History of the Kosel (Western Wall)

The title of this article seems ridiculous! Obviously, the Kosel is the Kosel! However, we will discover that there is a very basic argument regarding the Kosel’s identity. This has a bearing on another, even more ridiculous question, which goes like this: Approaching the Kosel from the Old City’s Dung Gate nearby, you may have noticed that the Western Wall meets a Southern Wall that is every bit as massive. This should bother you since do Chazal not assert that the Kosel was the only wall of the Bais Hamikdash to survive? What about this Southern Wall!


The uniqueness of the Kosel is that that even after the Churban, Hashem’s Shechinah settled upon it, never to depart. As the Medrash Shemos Raba (parsha 11:2) tells us, “Said Rabbi Acha—the Shechinah never moved from the Kosel because it says (Shir Hashirim 2:9), “Behold, He is standing behind our wall.” The Medrash Shir Hashirim Raba (2:9) adds to this, “Why? Because the Holy One promised him that it would never be destroyed.”

Indeed, ever since the Churban, the Kosel has survived many other vicissitudes, such as Andrianus’s plowing of Yerushalayim in 3895/135 when he rebuilt it as the Roman city Aelia Capitolina, the conquer of Yerushalayim by Byzantines, Persians, Moslems, Crusaders, Mongols, Turks, British, and Jordanians, and a terribly destructive earthquake in 4507/747.

Based on the Arizal’s writings, the Ramchal (Otzros Ramchal 4 pg. 251) compares this last remnant of the Bais Hamikdash to the famous luz bone of a person that is never destroyed. Just as a person is reincarnated from his indestructible luz bone, he says, so the Bais Hamikdash will be rebuilt from this holy place that the Shechinah never deserted. And due to the presence of the Shechinah, writes the mekubal

Rav Yitzchak Parchi (in his sefer Tuv Yerushalayim), there is a tradition passed down from generation to generation, that prayers uttered at the Kosel never return empty handed.

How did Hashem fulfill His promise that the Kosel would never be destroyed? The Medrash (Eicha Raba 1:31) relates:

“[Vespasian] divided its four ramparts to four dukes and left the west wall to Pangar [the duke of Arabia]. However, there was a heavenly decree that it would never be destroyed. Why? Because the Shechinah is in the west. So the others destroyed theirs and he did not destroy his. He sent for him and said, ‘Why did you not destroy yours?’ He said to him, ‘By your life! I did it for the praise of the kingdom, because if I destroyed it no one would know what you destroyed. But now people will see it and say, ‘See Vespasian’s might and what he destroyed….”

However, as mentioned earlier if Titus’s dukes destroyed all the walls of the Bais Hamikdash except the Kosel, how come people coming from the Dung Gate still see the massive Southern Wall adjoining the southwest corner of the Kosel? Wasn’t this wall one of the three sides that the dukes destroyed? You could ask further that all four sides of the Temple Mount seem to be bound by walls.

Before answering this question, it may be worthwhile to explore this article’s introductory question—what is the Kosel? What exactly is it the remnant of? To this question, there are three possible answers. The Kosel could be 1) the last surviving wall of the actual Bais Hamikdash (the Heichal), 2) the surviving wall of the Temple courtyard (the Azarah), or 3) the surviving wall of Har Habayis, the sanctified area that surrounded the Azarah.

Possibility #1 is a non-starter. Absolutely no one thinks that the Kosel is a remnant of the actual Bais Hamikdash. The second opinion has a number of supporters starting with Rav David ben Zimra (the Radbaz), whose responsa (691) seems to imply that the Kosel is a remnant of the Azarah. The Chochmas Adam (in his sefer Shaarei Zedek) and a small number of other authorities follow this opinion.

Of course, according to this opinion, if the Kosel is the demarcation of the Temple courtyard, a large part of the plaza in front of the Kosel would be part of Har Habayis where people are generally proscribed from entering due to bodily impurity. Because of this consideration, the Maharit indeed forbade anyone approaching within 80 amos of the Kosel, and a stricter opinion disallowed anyone from approaching closer than 130 amos of the Kosel, the maximum possible distance to the borders of Har Habayis.

