Worshipers told not to kiss stones at Western Wall; attendance limited

Amid efforts to stem spread of coronavirus, Health Ministry and holy site’s rabbi agree to limit the size of gatherings and maintain ‘necessary hygiene practices’

Morning prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, March 16, 2020. (Courtesy: The Western Wall Heritage Foundation)
Morning prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, March 16, 2020. (Courtesy: The Western Wall Heritage Foundation)

The authorities at the Western Wall holy site in Jerusalem have asked worshipers who arrive there not to kiss the stones of the wall amid efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

Kissing the stones is customary among worshipers at the Western Wall — the holiest place where Jews can pray — as well as at Christian locations in the Old City.

Citing Health Ministry regulations, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which runs the site, said it had instituted new rules mandating that only small groups gather at a time and that worshipers maintain a “proper distance” between themselves.

“Dozens of bar mitzvah events are currently taking place,” the foundation said Monday, but added, “Families have greatly limited the number of participants per event.”

“Following consultations between Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch and the Health Ministry, it was decided to ask the public not to kiss the stones of the Western Wall in order to abide by necessary hygiene practices,” the statement said.

Morning prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, March 16, 2020, with worshipers keeping away from each other over fears of the coronavirus outbreak. (Courtesy The Western Wall Heritage Foundation)

Measures were announced at the adjacent Temple Mount by Muslim authorities on Sunday.

The Wakf religious trust said Sunday that the Al-Aqsa Mosque at the compound, the third-holiest site in Islam, would be closed indefinitely due to concerns about the coronavirus outbreak, with prayers continuing to be held on the sprawling esplanade outside.

Sheikh Omar Kiswani, the director of Al-Aqsa, said Sunday that the closure of the mosque and other buildings on the compound, including the iconic golden Dome of the Rock, would continue indefinitely.

The new restrictions are the latest in a series at religious sites where access has been halted or strictly limited. Saudi Arabia has halted the umrah pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina and could be forced to limit or cancel the much larger hajj later this year. On Sunday, it announced the temporary closure of all mosques and called off Friday prayers.

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