When we come to the Kotel we may be so engrossed in our tefillos that we don’t notice the numerous birds flying close by and the plants growing out of her stones. But the Kotel—spiritual home to millions — is built of stones that serve as the physical home for various animals and plants.
The rows of stones that are on the level of the Kotel Plaza have what is called a “Herodian signature,” i.e., frames of delicate “margins” and smooth “bosses.” They were built by Herod, the Roman appointed king of Judea, circa (1st century B.C.E.), and extend down for about another 20 feet below the present ground level. The further up the Kotel one looks, the smaller the stones become. This is because different layers were added over the centuries. Each row of stones is slightly set back from the row beneath it. This method creates the illusion of a perfectly straight wall. Had the stones been exactly aligned, the Kotel would have appeared to be leaning forward.
Different stones (even in the same row and of the same time period) have fared the weather beatings of thousands of years differently. Along the Kotel wall there are many time-worn nooks and crannies which seem as if they were especially carved out to receive the millions of notes and letters found there. These indentations are attributed to the fact that even though limestone was used, the builders used both mizzi meleke (the stone of kings) and mizzi hilu (sweet rock) when they set the wall. Meleke is soft and easy to chisel, yet hardens when exposed to the atmosphere and becomes highly durable. The thin-layered mizze hilu is easily quarried and worked. The workers also did not set the stones in the same grain direction. When the wall was first built, no difference in materials could be discerned. But over the course of time, as weather conditions played their role, the dissimilarity became apparent.
There are many cracks and clefts in the Kotel stones that are used by birds as nesting spots. Among the birds one sees are jackdaws, swallows, house sparrows and the common swift. Pigeons and doves also abound. It is said that birds have a sixth sense for holiness, and visitors to the Kotel HaMaaravi will notice how many inhabit the area. Small lizards can also be seen darting among the stones.
The rocks support at least six distinct plants. The most common plant in the Kotel is henbane. Its Hebrew name is shikaron, a form of the word “drunkenness.” The name is thought to derive from the poisonous, intoxicating substance contained within the plant. It was used in ancient cultures for kishuf and potions. The Egyptians smoked it to obtain relief from toothaches, while first hospitals in Eretz Yisrael utilized it as an aesthetic. Today, alkaloids derived from henbane are used in anti-spasm medications and painkillers.
Podonosmaoriental, or matsitssuri in Hebrew, is a typical rock plant and the second most common plant in the Kotel. It is able to penetrate stone with its roots in order to extract water. The Sicilian snapdragon called la HaAri, in Hebrew, is often found on the higher sections. This plant often roots in cracks between the stones of a wall and on fences. The Kosel is also host to the horsetail knotgrass called shvatvatanaf in Hebrew, which is mentioned in the Talmud (Shabbos 14) as an antidote for snakebite. Phagnalon, a small plant called tzamarnithaslayim in Hebrew, can also be found scattered along the Wall.
The most spectacular plant in the Kotel is the thorny caper or tzalaf. It is a very hardy plant that grows back no matter how many times it is uprooted. Therefore Chazal say, “Three are persevering: Yisrael among the nations, the goat among the cattle, and the caper among the trees.” Capers grow and persevere in many diverse regions and climates. They are found on hillsides and in valleys, on flat land, along the seashore and in the desert. They can take root in barren, dry rock and draw forth nourishment and moisture. The tzalaf grows in rock crags and in the stone of walls and fences. The ability of this plant to revitalize itself after fire is most amazing. Nothing can compare to the speed at which the underground roots can produce fresh, green, leaf-bearing branches from the charred remains. The caper most certainly earns its reputation as the most “persevering among trees.” So, too, Yisrael — with similar and even greater feats of survival — is the most “persevering among the nations.”
Seeing the persevering tzalaf growing out of the wall of the Kosel (in itself a phenomenon that defies all the rules of the natural world) brings home the unbelievable miracle of the survival of Am Yisrael, against all odds.