The Kosel where we daven and weep is only a fraction of the Western Wall of the Har Habayis. As mentioned in an earlier article, over two thirds of this massive wall is buried beneath the Arab Quarter of the Old City. Immediately after the Churban, it was much longer; 1,590 feet of Kosel stretched along the side of a deep valley. But after the 14th century, Muslim rulers of the land obliterated most of the wall by raising the valley floor with arches and vaults and building a neighborhood on top. Today, only two parts of the wall are open to the skies: one, the southern section of the wall including the Kosel, and the other about 170 yards north in a small courtyard in the Muslim section of the Old City that abuts the Western Wall. Some regard the Kosel Koton as even holier than its larger counterpart, for it lies almost directly opposite the site of the Kodesh Hakodoshim.
The Kosel Koton is sited near the top of the Western Wall; only two rows of the Kosel are visible from inside, compared to the large Kosel’s twelve rows of stones. Due to its small, cramped location, worshippers there relive the experience of davening at the Kosel during the 20s and 30s when the Kosel occupied a long, narrow courtyard in the Mugrahbi neighborhood. It also suffers humiliation. Just as Arabs used to interfere with davening at the Kosel and pass through with their donkeys, so the Kosel Koton serves as the courtyard of local Arab residents; a small building once served the residents as a latrine, and residents sometimes desecrate the place with garbage.
Yet it has a long history of sanctity. There is a tradition that Eliyohu Hanovi appeared here to one of the tzaddikim of Yerushalayim some generations ago. According to another version of this story, Rav Avrohom HaLeivi Beruchim of Tzefas came here to daven for his life after the Arizal told him: “Know that your days are numbered and the time has come for you to die unless you do a special tikun which I will teach you. Then you will live for another twenty-two years. This is the tikun. Go to Yerushalayim and pray there before the Kosel. Pour out your supplications and you will merit to see the Shechinah.”
After a three day fast, Rav Avrohom went to the Kosel, prayed a flood of tears, and then saw the image of a woman on top of the Kosel dressed in black. Terrified, he fell to the earth and cried out, “Woe that I have seen you in such a state!” After fainting, he saw the Shechinah approach him in beautiful clothes and promise that her sons would be redeemed.
Upon Rav Beruchim’s return to Tzefas, the Arizal told him, “I see that you merited to see the Shechinah. From now, you may be sure that you will live another twenty-two years.” (Sefer Kav Hayoshor). The Chida (Shem Hagedolim) writes that one should not doubt the authenticity of this story because Yirmiyohu Hanavi once experienced a similar vision.
The Radbaz davened at the Kosel HaKoton five hundred years ago, and more recently, Rav Shmuel Salant and the Maharil Diskin davened at this spot. During the Arab riots between 1936-39 when there was limited access to the Kosel, many Jews davened at the Kosel Koton instead.
The Small Kosel rose from relative obscurity in 1972 when workers excavating the Kosel Tunnels reached this spot and weakened one of the courtyard buildings. Although the most obvious solution was to destroy the building, Mayor Teddy Kollek vetoed the idea and insisted it must be saved. Unaware of the wall’s holy nature, contractors bored four large holes into it as part of their planned reinforcements and set off a storm of protest.
Sephardi Chief Rabbi Rav Yitzchok Nissim arrived there and organized a protest minyan, street posters cried out against the desecration of the sacred wall, and Rav Meir Yehuda Getz, the Rav of the Kosel, carefully gathered the stone chips for genizah. Newspaper notices urged “the removal of the arched buildings, the filthy courtyards, the drainage cisterns, and the sewers placed close to the stones of the remnant of our temple under the rule of the generations of Muftis in an attempt to conceal it.” The Muslim Wakf (trust) of the Temple Mount complained for a different reason, arguing that no one had the right to damage the Chush al Shihabi (the Western Wall and its surroundings) since it belonged to them.
Politicians were divided as to how to proceed with the Kosel Tunnels. Teddy Kollek suggested abandoning the project altogether, while Prime Minister Menachem Begin declared in the Knesset that the damage to the house above was a good excuse to abandon the tunnel project in favor of exposing the Western Wall along its whole length. He recommended evacuating the Muslim families living alongside the Wall, razing their homes to the ground, and providing them with alternative housing. He also advised destroying the ramp that leads to Har Habayis at the right of the Kosel ezras noshim, and replacing it with a bridge. After all, he contended, we have only one Kosel. Success of his proposals would have resulted in a gigantic Kosel extending almost a third of a mile. Instead, contractors erected an ugly metal scaffolding to support the building and the tunnel excavations continued.
