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7 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About the Wailing Wall

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I recently went on a 37,000-mile prayer pilgrimage around the world. I met the Pope, visited monks, danced with rabbis, walked on coals, and revived my prayer life. I explored a world of prayer traditions across the Judeo-Christian faith family, including some of the weird uncle and crazy cousins — think North Korea and Westboro Baptist Church. One of the first things I did on my pilgrimage was visit Jerusalem, the place where Jesus spent his final days on earth. One of the most famous pilgrimage spots in Jerusalem is the Wailing Wall, a giant stone surface that’s the center of almost constant prayer. No trip to Israel is complete without it, yet a lot of common misconceptions still surround this sacred site. Here are seven of them: 1. It’s real name isn’t actually the Wailing Wall. “The Wailing Wall” is just a nickname to describe the sound that you’ll hear when you visit. (Don’t worry — it’s just prayer that you’re hearing.) It’s real name is the Western Wall. 2. It’s not the kind of wall you think it is. Many people assume that the Western Wall is one side of a castle-style fortress. In reality, it’s simply a retaining wall below the temple mount. 3. It’s way bigger than what you see. Believe it or not, that huge piece of wall you’ll visit actually comprises just one-eighth of the original wall — at 1600 feet in length, the entire wall was absolutely massive! 4. It wasn’t built by the Jews. This particular wall — the retaining wall for the original second temple — was built all the way back in 19 B.C. by Herod “the Great.” Herod, a brutally violent man who murdered rabbis and his own family members, was also a prodigious builder. All told, it took more than 1,000 workers to construct the Western Wall. Sadly, the wall was destroyed just a few decades later, and now Jews pray for the restoration of a third temple. 5. It’s a hotly contested piece of real estate. If you’re hoping that the Western Wall is a place of peace and happiness, think again. Three major world religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — have been battling for this site for more than 1,000 years. Jerusalem has been attacked more than 50 times. What are the chances that of all 1.59629 quadrillion square feet of physical land on planet Earth, three major world religions are literally fighting over one single rock? 6. It’s not a place for mixing. If you’re expecting to visit the wall with your boyfriend/girlfriend, spouse, or kids — think again. Men and women are separated by a wooden fence that’s more than 100 feet long. The good news? For parents celebrating bar mitzvahs or bat mitzvahs, you can gather at the fence line and stand on chairs to watch what’s happening on the other side. 7. It’s not just a place of prayer for Jews. There’s a beautiful tradition at the Western Wall, and here’s how it works: write a prayer on a piece of paper and stuff it in a crack in the wall. Every few days, a caretaker collects all the prayers and buries them on the Mount of Olives in a 2,000-year-old cemetery. Every written prayer at the Wall becomes an ‘eternal prayer.’ It’s a beautiful tradition, and even Pope John Paul II has placed a prayer in the cracks. I, too, placed a prayer in the Western Wall, on a piece of paper the size of a quarter. On it, I wrote the most powerful one-word prayer in the world, a Jewish word: Shalom. While there isn’t an English word that well-defines it, shalom means peace, completeness, wholeness, and oneness. Shalom is what the Middle East needs. It’s what Jerusalem needs. It’s what I need.