A Jerusalem Retrospective – The Religious & Cultural History of the Jewish Connection to the Holy City

Jews praying at the Western Wall (circa 1917).
Throughout the millennia, Jews from all backgrounds and affiliations have gathered in Jerusalem

Since the 10th century BCE Jerusalem has been the holiest city, focus and spiritual center of the Jews. Jerusalem has long been embedded into Jewish religious consciousness and Jews have always studied and personalized the struggle by King David to capture Jerusalem and his desire to build the Holy Temple there, as described in the Book of Samuel and the Book of Psalms. Many of King David’s yearnings about Jerusalem have been adapted into popular prayers and songs. Jews believe that in the future the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem will become the center of worship and instruction for all mankind and consequently Jerusalem will become the spiritual center of the world.

The earliest tradition regarding Jerusalem states that Adam, the first man, was created from the same place where in future the Altar would stand in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. After he was ejected from the Garden of Eden, he returned to this spot to offer a sacrifice to God. Cain and Abel also brought their offerings on this Altar. It is believed that Adam lived in Jerusalem for all of his life. The Altar in Jerusalem remained as a permanent shrine where all people could worship God until it was destroyed by the Flood. After the Flood, Noah rebuilt it. The Bible records that Noah blessed his son Shem, which indicated that Jerusalem would be included in Shem’s inheritance. Shem and his progeny lived in Jerusalem and set up an academy there where the word of God was taught. When the city became large enough to require government, Shem was crowned king and given the title “Malchi-Tzedek”. Tzedek, meaning righteousness, a name used to refer to Jerusalem.

In ancient times the city was divided, with the “Lower City” to the east and the “Upper City” on a higher elevation to the west. The eastern section was referred to as Salem, while the upper section which included the place of the Altar was called the Land of Moriah. 340 years after the Flood, Canaanite tribes began to invade the Holy Land and the Amorites occupied the western Upper City and subsequently destroyed the Altar. Shem and his people retained control of the Lower City and maintained the academy there.

The shimmering lights of Jerusalem’s Old City as night

Some legends tell that Abraham went to Jerusalem as a young child to study the tradition with Noah and Shem. God later instructed Abraham to leave Mesopotamia and return to the Promised Land. After he was victorious in a war he got caught up in, he was blessed by Shem. Shortly after, eastern Jerusalem – Salem – began to come under the domination of the Philistines who were occupying the area. In order to make peace with them, Abraham went to negotiate with their king Abimelech who assured him safety of Shem’s academy. When Abraham’s son and heir Isaac was born, Abimelech approached Abraham in order to make a covenant between them. The treaty stipulated that as long as a descendant of Abimelech dwelt in the land, no descendant of Abraham would wage war against them. This covenant was later to be the reason why the Israelites would not capture the eastern part of Jerusalem.

The skyline of East and West Jerusalem

When Abraham was told to sacrifice his son, God directed them to Moriah. When the spot where the Altar had stood became apparent to Abraham he rebuilt it and prepared to sacrifice Isaac on it. It was after he passed this last test, he took Shem’s place as the Priest of the Altar on Mount Moriah. Abraham named the place “Yirah” or Yiru (Jeru), meaning awe. When this was united with the name of the eastern part of the city, the city got its present name JeruSalem, implying “complete awe of God”.

Straight after this Abraham purchased the Cave of Machpela in Hebron from Ephron the Hittite who made a treaty with Abraham that his descendants would not take the city of Jerusalem away from the Hittites by force. As a result, the western part of the city was eventually purchased from Ephron’s descendants by the Israelites.

The Talmud elaborates in great depth the Jewish connection with Jerusalem.

The Mount of Olives

For example, the book of Psalms, which has been frequently recited and memorized by Jews for centuries, says:

  • “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” (Psalms 137:1)
  • “For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning . If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy. Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Raze it, raze it, even to the foundation thereof; O daughter of Babylon, that art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that repay eth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” (Psalms 137:3–9) (King James Version, with italics for words not in the original Hebrew)
  • “O God, the nations have entered into your inheritance, they have defiled the sanctuary of your holiness, they have turned Jerusalem into heaps of rubble…they have shed their blood like water round Jerusalem…” (Psalms 79:1–3);
  • “…O Jerusalem, the built up Jerusalem is like a city that is united together…Pray for the peace of Jerusalem…” (Psalms 122:2–6);
  • “Jerusalem is surrounded by mountains as God surrounds his people forever” (Psalms 125:3);
  • “The builder of Jerusalem is God, the outcast of Israel he will gather in…Praise God O Jerusalem, laud your God O Zion.” (Psalms 147:2–12)
The Model of Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period

In antiquity, Judaism revolved around the Temple in Jerusalem. The Sanhedrin, which governed the nation, was located in the Temple precincts. The Temple service was at the heart of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur proceedings. The Temple was central to the Three pilgrim festivals, namely Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, when all Jews were incumbent to gather in Jerusalem. Every seven years all Jews were required to assemble at the Temple for the Hakhel reading. The forty-nine-day Counting of the Omer recalls the Omer offering which was offered at the Temple every day between Passover and Shavuot. The eight-day festival of Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple after its desecration by Antiochus IV. A number of fast days including the Ninth of Av, the Tenth of Tevet and the Seventeenth of Tammuz, all recall the destruction of the Temple.