The Status Quo
Paradoxically, even though the Kosel and the Kosel HaKoton are part of the same wall, the government has never granted the latter official status as a holy place, probably to avoid conflict with Arabs of the courtyard. The place is under police supervision via camera and not delegated to the Kosel Rav.
Due to Arab claims on the area, the police declared a situation of status quo similar to the status quo of the large Kosel during the British Mandate. Jews may daven at the Kosel Koton, but they must bring their own aron hakodesh, Siddurim, amud for a chazzan and suchlike, and remove them immediately afterwards. Even Siddurim may not be left behind and the police prevented the installment of a sink for washing hands.
There was great controversy about twenty years when a Slonimer chossid, Rav Yosef Laufer, founded a kollel in the vicinity and tried to make renovations at the Small Wall. The Wakf strongly objected and Laufer was forced to guarantee the ceasing of his building activities.
After a number of conflicts between Jew and Arab in the area, the government confiscated a house in the area that had belonged to a terrorist, and at a public ceremony in 1999, the Minister of Defense, Avigdor Kahalani, announced that it would soon be opened as a police station. The plan never materialized and the house has remained empty to this day.
But the Kosel Koton is not completely forgotten. Individuals and groups daven there regularly. For a while, the Ministry of Religion even allowed the Ateret Kohanim Yeshivah to use a small storeroom for the storage of seforim, chairs, and benches until the Wakf broke inside in1986 and tried to install its own locks. In subsequent years, the Arabs piled refuse by the door, burying it from sight, and when Jews removed the refuse in 2004, police covered the entire wall with a sheet of corrugated iron to preserve the status quo.
The Shofar Affair
The most recent controversy concerning the Kosel Koton began in 2006 when a group of Jews were davening there on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. At 7:30 AM, Eliyohu Kleiman was blowing tekios in the middle of Shemoneh Esrei when an Arab woman contacted the police and complained that he was disturbing the peace. This was ironic considering the huge ruckus Arabs make five times daily calling people to prayer. A group of police arrived while Kleiman was still in the midst of davening Shemoneh Esrei, waited until he was finished, and then proceeded to drag him, wrapped in his tallis and clutching his shofar, to a local police station.
“I looked into the matter,” said Rav Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rav of the Kosel. The police are unaware when the tefillah begins and ends. They did not understand that there are a number of teki’os. This incident is very painful as it is reminiscent of earlier times.”
Indeed, people compare twenty-year-old Kleiman to Moshe Segal who, in contravention of the British ban against blowing a shofar at the Kosel, blew teki’os there every Motzoei Yom Kippur and was arrested many times. Kleiman and other members of his minyan sued the police for 10,000 shekels in the Yerushalayim Magistrates Court, and his case has dragged on for the past six years. Kosleinu (Our Wall), an organization fighting to have the area officially recognized as a holy site, urged people to attend the court hearing. “Not only is the welfare of those who pray at the Kotel HaKoton at stake here,” they publicized, “but also the fate of those places held to be holy and designated for prayer and honor by the Jewish People. Your interest in this case can make a difference.”
Last year, a government declaration stated to the court that the Kosel HaKoton is not a holy place but only “an inner courtyard of a few homes in the Arab Quarter,” and the claims of the worshippers against the police should be dismissed.
Nonetheless, the official attitude may be changing for the better. In January 2011, in the course of regular renovations of historical sites in the city, the Authority for Yerushalayim Development decided to include the Kosel HaKoton among its thirty to forty annual projects and it was refurbished for the first time in nearly forty years. They removed the metal scaffolding erected twenty-nine years earlier to reinforce the damaged building, but which were no longer touching the building due to a shift of the construction. This lengthened the courtyard by an extra three meters. The municipality also installed a sign identifying the place as the Kosel Koton and plans for further renovations are underway.
Officially recognized or not, Jews will never cease visiting this holy spot to plead for a speedy end to our golus.