For the first time in a year and a half, thousands of people were able to attend the traditional priestly blessing event at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on Monday, made possible by the rolling back of coronavirus restrictions ahead of the Passover festival.
Traditionally, tens of thousands of Jewish pilgrims make their way twice a year to the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, on the intermediate days of the Passover and Sukkot festivals, with crowds of men and women spilling out from the Wall’s plaza to surrounding areas.
As the COVID-19 pandemic reached Israel and the virus spread, mass public events were canceled, and last year, just a symbolic 10 people were permitted to gather at the Western Wall to perform the ceremony, part of the special holiday prayers.
During Sukkot, last October, the priestly blessing was held, but with a greatly reduced number of participants due to still high numbers of virus infections — and Israel’s general population under a restrictive lockdown.
This year, the Health Ministry permitted the ceremony to go ahead as usual, albeit with congregants divided into pods by clear plastic barriers and on the condition that hygiene rules were maintained.
In addition, the blessing event was to be held on two days rather than the customary one, to enable large numbers of participants while limiting crowding.
The ceremony, which sees male descendants of the Kohanim priestly caste gather to bestow a benediction, involves the raising of hands to perform the blessing, with those conducting the blessing wrapped in prayer shawls.
The Western Wall is the closest spot to the Temple Mount where Jews can pray. Though they may visit the Mount, where the two ancient Jewish Temples stood, Jews are not allowed to pray at the holy site, which is overseen by a Jordanian custodian.
Thousands of police and Border Police were deployed in the Old City to secure access routes to the event and the many visitors were expected to the Old City during the day.
Vehicle entry to the area and along some surrounding roads was stopped to further enable movement of those arriving at the site, Israel Police said.
Police asked the public to avoid driving to the area and instead use public transport.
Israel has gradually eased many of the restrictions applied to curb the virus spread. Infection rates plummeted following a third lockdown that lasted over a month and a world-beating inoculation program that already last week reached the milestone of immunizing over half of the population.
The government is aiming to vaccinate the entire over-16 population by the end of April.