Jerusalem in Jewish Experience*

Table of Contents

  1. The Concept of "Holiness" in Judaism
  2. Remembering Jerusalem in Daily Practice
  3. Remembering Jerusalem through the Calendar Cycle
  4. Remembering Jerusalem through the Life Cycle
  5. Conclusion: Jerusalem and the Mystical Shekhinah

Jerusalem in Jewish Experience

The Concept of "Holiness" in Judaism

Any discussion of Jerusalem's holiness must be prefaced by an admission that the nature of holiness, and especially of holy places, can be different for Judaism than it is for other religious traditions.

One aspect of this distinctiveness can be illustrated in the following anecdote, though it is one that focuses on Islam rather than Judaism.

Several years ago, one of my colleagues in the Religious Studies Department of the University of Calgary invited me and the students in my "Medieval Judaism" class to a special session of his own class on Islamic tradition. The keynote speaker was a student who had recently gone on the hajj, the pilgrimage to Meccah that is a central observance for Muslims.

The student gave a very articulate and moving description of her visits to the holy sites and the rituals and prayers that were performed there. During the ensuing question period, she was asked by the students to describe the religious feelings that she experienced at the time of her pilgrimage.

Her reply was a simple one: She felt the satisfaction of having fulfilled an obligatory precept of her religion.

Clearly, most of the students were not content with this reply, and continued to press her for more "spiritual" experiences. Speaking for the most part from Christian assumptions, or from the theoretical sophistication of Religious Studies phenomenology, the students tried to get the speaker to focus on the historical dimensions of walking in the footsteps of the Prophet and the early saints, or the mystical aura of sanctity that permeated the experience. Indeed, the pilgrim agreed, these were all important components of the hajj, but they were subordinate to the fundamental fact of having obeyed one of the five "pillars" of Islam.

From my perspective as a traditional Jew, it was clear that I would have answered in precisely the same way, and that the centrality of obedience to commandments is as axiomatic to Judaism as it is to Islam.

This general principle must be applied to any truly Jewish assessment of the sanctity of Jerusalem. Although holiness is a complex phenomenon that lends itself to diverse interpretations, I feel that a Jewish approach to the topic must place it within the continuum of divine commandments and laws that form the fundamental units of Jewish religiosity.

As has been argued so eloquently by the twentieth-century Jewish theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his moving treatise on the Sabbath, Jews have not devoted their main spiritual energies to the spatial dimensions of art and architecture, but instead they created "Cathedrals in Time" by imbuing religious significance to the assorted rhythms of the clock, the calendar and the life cycle.

It is, in fact, quite remarkable to observe the extent to which Judaism has refrained from attaching sanctity to places that hold historical associations. If we look for example at the most crucial and formative events in the Jewish past, we are struck by the fact that the tradition did not see fit to remember where they occurred. This is true, for example, of Mount Sinai, the setting for the single most momentous happening in Jewish faith-history. Although the monastery of Santa Katerina does a thriving business with the tourists who come to ascend Jabal Musa, this identification has no basis or authority in Jewish sources. With regards to the places of Moses' death and burial, we have the impression that the Torah intentionally left these locations unspecified, on account of a fear that veneration of physical shrines borders on the idolatrous.

Thus, we see that for Judaism, the holiness of a locality does not derive primarily from the historical events that may have happened there, but from the role that it fills in the dynamics of Jewish law, the "halakhah."

It would appear that the relationship between holiness and halakhah can express itself in two opposite directions. Sometimes the place is considered holy because of the role that it plays in the observance of Jewish laws and precepts; in other instances, however, the halakhah provides the means through which we may express an inherent sanctity.

This special quality of spatial holiness is aptly expressed in the following passage from the Mishnah, the important compendium of Jewish oral tradition that was completed in the early third century C.E.:

Mishnah Kelim 1:6:

