JERUSALEM — About a dozen men were scrabbling hard at an old, cracked wall. From time to time, they would stab a wooden pick inside the jammed crevices, as if they were microscopic dental hygienists trying to scrape clean a vast, uneven mouth.
They were in action because the night was erev Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. Twice a year, before Rosh Hashana, and before Passover (in March/April), the Western Wall has a spring cleaning.
Thousands — the supervising rabbi says it is millions — of pieces of scrap paper are winkled out of the cracks in the wall, swept into plastic bags, and buried.
On each piece of paper is written a prayer, or a hope or a wish. Most are scrawled in situ. These days you can also text or email a prayer, which will then be printed and wedged in for you.
The wall — in Hebrew, the Kotel — is also known as the Wailing Wall, because Jews venerate it and mourn it in equal measure: it is the last remaining part of the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 C.E.
Supervising Tuesday’s clean-up was Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Kotel’s very own rabbi.
He says the first known note was placed inside the fissures around the massive base stones, 300 years ago — a message that had been sent by the Moroccan Rabbi Haim Ben Atar.
According to Rabinowitz, the spirit of the tradition can be traced back even further. Solomon, builder of the First Temple, said that it should be a place where God would answer every prayer, whether uttered by a Jew or not.
Even among Jews, says Rabinowitz, 2,000 years ago, before the liturgy was codified, “everyone prayed in their own way.”
In the 1967 war, Israel conquered and then occupied East Jerusalem. The Israeli authorities quickly bulldozed the old Moroccan quarter, in front of the Western Wall. They built a plaza to accommodate what they expected would be huge numbers of tourists and visitors. As those visitors have come, so have the prayers, stuffed into the wall.
Rabinowitz is relaxed. “It doesn’t harm the wall,” he says. “This is the Wall of Tears: it has been filled with requests and tears and prayers for the past 2,000 years: that is what holds the wall together.”
After they have been picked out and swept up, the notes are buried on the Mount of Olives, as a gesture of respect to God and to people: to God, because Judaism prohibits the destruction of anything with God’s name on it; to people, because the paper is their prayer.
Equally, it is not the right thing to fish out somebody else’s piece of paper, and read it.
That is precisely what one sharp-eyed young man did, when Barack Obama came to visit in July. Mr Obama’s prayer was plucked out, photographed, and published in an Israeli newspaper.
Such action is “sacrilegious,” says Rabinowitz. As the scraps of paper tumbled to the floor on Tuesday, they may have looked like so much rubbish. But this was a cleanup under precise, religious monitoring.
(This story is reprinted with the expressed permission of BBC News.)