The Significance of Jerusalem: A Jewish Perspective

In discussing some features of Jerusalem's significance in Judaism, I must first note that in the case of Judaism it is impossible to discuss "the spiri¬tual significance of Jerusalem in Judaism" alone. In Judaism, "the spiritu¬al" is not a category unto itself, and the attempt to establish a dichotomy between "spiritual" and "physical," between the sacred and the secular, is simply false to the historic Jewish experience.
The European and American separation of church and state, for exam¬ple, is a relatively recent innovation. The very dichotomy between religion, as a universalist phenomenon, and nationality, as a particular phenome¬non which is found in both Christianity and Islam, is alien to Judaism. Christianity and Islam both claim to be universal religions, transcending particular nationality.
In the case of Judaism, however, there is, and can be, no such dichoto¬my between religion and nation. The universal and the particular are not mutually incompatible or contradictory; rather, they are correlative con¬cepts, which complement each other. To attempt to force such a dichotomy onto Judaism is to falsify Jewish history and to violate the Jewish religious experience. Jewish religion is national, and Jewish nationhood is religious.
One who wishes to relate with respect to the religious or spiritual signif¬icance of Jerusalem in Judaism cannot, accordingly, ignore the historic and national dimensions of Jerusalem in Jewish life.

Jerusalem's Significance: the Jewish Sources

A prime indicator of the significance of Jerusalem in Judaism is the prolifer¬ation of sources, from the Bible on, which deal with the city in one respect or another. The Hebrew Bible explicitly refers to Jerusalem by name some 700 times, and to the corollary name Zion (which properly indicated the Temple Mount, and later came to indicate Jerusalem the capital city, and thus even¬tually the Holy Land as a whole) some 150 times. But these hundreds of explicit references to Jerusalem and Zion by name are, of course, only the tip of the Biblical iceberg; the implicit references cannot even be measured.
Post-Biblical Jewish literature similarly reflects Jerusalem's central significance. Rabbinic literature, the Talmud and Midrash, is replete with explicit and implicit references to Jerusalem, as is the classical Jewish litur¬gy. Even a brief and superficial sampling of the material at hand is more than ample to demonstrate Jerusalem's significance and centrality in Jewish life for some 3,000 years, since David conquered the city and made it the capital of the united monarchy of Israel.

The Centrality of the Land and Jerusalem in Jewish Law

As a result of Jerusalem's being the national capital and the site of the Temple, the only place in which the Biblical sacrificial cult could thereafter be properly maintained, Jerusalem and the Temple attained a special sta¬tus of sanctity in later Jewish law. Let us examine one particular aspect of Jewish law: its territorial component (what the rabbis call "commandments dependent on the Land [of Israel]") and its emphasis on Jerusalem.
The Halakhah (Jewish law) is ultimately based, whether directly or deriva¬tively, on the written Torah, which as the rabbis understood it, contains 613 mitzvot, commandments revealed by God to Moses and the Israelites at Sinai.
The 613 commandments are not addressed to individual Jews alone, but collectively to the Jewish nation, the people of Israel (Bnei Yisrael). Obviously the religious way of life prescribed by the 613 commandments is obligatory for individual Jews, wherever they may be and whenever they may live. Nevertheless, among the 613 commandments are many which are specifically national in character and which, in addition, can be performed only in the Land of Israel or under the conditions of Jewish statehood. Some, moreover, can only be performed within the priestly cult in the Temple in Jerusalem. Such religious obligations as settling the land, building the Temple, establishing cities of refuge, gathering the people every seven years for the public reading of the Torah by the king, etc., are national in nature; the individual Jew, by himself or herself, has no way to fulfill these obligations. The commandments relating to agriculture, the seventh year of release and the Jubilee, can only be performed in, and are only applicable to, the Land of Israel. Purification rites and sacrifices as well as the pilgrimage can be performed only as part of the priestly cult which was limited to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Perhaps one of the most extreme examples of the centrality of this national-territorial component in Jewish life is the statement of the Talmudic rabbis: "A person should always live in the Land of Israel, even in a city with an idolatrous majority, and should not live outside the Land, even in a city with a Jewish majority, for whoever lives in the Land of Israel resembles one who has God, and whoever lives outside the Land resem¬bles one who has no God" (Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 100b).
For much of Jewish history, including most of the last 19 centuries, the overwhelming majority have lived outside the Land of Israel. Yet, the Jews traditionally always regarded themselves as having been involuntarily exiled from their homeland, and prayed for its and their restoration.
The territorial imperative is a central feature of Jewish life from its very beginnings in the covenant between God and Abraham and his descendants. In the words of the Biblical story:

The Lord said to Abram: Go from your country, from your birthplace and from your father's home, to the land which I will show you. I will make you a great nation, I will bless you and will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and will curse those who curse you: through you will all the families of the earth be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3).

