A prayer note that Barack Obama left in Jerusalem's Western Wall was removed last Thursday and published in an Israeli newspaper. Traditionally, visitors fold these notes and leave them wedged between the stones in the wall, where the prayers remain until their official collection and burial. But Obama's note was taken by a student at a Jewish seminary (after several others had searched for it) and passed along to reporters. The newspaper that published the note, Maariv, came under sharp criticism for exposing a private prayer—but did it break the law?
At least from a religious point of view. By publishing the note, the paper certainly went against Jewish law. Prayer notes left on the Western Wall (or Kotel, in Hebrew) can be considered God's property since they are intended for the deity. Thus the notes constitute a kind of hekdesh, or something dedicated to God, and under Jewish law, it's forbidden to take something dedicated to God and use it for other purposes—like selling newspapers. If the notes weren't God's property, they might be the property of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which administers the Kotel. In that case, removing them would be a violation of the Jewish law against theft.
Furthermore, the Talmud contains laws meant to protect people from unspecified damages caused by neighbors snooping or eavesdropping on their property. The 10th-century rabbi Gershom ben Judah extended these laws to private correspondence, making it forbidden to open a letter without explicit permission from its owner. Since the well-known tradition of the Kotel provides for the confidential and anonymous disposal of the letters, it's reasonable to assume that Obama left his written prayer with the assumption that it would remain private. The publication of the note by Maariv could also be considered a behavior that reflects poorly on the Jewish people, known as a Chillul Hashem, since it violates a tradition adopted by Christian pilgrims to the wall (like Obama).
In Israel, however, religious law is only legally binding in cases of marriage or divorce. One Jerusalem lawyer has requested that the attorney general investigateMaariv for violating secular state laws protecting sacred sites and those guaranteeing personal privacy. Desecration of the Kotel is outlawed under the Protection of Holy Places Law of 1967. Israel's Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom contains a clause stipulating that "There shall be no violation of the confidentiality of the spoken utterances, writings or records of a person."
But Maariv could make the case that the note isn't part of the Western Wall itself, so the student who took it wasn't desecrating a holy place. The newspaper's lawyers might further argue that a public figure like Obama cannot have reasonably expected privacy at the wall, since he knew it was a public area, and that there was a chance his note would be read and disseminated.
(A spokesman for Maariv originally said that the Obama campaign submitted the note to the newspaper, in which case the senator would indeed have forfeited all legal protection to privacy. The newspaper has since recanted that claim.) *
Bonus Explainer: Has anyone ever grabbed a high-profile note from the Western Wall before? Yes. The last high-profile publication occurred in 1967, when Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan had his prayer note taken from the wall by a reporter covering the Six-Day War.
Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.
Explainer thanks David Kraemer of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Re'em Segev of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Mark Washofsky of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and Chaim Waxman of Rutgers University.
* Correction, Aug. 1, 2008:This article originally neglected to mention that Maariv had subsequently retracted its claim that the Obama campaign submitted the prayer note to the
newspaper. (Return to the corrected sentence.)