  1. The Land of Israel is more sacred than all other lands.
    And what constitutes its holiness?
    Because from it are brought the ‘omer, the first fruits and the two loaves--none of which are brought from any other lands.
  2. More sacred than it are the cities that are enclosed by walls--
    Because lepers are sent out from them, and the dead are marched around as much as they wish...
  3. Inside the walls [of Jerusalem] is more sacred.
    Because there may be eaten lesser sacrifices and second tithe.
  4. The Temple Mount is more sacred
    Because men and women suffering from a flow, menstruants and women right after childbirth may not enter there.
  5. The H9eil [Temple precinct] is more sacred
    Because non-Jews and those who have been defiled through contact with a corpse may not enter there.
  6. The Women's Court is more sacred
    Because a t9evul yom may not enter there. But [one who enters] is not require to bring a sin offering.
  7. The Israelites' Court is more sacred
    Because one who has not brought an atoning sacrifice may not enter there, and [one who enters] is required to bring a sin offering.
  8. The Priests' Court is more sacred
    Because Israelites may not enter there except when there is a specific need...
  9. Between the Hall and the altar is more sacred
    Because [priests] with blemishes and uncut hair may not enter there.
  10. The Sanctuary is more sacred
    Because one who has not washed his hands and feet may not enter there.
  11. The Holy of Holies is more sacred
    Because only the High Priest may enter there on the Day of Atonement in the course of the worship...
Plan of the Temple according to the Mishnah
Plan of the Temple according to the Mishnah

Without venturing to explain all the intricate rules and concepts that are mentioned in this text, we can observe in a general manner that the world is being described as a series of concentric domains, of which the centre is the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple. The progression through ever- increasing levels of holiness is expressed in halakhic terms through the continual adding to the list of types of impurity or other factors that prevent persons from proceeding onward; and by the increasing severity of the punishments that are imposed upon those who enter illegally.

From the preceding quotation we see clearly how the sacred status of Jerusalem is defined primarily by its being the site of the Temple, the unique structure that God designated as the ideal place for his worship.

The twelfth-century Egyptian Jewish philosopher Rabbi Moses Maimonides went so far as to argue that the whole complex system of purity and defilement, which occupies such a central place in biblical laws, has no objective or metaphysical reality, but is nothing more than the sum total of restrictions designed to obstruct casual access to the Temple, and thereby instill in the worshippers a fitting atmosphere of reverence and sanctity.

Remembering Jerusalem in Daily Practice

Wherever and whenever Jews may be found, references to Jerusalem and the Temple accompany them through all the spheres of religious observance, throughout the day, the year, or the stations of life. Following are a few examples of how the laws and traditions of Judaism constantly reinforce the centrality .of Jerusalem.

In the standard Jewish liturgy, blessings for the restoration of Jerusalem and the Temple, and for the ingathering of the dispersed exiles, are included in the prayers that are recited three times each day. These prayers express the position that the sacrificial service that used to be conducted in the holy Temple constituted the ideal form of divine worship, and that verbal prayer is no more than an inferior substitute. This theme is also implicit in the scheduling of the daily prayer services, which were arranged so as to correspond with the times of the mandatory communal offerings in the Jerusalem Temple.

This idea is given powerful expression in the following passage from the Additional (Musaf) prayer recited on the festivals:

On account of our sins we were exiled from our land and distanced from our native soil, and we are unable to go up and appear and bow down before you, to perform our duties in your chosen sanctuary, in the great and holy Temple that is called by your name, because of the assault against your sanctuary.
May it be your will, O Lord our God and God of our ancestors, merciful sovereign, that you will again show compassion upon us and upon your Temple in your abundant mercy; and that you will rebuild it speedily and increase its glory.

As stated in this prayer, the exile of the Jews from Jerusalem and the Temple is perceived as a divine punishment for the sins of the nation. By the same token, the future restoration of the Temple and its city are vital elements in the vision of messianic redemption.

Already in biblical times we read that Jews in the Diaspora took care to direct their prayers towards Jerusalem. Thus do we read in the book of Daniel (6:10):

...He went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem; and he got down upon his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously.

This procedure was set down in normative detail by the sages of the Talmud:

TB Berakhot 30a:

A person who is blind or incapable of determining the directions should direct his/her heart towards his/her father in Heaven., as it states (1 Kings 8:44): "and they pray to the Lord."

If the person was standing outside the Holy Land, he/she should direct her/his heart towards the Land of Israel, as it states (1 Kings 8:48): "and pray to thee toward their land"

If the person was standing in the Land of Israel, he/she should direct his/her heart towards Jerusalem, as it states (1 Kings 8:44): "and they pray to the Lord toward the city which thou hast chosen."

If the person was standing in Jerusalem, he/she should direct his/her heart towards the Temple, as it states (2 Chronicles 6:26): "if they pray toward this house."

If the person was standing inside the Temple, he/she should direct his/her heart towards the Holy of Holies, as it states (1 Kings 8:35): "if they pray toward this place."