When Abram and his family then moved to the land of Canaan, "the Lord appeared to Abram and said: I will give this land to your seed." Thereafter, God showed Abram the whole land and said: "I will give all the land which you see to you and to your seed forever... Get up and walk through the land, its length and width, for I will give it to you" (Genesis 13:15-17).
The land is also a central component of the subsequent affirmation of that promise in "the covenant between the pieces," as it is in God's bless¬ing and renaming of Abram as Abraham: "I will give you and your seed after you the land of your inhabitation, all the land of Canaan, as an eter¬nal possession, and I will be their God" (Genesis 17:8).
How did Jerusalem attain its particular position in a gradual process of increasing primacy as the center, national as well as religious, in Jewish life?

Jerusalem: An Early Historical Survey

Jerusalem plays no special role in the Patriarchal period; other Canaanite cities, including Hebron, Beersheba and Shechem are much more prominent in the stories of that time. Nevertheless, later traditions associate Jerusalem with Abraham, who was blessed by Malki-Tzedek, king of Shalem, and whose attempted sacrifice of his son Isaac took place on Mount Moriah, later associ¬ated with Mount Zion, on which the First and Second Temples stood.
Centuries later, the Israelite tribes, led by Joshua, were unable to conquer Jerusalem, then a Jebusite city, which had a vital geographic location, astride the continental divide and the intersection of the main inland highways.
King David, who had already served seven years as king of the south¬ern tribe of Judah, based in Hebron, recognized the importance of Jerusalem to his effort to unite the country as a whole. The Bible describes how David, with soldiers from "all of Israel,"(north and south) under his command, was able to capture the city from within (2 Samuel:5; 1 Chronicles:ll). David then purchased the land immediately north of the city, and built an altar on the site upon which his son Solomon subse¬quently built the Temple. The Temple Mount, or Mount Zion, was, from the perspective of the original "City of David," the acropolis of Jerusalem. David thus established Jerusalem, with its central but neutral location between the north and south, as the new national capital (much as George Washington did when proposing the site for the American capital). David's son Solomon continued the process of political centralization.
In both First and Second Temple times, Jerusalem expanded greatly, reaching its apex only a few decades before its destruction by the Romans in the Great Jewish Revolt, in the year 70 CE. Nevertheless, many Jews continued to live in the city, and the Romans continued to recognize the coun¬try as "Judea" Judah) and the city as "Hierosolymita" Jerusalem). A gen¬eration later, however, the Jewish population of the country again rebelled under the leadership of Bar Kokhba. The city was plowed under with salt, and in its place the Romans built Aelia Capitolina, the walls of which serve to this day as the basis for the 16th-century Ottoman Turkish walls of the Old City. It was at this time (135 CE) that the Romans, in order to de¬-Judaize the country, changed its name from "Judea" to "Palestina," after the ancient and no longer extant Biblical Philistines.
Jerusalem thus historically symbolizes the status of the country as a whole. In all its history, the Land has been a separate and integral territo¬ry, with a distinct identity and name of its own, and governed by its natives, only three times, and at only those times was Jerusalem its capital: during the Biblical period of the First Temple, during the period of the Second Temple, and since 1948.
At all other times, the country was never independent, but was a province of a larger empire, and Jerusalem was not its capital, whether in Roman times, or during the centuries of changing Islamic rule, including the Umayyads (based in Damascus), the 'Abassids (based in Baghdad), the Mamelukes (based in Egypt), and the Ottoman Turks. In all these periods the country also had no distinctive identity or name of its own. In classical Arabic literature, the country is simply referred to as "A-Sham" (Syria), and the name "Filastin" is a modem version of the European "Palestina."

