A large boulder from the Western Wall was dislodged from the ancient structure on Monday morning, tumbling down onto an egalitarian prayer platform.
There were no injuries in the incident near Robinson’s Arch, south of the main prayer plaza, but the rock landed very close to a female worshiper. It damaged the platform where she was praying.
“I didn’t hear or feel anything until it landed right at my feet, ” said Daniella Goldberg, 79. She said she was praying at the site, as she does regularly, when suddenly the boulder crashed down. She told Hadashot TV news she “tried not to let the incident distract me from my prayers” and refused to be drawn on whether divine providence had spared her. “May we all be blessed,” she said.
The smaller of two platforms designated for mixed-gender prayer at the site was closed until further notice.
“Israel Antiquities Authority officials are dealing with the incident,” said Masorti movement head Yitzhar Hess in a statement posted on Twitter, alongside dramatic footage of the stone coming loose and crashing onto the platform, revealing dirt behind the wall.
“This is a wake-up call — we must check the entire Western Wall, both parts, so that heaven forbid there is no disaster in the future,” he added.
The fallen boulder weighed about 220 pounds (100 kilos), Israel Radio said.
The incident came a day after the platform was filled with worshippers marking the Tisha B’Av fast, which honors the destruction of the two Jewish temples in Jerusalem. Tens of thousands of Jewish Israelis also flocked to the main prayer plaza of the Western Wall between Saturday night and Sunday evening to solemnly mark the day.
The rabbi of the main Western Wall plaza called for public “soul searching” after the incident. “This is an unusual and most rare incident that has not occurred for decades,” said Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch. “The fact that this powerful incident happened a day after the 9th of Av fast, in which we mourned the destruction of our temples, raises doubts and questions which the human soul is too small to contain, and requires soul-searching.”
“I thank the creator that a heavy disaster was averted,” he added.
An archaeologist who visited the site later Monday warned that the entire Western Wall is “danger zone,” and said the public should stay away. Zachi Dvira said he noted multiple cracks in other stones and fears that another stone fall is just a matter of time. Other stones “could immediately fall on the heads of people,” said Dvira, who is completing a PhD on the recorded archaeology of the Temple Mount.
Following the stone’s fall from one of the original Herodian courses of the Western Wall, a team of IAA experts, including archaeologists, engineers and conservationists, began careful examination of the affected area.
In a statement, the IAA said there were a number of possibilities that may have led to the stone’s fall, such as vegetation growing in the wall’s cracks, or entrapped moisture that may have led to the stone’s wear. There is also the possibility of a still unknown engineering failure.
“With the help of advanced technological methods, IAA experts will begin careful monitoring in the area of the fall, as part of a survey of the entire area and the formulations of recommendations for the elimination of such danger,” said the IAA. “The Israel Antiquities Authority is aware of the sensitivity required in handling this case and will work in cooperation with all the relevant bodies.”
Anyone visiting the site will note that there are already several gaps in the Western Wall, where large Herodian stones have crumbled in the past. In a notable case in 2004, large pieces of Western Wall stone fell in the mainstream prayer plaza — slightly injuring a Yom Kippur worshipper — due to erosion caused by foreign metal objects inserted into the wall’s cracks by birds.
One of the original archaeologists at the site told The Times of Israel that some minor patch work was done during the Western Wall’s excavation in the 1970s.
Al-Aqsa Mosque director Omar al-Kiswani denied that anyone on the Temple Mount pushed the rock down to the bottom.
שֶׁגְּמָלַנִו כָּל טוּב. אסון כבר נמנע הבוקר בעזרת ישראל. אבן ניתקה מהכותל והתרסקה על מרפסת התפילה (הקטנה). אנשי רשות העתיקות מטפלים באירוע. עד להודעה חדשה המרפסת תיסגר, רחבת עזרת ישראל תפעל כרגיל. זהו אות השכמה-יש לבדוק את הכותל כולו,על שני חלקיו,כדי שחלילה לא יהיה אסון בעתיד. pic.twitter.com/UslGD0ubew
— Yizhar Hess יזהר הס (@yizhar_hess) July 23, 2018
The Western Wall is revered by Jews as a remnant of a wall supporting the Second Temple complex, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.
The area below the prayer platform is littered with other large hewn boulders, apparently remnants of the wall pried loose by the Romans during the Temple’s destruction 2,000 years ago.
One of the original excavators of the Robinson’s Arch area, Meir Ben-Dov, who was a lead archaeologist on the massive dig following the 1967 Six Day War, told The Times of Israel that in 1972 he himself patched an area near the arch. He confirmed that this newly fallen stone, under the line of Robinson’s Arch, is most likely from the original Herodian period.
He lamented the current obsession with the Western Wall among the fighting Jewish religious factions and said the stone’s fall is of little significance.
“So a rock fell — so what? The State of Israel hasn’t ended, the Messiah won’t come because of this,” said Ben-Dov.
According to a 2014 study, parts of the Western Wall are eroding 100 times faster than others, potentially undermining the stability of the ancient Jewish holy site, indicating it might be in danger of collapse hundreds of years in the future. The stones that are eroding more quickly are made of fine-grained limestone that crumbles more readily after exposure to water, the study found.
The IAA said that in the area of the Western Wall Plaza, there have been ongoing maintenance and preservation of the stones in order to ensure the safety of visitors to the site.
Because prayer on the Temple Mount itself is forbidden for Jews by the State of Israel, aside from the subterranean Temple Tunnels, the Western Wall (or Kotel, in Hebrew) is the closest Jews can worship.
The Robinson’s Arch section was demarcated for egalitarian prayer in a 2000 High Court case after several decades of negotiations and court battles. A small platform was constructed in the corner of the park adjacent to the wall in 2003.
A second, larger “temporary,” 450-square-meter (4,800-square-foot) platform section called Ezrat Yisrael was added in August 2013 after years of high-profile conflict at the Western Wall prayer plaza between Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox worshipers and the Women of the Wall, who meet monthly to read Torah and pray.
Upon its construction, then-minister of Jerusalem Naftali Bennett, head of the largely national-religious Jewish Home party, described the new platform “as an interim but primary place of worship for Jewish egalitarian and pluralistic prayer services.”
Though primarily designated for non-Orthodox groups, The Times of Israel recently learned it is used daily by Orthodox yeshiva students who hold separate-gender services there.
The establishment of a permanent prayer space for nondenominational prayer has been stalled after the cabinet froze a plan it previously supported to formally establish a non-Orthodox prayer area.
The original decision to build the pavilion dates back to January 31, 2016, when the government — spurred by decades of high-profile activism by the feminist prayer group Women of the Wall — approved the so-called Western Wall compromise. Painstakingly negotiated since 2012 with leaders of liberal Judaism and other prominent figures, it provided for the construction of a permanent pluralistic area at the site of a currently existing temporary one. Other key aspects of the plan included a single entrance to the area to be shared with the Orthodox gender-segregated prayer plaza, and the establishment of a board of pluralistic Jewry to oversee the mixed-gender area.
But on June 25, 2017, Netanyahu froze the compromise. While killing off the joint entrance and pluralistic governing board, however, he vowed to continue with the construction of a permanent platform.
Michael Bachner contributed to this report.