JERUSALEM — Barack Obama's visit to the Western Wall was a public event. The handwritten prayer the presidential candidate left there was meant to be private.
But as soon as he doffed the requisite skullcap and left, a snoop pulled a folded piece of paper from a crevice in the ancient wall and offered it to the mass-circulation daily Maariv. The Hebrew-language newspaper’s decision to publish it Friday, under the headline "Obama's note," provoked a storm of criticism in Israel over an intrusion into his relationship with God.
"Lord -- Protect my family and me," the unsigned note said. "Forgive me my sins, and help me guard against pride and despair. Give me the wisdom to do what is right and just. And make me an instrument of your will."
Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki, traveling with the candidate in London, declined to confirm or deny the note was the senator's. The Associated Press reported, however, that the handwriting in the photograph published by Maariv appeared to match Obama's inscription Wednesday in the guest book at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial.
The note was written on stationery of the King David Hotel, where Obama stayed during his visit this week.
Shmuel Rabinovitz, the rabbi who manages Judaism's holiest site, was furious at the snoop and Maariv.
"The notes placed between the stones of the Western Wall are between a person and his maker," he told Army Radio. "It is forbidden to read them or make any use of them."
The publication, he added, "damages the Western Wall and damages the deep, personal part of every one of us that we keep to ourselves."
More than 100 readers talked back to Maariv's website, most of them to lecture the newspaper about ethics. Some noted that a millennium-old Jewish religious law specifically forbids spying on private mail. One reader wondered how much money the letter would fetch on EBay.
"Chutzpah!" exclaimed a Maariv reader who identified herself only as Hasia.
"Shame on you," wrote Hezi Leder. "This is the lowest you have sunk so far."
Maariv's brief report said the prayer was provided by a student at an Orthodox Jewish seminary. It did not identify him or say whether he had been paid for the "scoop."
The newspaper's chief rival, Yediot Aharonot, claimed that it too had been offered the note and had declined to publish it out of respect for Obama's privacy.
According to the Jerusalem Post, several people who happened to be at Obama's unannounced, predawn appearance Thursday scrambled to find his missive among the many inserted in the wall. One man who grabbed a scrap of paper was disappointed to discover that it had been written in Spanish, the English-language Post reported.
Millions of people visit the 2,000-year-old wall each year, and many leave written prayers between its wide beige stones. Rabbi Rabinovitz and his team pull out the scraps of paper to make room for more, but do not read them. Jewish law considers the prayers to be holy texts and forbids their destruction; twice a year they are buried in containers on the Mount of Olives.
The tradition has been adopted by members of many faiths. Although visitors to the wall have included such celebrities as Madonna and Leonardo DiCaprio, voyeurism is rare. In one of the few known cases, a military reporter snatched a prayer deposited into the wall by the late Defense Minister Moshe Dayan just after Israel had seized the holy site from Jordan during the 1967 Middle East War.
Guy Mashiach, an Israeli attorney, said Obama probably knew what would happen to his prayer.
"Obama is intelligent enough to understand that in Israel, nothing remains private, discreet and secret for more than a few hours," he wrote to an online network hosted by the Haaretz newspaper's website. "Obama didn't fall into the trap of asking for John McCain's disappearance. [He] penned a remarkably beautiful note, as though he had known the note would go directly to one of the more tabloid-like papers."
Times staff writer Michael Finnegan in London and Batsheva Sobelman of The Times' Jerusalem bureau contributed to this report.