According to this approach, the uniqueness of the Kosel would be its status as the sole surviving wall of the Temple Azarah, while the other walls might merely be walls of Har Habayis.

The trouble is that the Radbaz (691) clearly writes that the Southern Wall is also part of the Azarah: “It is clearly visible that the Southern Wall is in its original place, because someone standing at the southeast corner sees that from there southwards is the Valley of Yehoshaphat. The Azara only extended southwards until there…”

If the Radbaz considers both the west and south walls as part of the Azarah, how does he reconcile this with the medrashim that insist only the Western survived?

(Note: It has been pointed out the Radbaz’s assertion that the Southern Wall belongs to the Azarah contradicts his statement in the same responsa that the Dome of the Rock is 66 amos from the Southern Wall. The real distance from the Dome to the Southern Wall is 243 meters!)


We mentioned that according to the Radbaz’s opinion, it would be problematical for most people to daven in the Kosel plaza as part of it lies within the precincts of Har Habayis. You may have noticed that few people are concerned about this. This is because most authorities disagree with the above approach, regarding the Kosel not as a remnant of the Azara, but as the last surviving wall of Herod’s Har Habayis.

This opinion that the Kosel is part of the Har Habayis wall gained strong archeological backing after the Kosel tunnels were dug out and revealed that the Western Wall runs uninterruptedly for a length of 488 meters, far longer than the extent of the Azara wall.

This opinion also finds support from the kinah of R. Elazar Hakalir (Zachor asher asah) where he writes: “When he began approaching the entrance to the Temple Mount, he commanded the four heads of his armies to destroy it…”

However, even according to this opinion, why is the Western Wall unique? What about the other three walls on the Temple Mount’s south, north and east exposures?

In an article titled “The Temple and the Western Wall,” Rav Zalman Koren, a top expert on the subject of Bais Hamikdash, suggests that although the Southern Wall was indeed built by Herod, it was not the border of Har Habayis. The southern side of Har Habayis was bounded by a wall that no longer exists.

He begins by explaining why the north and east walls are no contradiction to Chazal’s insistence that only the Western Wall survived.

“In fact, there are very few ancient remains to be found along the northern wall of the Temple Mount,” he writes.


One question remains. Once the dukes decided to leave the Southern Wall alone, how could Pangar explain to Vespasian, “By your life! I did it for the praise of the kingdom, because if I destroyed it no one would know what you destroyed. But now people will see and say, ‘See Vespasian’s might and what he destroyed.” Why couldn’t the large Southern Wall bear testimony to the Kosel’s mighty dimensions?

Perhaps we can answer this question with another question. If Pangar left the Kosel untouched, why is it so short nowadays? Originally, the gates of Har Habayis were 20 amos high (Midos 2:4) and, according to Tosfos Yeshanim (Yuma 16a) the walls themselves were 20 amos higher, reaching a total of 40 amos (60-80 feet). This was the height of the walls from inside the Temple grounds, and adding the height of the walls below this level made them higher still.

Yet nowadays the original Herodian Kosel is so short that none of its huge stones even reach the level of the Har Habayis floor!

The answer is that although Pangar left the Kosel untouched, much of it was destroyed later, either after the Bar Kochba revolt or later when the Byzantium Christians seized Yerushalayim. It could well be that the Kosel in its original state dwarfed today’s Southern Wall, and only the Kosel could bear testimony to Vespasian’s giant destruction.

On a positive note: The Jewish Chronicle of London reported in 5622/1862 that the Prince of Wales was received by heads of the Yerushalayim community at the Kosel and asked the chief rabbi to pray for the health and long life of his mother, Queen Victoria. She subsequently became the longest reigning monarch in British history, dying at the age of 81 after ruling for 63 years from 5597/1837 until 5661/1901!

(Sources: Rav Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rav Yisrael Yosef Bornstein, HaKosel Hamaaravi. The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, 5769, chapter 1 footnotes.)

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