Saturday, August 09, 2008

Weeping over the ruins of Jerusalem

Today is Tisha B'Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem.

In the 19th century a large number of Christian pilgrims voyaged to the Holy Land, and a good number of them recounted their experiences in books and lectures back in their native lands. Here are three descriptions of how the Jews would, year-round, weep over the destruction of the two Temples from within the ruins of Jerusalem.

From "The Quiver", 1862:
THE Jews' Wailing Place," says Dr. Stewart, "is a narrow court or passage adjoining the western wall at the Haramwhich has been lately paved by a Jew tor the benefit of his brethren, and is one of the most interesting places in the city. No one can look at the immense blocks of stone in that wall without being convinced that he has before him, in its original state, a portion of the Temple enclosure.

It is from thirty to forty feet in height, built with large stones, some of which are nearly twenty feet in length. The Jews have purchased from the Government the privilege of resorting to this place ; and on every Friday many of both sexes are to be seen sitting in the court, reading the Scripture and their prayer- books, and weeping over the ruin of their temple and nation

Some of them rock their bodies about, rattling over their prayers at the same time with a tremendous rapidity. Others go up to the wall, and putting their mouths to the openings between the stones, pray in that attitude, because tiiey imagine that their prayers are more sure to reach Jehovah's ear when breathed through the foundation walls of what was once his holy and beautiful house. It is a most touching sight to see these mourners weeping over the fallen Jerusalem.

The account which Dr. Robinson gives of this spot is as follows : — " I went with Mr. Lanneau to the place where the Jews are permitted to purchase the right of approaching the site of their Temple, and of paying and wailing over its ruins and the downfall of their nation. ...Two old men, Jews, sat there upon the ground, reading together in a book of Hebrew prayers. On Fridays they assemble here in greater numbers. It is the nearest point in which they can venture to approach their ancient Temple... Here, bowed in the dust, they may at least weep undisturbed over the fallen glory of their race, and bedew with their tears the soil which so many thousands of their forefathers once moistened with their blood. This touching custom of the Jew is not of modern origin. Benjamin of Tudela mentions it, as apparently connected with the same spot, in the twelfth century ; and very probably the custom has come down from still earlier ages.

The Jew who was our guide, on approaching the many stones, took off his shoes, and kissed the wall." Speaking of the large stones, they tell us " some of them are worn smooth with the tears and kisses of the men of Israel."
The Land and the Book, William McClure Thomson, 1870:
No sight meets the eye in Jerusalem more sadly suggestive than this wailing place of the Jews over the ruins of their Temple. It is a very old custom, and in past ages they have paid immense sums to their oppressors for the miserable satisfaction of kissing the stones and pouring out lamentations at the foot of their ancient sanctuary. With trembling lips and tearful eyes they sing, " Be not wroth very sore, O Lord, neither remember iniquity for ever : behold, see, we beseech thee, we are all thy people. Thy holy cities are a wilderness, Zion is a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation. Our holy and our beautiful house, where our fathers praised thee, is burned up with fire: and all our pleasant things are laid waste."

My Trip to the Orient, John Collinsworth Simmons, 1902:
I went down to what is known as the "Wailing-place of the Jews." Here were scores of Jews, from lads of a few summers to old men who had grown gray and stooped in waiting. Stretching for a hundred yards or more was a part of the old wall of their city. These stones were there in the days when their Temple stood on Mount Moriah, when their altars smoked with their sacrifices, and they were the people of God, known and recognized among all men. And now they were strangers in their own city, and here they, and their fathers for generations, have assembled every day, and, with their faces to these unsympathizing stones, are wailing out their sorrows, and waiting for the coming of their Messiah. I saw nothing in Jerusalem that touched me so deeply as the scene at this wall. I heard their murmur all along the line as they stood with their backs to the light, and their faces to the hard, senseless stones....

It is said that these Jews at their wailing-place use the Lamentations of Jeremiah as their texts. Among those there the day I saw them, my guide told me were some of the richest Jews in Jerusalem. 1 could not but mark the earnestness and the seriousness that characterized old and young. When I knew of the oppression to which they are subjected in this the land of their fathers, I could not wonder so much that they never wearied in crying for help. And one generation is taught by another that here they are to find relief.