If he was standing inside the Holy of Holies, he should direct his heart towards the place of the ark covering.

If he were standing behind the place of the ark covering, he should see himself as if he were facing the place of the ark-covering.

It thus turns our that those who are standing in the east are facing westward. Those in the west are facing eastward; those in the south are facing northward, and those in the north are facing southward.

It thus turns out that all Israel are directing their hearts towards a single place.

Underlying this practice is a conviction that prayer is most effective when it is channeled through the Jerusalem Temple. Although in reality God transcends the limitations of space, and can be described as permeating the entire universe, from a human perspective it is preferable to focus the yearnings of the heart towards a geographic direction and create a correlation between the metaphysical situation and the physical ritual. The symbolism of this act also encourages individual and scattered Jews to perceive themselves as a unified people with their spiritual centre in Jerusalem.

A Mizrah with Jerusalem images indicates the direction for prayer
A Mizrah with images of Jerusalem
Understandably, the requirement to direct prayers towards Jerusalem has important implications for the architectural design of synagogue buildings. In Jewish homes as well, there is a widespread custom of designating the direction of prayer by means of special ornamental representations placed on the appropriate wall. Many of these ornaments (often referred to in Hebrew as Mizrah, "east") incorporate depictions of Jerusalem and its holy sites.

In similar ways, blessings and prayers for the welfare of Jerusalem were incorporated into many day-to-day activities that have no obvious connection to the holy city. The Talmud sets down that the "Grace after Meals" is not complete unless it includes a blessing for Jerusalem. Accordingly, the following passage is found in the standard text recited after eating:

Have mercy, O Lord our God, upon your people Israel and upon Jerusalem your city, and upon Zion the dwelling-place of your glory, and upon the kingdom of the house of David your anointed king, and upon the great and holy house that is called by your name...

After a formal reading in the synagogue from the "Prophets" section of the Hebrew Bible, similar sentiments are expressed:

Have mercy upon Zion, for she is the abode of our life, and deliver her that is grieved in spirit speedily in our days.

Blessed are you, O Lord, who makes Zion rejoice through her children.

Remembering Jerusalem through the Calendar Cycle

Memories of Jerusalem are included in the prayers for the weekly Sabbath and the annual festivals. A remarkable instance is the hymn Lekhah Dodi, composed by the mystic Rabbi Solomon Hallevi Alqabetz in sixteenth-century Safed, and now recited in virtually every Jewish community as part of the Friday evening service introducing the holy Sabbath.

In keeping with the characteristic Kabbalistic penchant for bold symbolism, the Lecha Dodi equates the Sabbath day with the sublime concept of the Shekhinah, the divine presence in the world, and with the "congregation of Israel," personified spirit of the Jewish nation:

Lekhah Dodi by Rabbi Solomon Alkabetz

...Royal sanctuary, city of royalty,
arise and go out from thy upheaval.
For too long have you been sitting in the vale of tears.
He will treat you with compassion.
Shake yourself off from the dust.
My people, arise and don the garments of your glory.
Nearby is the son of Jesse the Bethlehemite.
Let my soul's redemption draw near.
Wake, wake!
For your light is coming. Rise and shine!
Arise and give forth in song.
God's splendour is being revealed upon you.
Be not ashamed, nor distressed.
Why should you fear, and why should you doubt?
The afflicted ones of your people will seek shelter in you,
and the city will be rebuilt upon its ruins.
You will burst forth to the right and the left.
You will exalt God,
by means of the descendent of Peretz,
and we shall rejoice and be glad.

As we continue our journey through the Jewish calendar, we note that three of the important biblical holy days--Passover, the Feast of Weeks and Tabernacles, are designated pilgrimage festivals, meaning that while the Temple stood, the worshippers were expected to celebrate them in Jerusalem.

In ancient times, the observance of the Day of Atonement centered upon the unique rituals performed by the High Priest in the Temple. Even today, poetic accounts of those rites occupy an important place in the liturgy of the Day of Atonement.

At the conclusion of the Day of Atonement, as well as at the Passover ceremonial meal, it is customary for the participants to declare "Next year in Jerusalem!"

As regards Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the link to Jerusalem is more subtle, but no less consequential. This link is implicit in the emphasis that is placed upon the biblical account of the "Binding of Isaac," when Abraham demonstrated that he was ready to offer up his beloved son Isaac in obedience to God's command. As related in Genesis 22, God ordered Abraham:

Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

At the conclusion of the story, the angel who prevents Abraham from carrying out the sacrifice offered the following reassurance:

And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son:
That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; {shore: Heb. lip}
And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.