Maimonides records a list of bylaws which applied to Jerusalem during the Temple period: A corpse must not be left within the city overnight; human remains must not be brought inside the city; its houses are not to be rented out; residence for a ger toshav was not granted; burial plots are not maintained, other than those of the House of David and Huldah which existed from ancient times; the planting of gardens and orchards is forbidden; sowing and plowing is forbidden due to the possibility of decaying produce; trees are not planted, except for rose gardens which existed in ancient times; garbage heaps are forbidden due to infestation; girders and balconies may not overhang the public domain; pressure ovens are forbidden due to the smoke; it is forbidden to raise chickens.

At the conclusion of the Yom Kippur service and the Passover Seder outside of Jerusalem the words “Next Year in Jerusalem” are recited. When consoling a mourner, Jews recite “May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem”. In Jerusalem itself, the Passover Seder might conclude, “Next Year in Jerusalem, the rebuilt,” referring likely to the Temple that was destroyed over two millennia ago.

Some Jewish groups observe several customs in remembrance of Jerusalem. A tiny amount of ash is touched to the forehead of a Jewish groom before he goes to stand beneath the bridal canopy. This symbolically reminds him not to allow his own rejoicing to be “greater” than the ongoing need to recall Jerusalem’s destruction. The well-known custom of the groom breaking a glass with the heel of his shoe after the wedding ceremony is also related to the subject of mourning for Jerusalem. It is a custom for some that the groom recites the sentence from Psalms, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget [her cunning].” (Psalms 137:5).

Orthodox Jews praying at the Western Wall (Kotel Ha’Maaravi) in the old city of Jerusalem

Another ancient custom is to leave a patch of interior wall opposite the door to one’s home unpainted, as a remembrance of the destruction (zecher lechurban), of the Temples and city of Jerusalem.

According to Jewish law, as an expression of mourning for Jerusalem, it is forbidden to listen to any form of music, other than on holidays and at celebrations such as weddings and inaugurations of new Torah scrolls. This prohibition, however, while codified in the Shulchan Aruch, is not followed by the vast majority of Orthodox and even Haredi Jews nowadays.

In the aftermath of the Six Day War of 1967 – Jews lift a Torah scroll at the site of the Western Wall in the holy city of Jerusalem

The Western Wall (kotel hama’aravi), in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem, is one of the holiest sites in modern Judaism. This is because it is the closest point to the original site of the Holy of Holies which is currently inaccessible to Jews. Until 1967, it was generally considered to be the only surviving remnant of the Second Temple from the era of the Roman conquests; there are said to be esoteric texts in Midrash that mention God’s promise to keep this one remnant of the outer temple wall standing as a memorial and reminder of the past. Hence also the name “Wailing Wall”, used by non-Jews because many Jews would traditionally cry when they came before it.

However, the capture of Eastern Jerusalem in the Six-Day War revealed that the retaining wall of the Temple Mount in fact survived in all places.

Modern History

Jerusalem has been the official capital of the State of Israel and the center of its government since 1950. Jerusalem is the seat of Israel’s President, Knesset, and Supreme Court, and the site of most government ministries and social and cultural institutions. Jerusalem is the ancient spiritual center of Judaism and is also considered a holy city by the members of other religious faiths. Israel protects the holy sites of all faiths.

In 1967, Jordan rejected warnings from Israel and opened an aggressive war against Israel by bombarding Jerusalem. In response and in self-defense, Israel captured east Jerusalem, then controlled by Jordan.

As such, Israel’s status in eastern Jerusalem is entirely legitimate and lawful and accepted by the international community under the international law of armed conflict.

The 1967 unification of Jerusalem by Israel through the extension of its law, jurisdiction, and administration to eastern Jerusalem, while not accepted by the international community, did not alter the legality of Israel’s presence and status in, and governance of, the city.

The United States has consistently stated that the issue of Jerusalem must be solved by negotiation as part of a just, durable and comprehensive peace settlement.

Numerous politically-generated resolutions and declarations by the UN, UNESCO, and others, attempting to revise and distort the long history of Jerusalem and to deny basic religious, legal and historic rights of the Jewish People and the State of Israel in Jerusalem, have no legal standing and are not binding. They represent nothing more than the political viewpoints of those states that voted to adopt them.

The PLO and Israel agreed in the Oslo Accords that “the issue of Jerusalem” is a permanent status negotiating issue that can only be settled by direct negotiation between them with a view to settling their respective claims. The U.S. President, as well as the presidents of the Russian Federation and Egypt, the King of Jordan, and the official representatives of the EU are among the signatories as witnesses to the Oslo Accords.

Neither UN/UNESCO resolutions, nor declarations by governments, leaders, and organizations can impose a solution to the issue of Jerusalem, nor can they dictate or prejudge the outcome of such negotiations.

Edited by: JV Staff



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