Jerusalem's Spiritual Significance

It is the centrality of Jerusalem in Jewish law and history, then, that endows the city with its spiritual significance in Judaism. Because it was the capi¬tal of the country whenever it enjoyed independence, Jerusalem came to embody Jewish national and spiritual aspirations. The political centraliza¬tion initiated by David and Solomon was focused on Jerusalem, and was, at the same time, a religious centralization of worship in the Temple. The words of Isaiah (2:3) and Michah (4:2) therefore have both immediate, con¬temporary meaning as well as eschatological significance: "For out of Zion will come the Torah, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem."
With the destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon's Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE (one and a half centuries after the fall of the north¬ern kingdom of Israel), the Jews in Babylonian exile now faced a new prob¬lem: how to survive and function religiously despite the loss of Jerusalem as both their national and religious center. The problem was expressed most eloquently by the psalmist in words which became, in subsequent centuries, a sort of Jewish pledge of allegiance:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and cried, as we remembered Zion. On the willows therein we hung up our harps. For there our cap¬tors asked us for songs, and our tormentors (asked us) for mirth: sing for us some of the songs of Zion. But how can we sing the Lord's song on foreign soil? If I forget you Jerusalem, let my right hand be paralyzed. Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not elevate Jerusalem above my greatest joy (Psalm 137:1-6).

The significance is clear: the Jews had been removed from the heart of Zion, but Zion was never removed from the Jewish heart.
The restoration of Jerusalem carne to symbolize both Jewish national sur¬vival and fidelity to the Torah, and indeed eventually the hopes for the mes¬sianic era, when the Jews would be restored to Zion and Zion to the Jews.
This is why the two most sacred ceremonies of the Jewish calendar, the fast day of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) and the seder (the order of the service) on the evening of Passover, conclude with the words, La¬Shanah Ha-Ba' ah Bi- Yerushalayim ("Next year in Jerusalem"). This also is why, to this day, the Jews, wherever in the world they may be, turn in prayer toward Jerusalem. The ruins of ancient synagogues (such as the one on Masada) provide material evidence of the antiquity of this orientation toward Jerusalem in prayer.

The Multifaceted Symbolism of Jerusalem

Jerusalem, then, came progressively to symbolize ever more levels of meaning in Judaism. First, of course, it represented the political union of the country as its national capital. Then - although this process was gradual and encoun¬tered popular resistance - Jerusalem carne to represent the true worship of God, as the idolatrous bamot (high places, altars) were suppressed. When Jerusalem was destroyed, it came to serve as a spiritual center, symbolizing Jewish fidelity to the Torah and the yearning for national and religious restora¬tion. The identification of Jerusalem with the messianic future led to a vision of the ideal, heavenly Jerusalem - Yerushalayim shel ma'alah - in contrast with the desolate, real earthly Jerusalem - Yerushalyim shel matah.
One of the primary areas in which the traditional symbolism of Jerusalem is expressed is Jewish liturgy and ritual. For example, among the "seven blessings" invoked at the Jewish wedding ceremony, the symbol¬ism of Jerusalem is prominent:

May she who is childless be happy and glad as her children are gathered together in her midst in joy. Blessed are you, Lord, who makes Zion rejoice in her children ... soon, Lord our God, may there be heard in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem, the sound of happiness and the sound of rejoicing, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride ...

The wedding ceremony traditionally then ends as the groom breaks a glass in commemoration of the destruction of Jerusalem, so that even at this moment of supreme joy, the words of the psalmist are fulfilled: "If I do not elevate Jerusalem above my greatest joy."
Conversely, on the other end of the spectrum of Jewish rites of passage, a person mourning the death of a member of the family is traditionally comforted by visitors who greet him or her with the words: "May God con¬sole you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem."
The standard, regular daily liturgy is similarly replete with references to the return to Zion and the restoration of Jerusalem. The morning service introduces the Shema' Yisrael (Deuteronomy 6:4), proclaiming the unity of God, with the hope that God will "shine a new light on Zion," and ''bring us in peace from the four corners of the earth and cause us to walk sovereignly in our land." The central prayer recited thrice daily includes such phrases as:

Return compassionately to Jerusalem, your city ... Rebuild it as an eternal building soon in our day ... Blessed are you, Lord, the builder of Jerusalem ... May our eyes behold your compassionate return to Zion. Blessed are you, Lord, who returns his presence to Zion.