When describing King Solomon's construction of the first Temple in Jerusalem, the author of the biblical book of Chronicles (2 Chronicles 3:1) explicitly identifies Abraham's Mount Moriah with the Temple Mount in Jerusalem:

And Solomon began to build the house of the Lord at Jerusalem in Mount Moriah, where He appeared to David his father, in the place that David had prepared in the threshing-floor of Ornan the Jebusite.

The connections with the "Binding of Isaac" serve to introduce us to some additional motifs that contribute to the sanctity of Jerusalem in the Jewish tradition. Jerusalem thereby comes to symbolize absolute and unbounded devotion to the Almighty, and the readiness to submit completely to God's will. It is also represents the universalism of Israel's mission, embodying the ultimate spiritual goal of becoming a source of blessing for all the nations of the earth.

Jerusalem also stands at the centre of several "minor" and post-Biblical holidays in the Jewish annual calendar. A sequence of fast days, culminating in the Ninth of Av, were instituted to mourn for the destruction of the first and second Jerusalem Temples. The eight-day celebration of Hanukkah commemorates the dedication and purification of the second Temple after it had been defiled with idolatry by the Seleucid emperor Antiochos IV and his Hellenizing Jewish collaborators.

Remembering Jerusalem through the Life Cycle

Recollections of Jerusalem accompany the Jew through most of the key stages in the life cycle.

Thus, two of the "Seven Benedictions" that are recited at a traditional wedding look forward to the exultation of the redeemed Jerusalem.

(5) May she who was barren be exceedingly glad and exult when her children are gathered within her in joy.
Blessed are you, Lord, who causes Zion to rejoice in her children.
(7) ...Speedily, O Lord our God, may there be heard in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem the sound of joy and the sound of gladness, the sound of a bridegroom and the sound of a bride, the jubilant sound of brides from their canopies, and youths singing from their feasts.
Blessed are you, Lord, who causes the bridegroom to rejoice with the bride.

Conversely, even on this happiest of occasions, the celebrants are required to set limits to their merrymaking, as they remind themselves that Jerusalem and the Temple lie in ruins. In most communities, this sentiment is symbolized by groom's breaking a cup at the conclusion of the wedding ceremony. The ideal of constant concern for the fate of Jerusalem is derived from the words of Psalm 137:6:

Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!

Because of these thematic associations, depictions of Jerusalem, and calligraphic representations of Psalm 137:6 became favourite decorative motifs in Hebrew illuminated marriage contracts.

The primary lessons to be learned from these practices are that, in Judaism, all manifestations of rejoicing (even the ostensibly private happiness of a newly wed couple) partake of the joy of the rebuilt Jerusalem Jerusalem. However, for precisely this reason, no joy can be considered truly complete while Jerusalem lies in ruins.

The same line of reasoning will explain why Jerusalem is also invoked in connections related with death and mourning, because in a very profound sense, individual grief derives from the general mourning over Jerusalem's desolation. Therefore, in Jewish tradition, the words of consolation that are spoken to the bereaved are as follows:

May the Almighty console you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Intense hope for the restoration of Jerusalem is crucial to the Jewish eschatological vision. It is widely held that those who are fortunate enough to be buried in Jerusalem will be the first to be restored to life in the messianic era. For this reason, Jews from throughout the world have made great efforts to have their bodies interred in Jerusalem, especially on the Mount of Olives. Another widespread practice is to place some soil from the holy land inside the coffin.

The recognition that complete joy is impossible while we mourn for Jerusalem's destruction affects many different aspects of life. The Talmud tells how the religious leaders in the generation immediately following the fall of the Second Temple strove to formulate a moderate response to the tragedy, one that would acknowledge the seriousness of the calamity, while not preventing people from leading normal lives.

