The traditional priestly blessing of the Passover holiday was performed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on Sunday morning with just 10 worshipers present, due to restrictions aimed at containing the coronavirus.
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.
This year, just a handful of people were allowed at the ceremony.
While Israel has barred group prayer as part of efforts to halt the spread of the virus, an exception was made for the Western Wall, where a quorum of 10 Jewish men pray three times a day.
David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, was among those taking part in Sunday’s prayer service.
“Last year I was among 100,000; this year, unfortunately, far less. I will pray that the world is spared further illness or sorrow from COVID-19 or otherwise,” he wrote on Twitter.
Today I will be one of just 10 worshippers attending the “Priestly Blessing” ceremony at the Western Wall. Last year I was among 100,000; this year, unfortunately, far less. I will pray that the world is spared further illness or sorrow from COVID-19 or otherwise.
— David M. Friedman (@USAmbIsrael) April 12, 2020
Friedman’s official residence is outside the Old City, which led some on social media to criticize the ambassador for appearing at the ceremony. According to Health Ministry regulations, only residents living in the Old City, and within 100 meters of the holy sites, are allowed to gather and pray there.
“Ambassador Friedman’s participation in the Priestly Blessing was in accordance with the Government of Israel’s social-distancing regulations,” a spokesperson for the US Embassy in Jerusalem told The Times of Israel in response.
“He attended the service at the invitation of the chief rabbi of the Western Wall. At the end of the service, the rabbi added a prayer for those in America suffering from COVID-19.”
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.
Last month, the Islamic Waqf decided to close the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount to the public for a limited period of time in an effort to try to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
Israel has seen 103 deaths from the virus and over 10,000 infections.
Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.