When the Torah scroll is removed from the ark for public reading, a colla¬tion of Biblical verses is recited, including: "Compassionate father, benefit Zion with your favor; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem ... For out of Zion will come forth the Torah, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem."
The Sabbath and the major seasonal festivals were times of mass pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The additional special prayers-recited on these occasions reflect the focus on Jerusalem that is felt with particular intensity at these times.
One of the most expressive phrases is found in the prayer which asks God to "have compassion for Zion, for it is the home of our life," encapsu¬lating the significance of Jerusalem in Judaism: The rabbis felt, in a very real sense, that it is beit hayyenu, "the home of our life," however far removed they were from Jerusalem geographically.
Because Jerusalem was felt to be the ultimate Jewish home, its destruction was, and still is among traditionally observant Jews, mourned so deeply. With the exception of Yom Kippur, (the Day of Atonement), on which the total fast of more than 24 hours serves the aim of purity and repentance; the other fasts in the Jewish calendar generally serve to mourn progressive stages in the destruction of Jerusalem, such as the only other 24-hour fast in Jewish practice, on the ninth day of the summer month of Av, on which day, over six hundred years apart, both the First and the Second Temples fell.
However, in the words of the Prophet Isaiah (66:10): "Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad in her, all who love her; be joyful with her joy, all who mourn for her."
In the post-Talmudic literature of the Middle Ages, the love of Zion, and the mourning for its destruction and desolation and for the Jewish people's exile, were perhaps expressed most beautifully and poignantly by the poet and philosopher Judah Ha-Levi (Spain, 1085-1141) in his exquisite Hebrew poetry.

My heart is in the east, and I am in the farthest west. How can I taste what¬ever I eat, and how can it be pleasing? How can I fulfill my vows and my pledges, while Zion is in the territory of Edam [the Church], and I am in the chains of Arabia [Islamic Spain]? It would be easy for me to abandon all the goodness of Spain, just as it would be precious for me to see the dust of the desolate Temple.

Jerusalem: Heavenly and Earthly, Universal and Particular

One might be tempted to suggest that, after so many centuries of separation from Zion, the Jerusalem referred to in these prayers and literature is less the real, earthly Jerusalem, the "lower Jerusalem" (Yerushalayim shel matah) than the ideal, heavenly Jerusalem, the "upper Jerusalem" (Yerushalayim shel ma'alah). Indeed, the mystical tradition saw in the dual form of the name Yerushalayim an allusion to the two Jerusalems, the upper and the lower.
It is true, of course, that it was their separation and distance from the lower earthly Jerusalem which permitted Jews to imagine and depict more freely the ideal, heavenly Jerusalem in their literature and legends, much as Christian artists could idealize it from as great a distance in their paintings. However, there was an essential difference: for the Jews, the ideal or allegorical meaning could never replace, but could only supple¬ment and enhance, the real or the literal meaning.
Without the cosmic, universal vision of the upper Jerusalem, the earth¬ly Jerusalem can never be restored. But without the particular earthly Jerusalem, the universal heavenly vision cannot be implemented. When the Jews imagined the heavenly Jerusalem, it was thus to give direction and meaning to their hopes for the restoration of the earthly Jerusalem. Therefore, when the Jews hoped for the restoration of the earthly Jerusalem, they saw it as the first and necessary component of the fulfill¬ment of their universal messianic expectations.
Jerusalem thus signifies in Judaism both the national restoration of the Jewish people in Israel and the universal era of peace and justice associat¬ed with the days of the Messiah. And yet, no one knows as much as a Jerusalemite, especially in these difficult days, how very great the gap is between what we have in reality and what we hope for ideally. Jerusalem is anything but the "city of peace," its imperfections and troubles are myriad.
When the Prophet Zechariah (14:16) saw a vision of Jerusalem welcom¬ing all the nations who would come to worship God each year during the fall festival, he saw a bloody struggle for the city. I hope he was wrong, although sometimes I fear he may have been all too correct.
In conclusion, then, from a Jewish perspective, Jerusalem has simulta¬neous universal spiritual significance to all for whom the ultimate truth is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and particular national significance for the people of Israel. These dimensions of Jerusalem's significance are ultimately correlative, inseparable and inextricable.
That is why the Prophet Isaiah (and also Prophet Michah, in almost identical words) could have a vision of Jerusalem that is both heavenly and earthly, ideal and real: heavenly and ideal in its direction and goal, but earth¬ly and real in that it is here and now that we must begin to implement it.

It will come to be at the end of days, that the mountain of the house of the Lord will be established at the top of the mountains, and will be raised above the hills; and all the nations will flow to it. Many peoples will go and say: Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths. For out of Zion will come forth the Torah, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:2-3; Michah 4:1-3).

This article is based on a more comprehensive work on the subject pub¬lished in "The Spiritual Significance of Jerusalem for Jews, Christians and Muslims" (World Council of Churches, Geneva, 1994).