Zack Rothbart

Liberating the Western Wall with a prayer book

An impromptu prayer service was held that day in 1967 when Israel captured Jerusalem's Old City – there was just one item missing
IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren holding a Torah scroll and blowing a Shofar next to the Western Wall (Courtesy: IDF Archives)
IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren holding a Torah scroll and blowing a Shofar next to the Western Wall, June 1967 (Courtesy: IDF Archives)

Every Jerusalem Day for some five decades, Yaakov Sagiv would ceremoniously pray from an old standard-issue IDF siddur. The only thing distinguishing this particular prayer book from countless others was his name and some words scribbled on the inside cover.

If you didn’t know Yaakov or the story behind this particular siddur, it would appear nondescript, yet this standard-issue prayer book has a story, having played a noteworthy role in one of modern Jewish history’s most emotional and consequential occasions. 

On the morning of Wednesday, June 7, 1967, the paratroopers in the IDF’s legendary 55th Brigade were exhausted. They’d spent the last two days pushing back a Jordanian advance, losing many from their ranks along the way. Many of them were disappointed to be sent to Jerusalem at all.

They were supposed to have parachuted into Egyptian territory shortly after the Six-Day War broke out, yet when King Hussein of Jordan decided to attack from Israel’s eastern front, the brigade was redirected.

At that time, none of them knew they’d soon be taking part in one of the most pivotal moments in Jewish history, modern or ancient.

After casualty-heavy, yet ultimately successful fighting north of Jerusalem’s Old City, including the famed Battle of Ammunition Hill, the soldiers were sent to connect Mount Scopus, an Israeli enclave within Jordanian territory since the 1949 armistice agreements, with the rest of Israeli-controlled west Jerusalem. 

Well into that Wednesday morning, the thought of taking the Old City was not even on the table as far as they knew. Israel’s political and military echelons had reportedly been afraid to do so, fearing blowback from the international community.

Yet IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren, among others, implored the military leadership to use its momentum to liberate Judaism’s holiest sites, including the Western Wall, which had been off limits to Jews during nearly two decades of Jordanian occupation.

When word reached Yaakov and his brothers-in-arms that, after much deliberation, the war cabinet had decided on bringing all of Jerusalem, including the Old City, under Israeli sovereignty, their mission changed once again.

Israeli forces had already opened the Old City’s Lion’s Gate by the time Yaakov reached it. He had been held up fighting his way down from Mount Scopus via the Augusta Victoria complex on the Mount of Olives.

They soon found themselves on the Temple Mount and it was there that Yaakov’s friend and platoon-mate, Hanan Porat, suggested that they go, along with some others, down to the Western Wall.

Though other soldiers had evidently already been at the Kotel, having left an Israeli flag, the narrow street which then served as the Western Wall “plaza” was all but empty when Yaakov and his friends got there, save the flag, three rabbinic figures, a Torah scroll, and a shofar.

The sacred objects had been iconically brought by the most physically imposing of the three men, Rabbi Goren. He was flanked by his father-in-law, Rabbi David “The Nazirite Rabbi” Cohen, and Rabbi  Zvi Yehuda Kook, the prominent religious Zionist spiritual leader.

Rabbi Shlomo Goren, third from right, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, second from right, and soldiers at the Western Wall on June 7, 1967. Yaakov Sagiv is second from left. (Photo: Hanan Porat, Courtesy: Yaakov Sagiv)

For even the religiously observant among us, a Torah scroll and shofar, would not necessarily be top of mind when entering a war zone, yet Rabbi Goren was not the average guy on the battlefield – religiously observant or not. Throughout the brief yet bloody Six-Day War, he famously sped from battleground to battleground – Gaza, Jerusalem, Hebron and beyond – visiting wounded soldiers, preparing burial grounds, sharing wisdom and spiritual reinforcement — all with a Torah scroll and shofar famously in tow.

That day, helmetless, he had frenetically traversed the Old City, blowing his shofar all the while. 

Shortly after Sagiv and his brothers-in-arms reached the Western Wall, Rabbi Goren decided to organize Mincha – the daily afternoon prayer service. Yet this would not be any normal afternoon prayer, and everyone present, perhaps most of all Rabbi Goren, understood the historical grandeur of the occasion. 

Interestingly, Yaakov had prayed with Rabbi Goren on numerous occasions at their synagogue in Tel Aviv, a very different scene and vibe than that day by the Kotel.

To celebrate the liberation of Jerusalem’s holy sites and the city’s reunification, Rabbi Goren declared that the full Hallel, the psalms of thanks and praise read on holidays, would be recited. Yet, with battles still raging and hundreds of soldiers already killed, the prayer could not possibly be left completely celebratory. And so, Rabbi Goren added verses known as menakhem tziyon, traditionally said on Tisha B’Av – the saddest day on the Jewish calendar.

Though it had a prayer quorum, a Torah scroll and a shofar, this historic, bitterly elated prayer service lacked one thing, a prayer book.

“He looks around and he says that he doesn’t have a siddur. He forgot a siddur,” Yaakov later remembered.

Rabbi Goren asked who had one, and Yaakov handed his to the Chief Rabbi, who later signed it, with mention of the remarkable occasion on which it was used.

Rabbi Goren’s inscription in Yaakov’s siddur: “With this prayer book we prayed the first afternoon prayers and the full Hallel and menakhem tziyon next to the Western Wall on the day of its liberation on the 28th of Iyyar 5727″ (Courtesy: Yaakov Sagiv)

Jewish tradition teaches that the Temple, which once towered over the Western Wall, was destroyed because division, strife, arrogance and inequality ran rampant among the Jewish people. Nearly two millennia after the Temple’s destruction, a very small group of Jews came together to pray sovereignly once again adjacent to where it once stood. Three renowned rabbinical figures participated shoulder-to-shoulder with filthy, battle-wearied men, and the prayer book that unified them was nothing more than a standard-issue belonging to a simple sergeant from Tel Aviv.

Many thanks to Yaakov Sagiv for sharing some of his story with me personally. More can also be found in his article, “Edut Ishit MiShikhrur Yerushalayim.

About the Author
Zack Rothbart is a Jerusalem-based writer and publicist. He is currently Senior Strategist at Concrete Media, and previously served as the National Library of Israel's international spokesman. Zack tries to learn something from everyone, and lives with his endearing and thought-provoking family, for which he is grateful. Feel free to email him via the "Contact Me" link above.
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