TB Baba Batra 60b:

Our Rabbis taught: When the Temple was destroyed, there were at first many ascetics in Israel who refused to eat meat or to drink wine.
Rabbi Joshua attached himself to them. He said to them: My children, for what reason do you refuse to eat meat or drink wine?
They said to him: Shall we eat meat, from which sacrifices were offered upon the altar, and now it lies desolate! Shall we drink wine, from which libations were poured onto the altar, and now it lies desolate!
He said to them: If that is so, then we should not eat bread, because the meal-offerings have been abolished.
"We can subsist on fruits."
Let us not eat fruits, because the first-fruits have been abolished.
"It is possible with different fruits,"
Let us not drink water, since the water libation has been abolished.
They remained silent.
He said to them: My children, come and I will teach you.
Not to mourn at all would be impossible, because the verdict has already been decreed.
But to mourn too much is also impossible, because no decree can be enacted for a community unless the majority of the community is able to observe it...
Rather, thus did the Sages declare:
A person should paint a house, but ought to leave a small section...
A person should partake of all the requisites of a feast, but leave a small thing...
A woman should dress in all her ornament, but omit one item... As it states: "Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!"
What is the meaning of "above my highest Joy"? --Says Rabbi Isaac: This is the placing of ashes on the heads of bridegrooms.

Conclusion: Jerusalem and the Mystical Shekhinah

I would like to conclude this presentation with a passage that brings together poignantly several of the themes that have been pointed out in the course of our examination of the diverse Jewish practices of observances.

The following text is taken from the Zohar, the book of Enlightenment, a thirteenth-century homiletical and mystical masterpiece that speaks in a bold symbolic language. For the Zohar, everything that we experience in the earthly realms is intricately bound with ultimate metaphysical reality. Accordingly, the earthly city of Jerusalem is an embodiment of the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence in the world. It is therefore through the channel of Jerusalem that divine grace and blessings can descend into the lives of all humanity.

As long as Jerusalem and her Temple lie in ruins, the world cannot experience complete joy. All the curses and suffering of our world therefore have their spiritual root in Jerusalem's destruction.

For this reason, neither our world nor God himself can be fully redeemed until Jerusalem has been restored to its primal glory, and the Divine presence has returned to its abode in the earthly world.

Zohar 1:202b-203a:

Rabbi Hezekiah opened by saying: "The oracle concerning the valley of vision. What do you mean that you have gone up, all of you, to the housetops" (Isaiah 22:1).
Come and see [Talmud Ta‘anit 29a]: They interpreted this verse with reference to the time when the Holy Temple was destroyed and they were setting fire to it. All the priests climbed to the roof of the Temple, holding all its keys in their hands; and they declared: Until now we were your custodians. Henceforth, take back what is yours!
But come and see: "The valley of vision" alludes to the Divine Presence [Shekhinah] that dwelled in the Temple, and all the inhabitants of the world would draw from it the nourishment of prophecy...
For this reason it is called "the valley of vision":
"Vision"... is the appearance of all the uppermost colours.
"What do you mean that you have gone up, all of you, to the housetops?"
For when the Holy Temple was destroyed, [the Divine Presence] came and ascended to all those places in which she had dwelled in former times, and she wept over her dwelling place, and over Israel who had gone into exile, and over all those righteous and pious persons who had been there and perished.
Whence do we know this? --Because it is written "Thus says the Lord: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children" (Jeremiah 31:14)...
And then the Holy One asked the Divine Presence "What do you mean that you have gone up, all of you, to the housetops?"
What is the significance of the expression "all of you"? It would have been sufficient just to say "you have gone up"; what is "all of you"?
--It is intended to include all the other [angelic] hosts and chariots, who all joined with her in weeping over the destruction of the Holy Temple.
Therefore it is written: "What do you mean"--
She [the Shekhinah] said before him: If my children are in exile, and the Temple has been burned down, why am I hovering here?...
Come and see: Since the day when the Temple was destroyed, there has not been a single day that did not contain curses. For as long as the Temple was in the existence, Israel would perform acts of worship, offering up burned offerings and sacrifices. Then the Divine Presence would hover over them in the Holy Temple, as a mother crouches over her young. And all the faces would shine, until blessings pervaded the upper and lower realms. Not a single day passed that did not contain blessings and joys. Israel dwelled in security in their land, and the entire world was sustained for their sake.
But now that the Temple has been destroyed and the Divine Presence is with them in exile, not a single day passes that does not contain curses. The very world has been cursed, and there remains no joy, either above or below.
In the future, the Holy One will raise up the Community of Israel from the dust... and bring every kind of gladness to the world, as it says (Isaiah 56:7): "Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people."


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My e-mail address is elsegal@acs.ucalgary.ca


*A Talk given on April 29 2001

for an Interfaith Dialogue on "JERUSALEM: Its Importance to Three Religions"

Sponsored by the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews, Calgary Branch,

St. Peter's Anglican Church, Calgary