at bar mitzvah on the eve of Passover, which isn’t yet summer, and people said it was impossible to concentrate on the prayers,” recalls Ofer Cohen, chairman of an NGO, called the Lobby for Jewish Values. “Anyone who prays when it is hot has to finish the prayer quickly – it isn’t praying with a focused mind,” says Cohen, who has asked the ministers of tourism and religious affairs to try to solve the problem.
Tour guides are also irked by the harsh conditions at the plaza.
“The problem exists all year around, both in the rain and in the sun,” says Jerusalem guide Ben Lev Kadesh. “In this whole huge space there isn’t a single covered corner. Many of the tourists come from Europe and it isn’t easy for them to stand in the sun.”
Tour guides have various ways of dealing with the challenge. “You can skimp on the explanation or give it somewhere else,” says Kadesh.”But then you break the tour guide’s first rule, which is that you don’t explain what you can’t see. Another solution is to look for a spot near the toilets or in the tunnel that connects the plaza with Hagai Street, but it’s always crowded there.”
The rabbi’s ruling on shade
Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, who administers the site, has ruled that nothing can be built on the plaza. “We’ve consulted about this, and there have been plans, but nothing can be done,” says Rabinovitch, explaining: “Anything that is built will overshadow the Wall,” he says.
Indeed all ideas for providing some kind of cover or shade in parts of the plaza have been rejected. The problem has been under discussion for decades, say officials in Rabinovitch’s office. “There have been discussions about how to deal with heat in summer and rain in winter. But most people from the areas of planning, history and archaeology have felt strongly that for the sake of the Wall’s splendor, glory, and the memory of the past, the Western Wall should be revealed without means of shading,” say the officials.
The solution of planting tress, and even a lawn that would absorb some of the glare, is unthinkable because of a prohibition in rabbinical law. Rabinovitch devoted an entire chapter to this issue in a book of responsa on the matter of the Western Wall. After a lengthy discussion of rabbinical law pertaining to the planting of trees and grass in Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple, Rabinovitch reaches the conclusion that the Western Wall Plaza must be left in “simplicity and modesty.” “What pleasure could it be for us to improve and glorify the plaza facing the ruined and desolate house of our Lord where foxes have run,” he wrote.
Another more promising solution is to distribute parasols on the plaza. “The rabbi has decided that at bar mitzvah celebrations, when families spend a long time in the plaza, parasols will be opened in the area of the ceremonies. It should be noted that there were many opponents to this decision, who argued that this cheapens the Wall,” according to a statement from the rabbi’s bureau.
“Creative solutions can be found,” insists Cohen.” Let them put up wedding canopies instead of parasols that are reminiscent of the beach. Shade during prayers is not a luxury; it’s a minimum condition to be able to pray with a clear mind. It’s enough that someone says to the cantor, ‘Hurry up, it’s hot,’ to ruin everything. The worship isn’t dignified like this.” According to the rabbi’s bureau, “Taking everyone’s needs into consideration is no trivial matter and the rabbi is making a tremendous effort to provide solutions for everyone insofar as this is possible.”