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Heavenly or Earthly: Will the Real Jerusalem Please Stand Up

A few weeks ago, on the 28th of Iyar, we celebrated Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, which marked the 36th anniversary of the reunification of the city in 1967.

In my travels, people frequently ask me: “What is it like to live in Jerusalem?” The following is an unscientific attempt to answer that question, based on over thirty years of living in Jerusalem.

To a Jew living in the Diaspora, Jerusalem is a holy, heavenly city. This is only natural for a people exiled from its city 1900 years ago and raised on passages such as the following:

At the Shabbat Minchah service during the winter months we recite Psalm 122 (v. 1-5):

Note: All translations of the Bible are taken from Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, The New JPS Translation, Philadelphia, 1988.

A song of ascents. Of David.
I rejoiced when they said to me,
“We are going to the House of the Lord.”
Our feet stood inside your gates, O Jerusalem,
Jerusalem built up, a city knit together,
to which tribes would make pilgrimage,
the tribes of the Lord…
to praise the name of the Lord. There the thrones of judgment stood, thrones of the house of David…
When Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh coincide, we chant a haftorah taken from Isaiah 66 (v. 10-13):

Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her,
All who love her.
Join in her jubilation,
All who mourned over her…
For thus said the Lord:
I will extend to her
Prosperity like a stream…
And you shall drink of it.
You shall be carried on shoulders
And dandled upon knees.
As a mother comforts her son,
So I will comfort you,
You shall find comfort in Jerusalem…
At weddings and during the seven days of rejoicing after a wedding, we recite the Sheva Berakhot, the Seven Blessings. The last blessing is based on the words of the Prophet Jeremiah (33:10-11):

Thus said the Lord: Again there shall be heard in this place …
In the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem…
the sound of mirth and gladness,
the voice of bridegroom and bride…
Rabbinic literature continued this tendency to describe Jerusalem in ideal, heavenly terms: “Rabbi Nathan said: …there is no beauty like the beauty of Jerusalem”(Avot d’rabi Nattan, Version A, Chapter 28, ed. Schechter, p. 85).  “Ten measures of beauty descended to the world – nine were taken by Yerushalayim, one was left for the rest of the world” (Bavli Kiddushin 49b).  “Our Sages taught: He who did not see Jerusalem in its splendor, never saw a beautiful city in his life” (Bavli Sukkah 51b).

Finally, our prayerbook is replete with prayers which ask God to restore Jerusalem the Holy City. We recite in the weekday Amidah prayer, thrice daily:

Return to Jerusalem Your city in mercy,
And dwell in her as You have spoken,
And build her soon in our days, forever…
Blessed are You, Lord, who builds Jerusalem.
And we recite in the Birkat Hamazon after every meal:

Rebuild Jerusalem the Holy City speedily in our day.
Blessed are You, Lord, who in His mercy rebuilds Jerusalem. Amen.
Thus, it is not surprising that Diaspora Jews view Jerusalem primarily as a Holy City waiting to be restored by God to its former beauty and holiness. But the reality of Jerusalem has always been far more complex than the imaginary stereotype. Let us stroll, then, through 3000 years of Jerusalem’s history. We shall see that Jerusalem is a unique blend of heavenly and earthly, and it is precisely that mixture which makes it unique.

In the Second Book of Samuel, Chapter 5 (v. 6-15) we are told that King David captured Jerusalem from the Jebusites, fortified the city, built a palace, took more concubines and wives in Jerusalem, and more sons and daughters were born to David in Jerusalem. There could be no more earthly description of the city.

And yet, in the very next chapter II Samuel (The best edition of Bartenura’s letters is that of Hartom and David which appeared in Yehudim B’italyah: Mehkarim, Jerusalem, 1988, pp. 24-108. The English translations found here are taken from Elkan Adler, Jewish Travelers in the Middle Ages, New York, 1987, pp. 236-238), David brings up the Ark of God to Jerusalem, dancing before the Lord to the sound of all kinds of instruments. Every six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. “David whirled with all his might before the Lord… he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of Hosts” (v. 14,18). There could be no more heavenly description of the city.

A similar dichotomy appears in the descriptions of Jerusalem in the days of King Solomon, his son. In I Kings, Chapter 8, Solomon dedicates the First Temple with great fanfare. He brings the Ark of the Covenant from the City of David to the new Temple. “King Solomon and the whole community of Israel… were sacrificing sheep and oxen in such abundance that they could not be numbered or counted” (v. 5). “The Presence of the Lord filled the House of the Lord. Then Solomon declared:

The Lord has chosen to abide in a thick cloud.
I have now built for You a stately House,
a place where You may dwell forever” (v. 11-13).
There could be no more heavenly description of Jerusalem.

And yet, just two chapters later (I Kings 10), we are told that “the weight of gold which Solomon received every year was 666 talents of gold” (verse 14). “The king also made a large throne of ivory, and he overlaid it with refined gold” (v. 18). “All King Solomon’s drinking cups were of gold and all the utensils of the Lebanon Forest House were of pure gold; silver did not count for anything in Solomon’s days” (v. 21). “All the world came to pay homage to Solomon… and each one would bring his tribute – silver and gold objects, robes, weapons and spices, horses and mules – in the amount due each year. Solomon assembled chariots and horses. He had 1,400 chariots and 12,000 horses…” (v. 24-26). “King Solomon loved many foreign women… He had 700 royal wives and 300 concubines… In his old age, his wives turned away Solomon’s heart after other gods…” (11:1-4). There could be no more earthly description of Jerusalem.

Thus, within the space of two chapters, the city of the Ark of the Covenant and abundant sacrifices and the Presence of the Lord has become the city of gold and silver, horses and chariots, wives and concubines.

Indeed, this dual nature of biblical Jerusalem is best expressed in Psalm 48, which has been recited as the Psalm for Monday for over 2300 years: (The origin of the psalms recited on each day of the week is shrouded in mystery. Four of them – the psalms for Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday – are mentioned as the Psalm of the Day in the Septuagint (ca. 300 BCE), the ancient Greek translation of the Bible. All seven psalms for the day are mentioned in a beraita appended to Mishnah Tamid 7:4 and in Bavli Rosh Hashanah 31a. For literature on this subject, see what I wrote in the Responsa of the Va’ad Halakhah 6 (5755-5758), p. 189 and p. 194, note 3).

1) A song . A psalm of the Korahites.

2) The Lord is great and much acclaimed in the city of our God, His holy mountain –
3) fair-crested, joy of all the earth, Mount Zion, summit of Zaphon, city of the great king.
4) Through its citadels, God has made Himself known as a haven.
5) See, the kings joined forces; they advanced together.
6) At the mere sight of it they were stunned, they were terrified, they panicked;
7) they were seized there with a trembling, like a woman in the throes of labor,
8) as the Tarshish fleet was wrecked in the easterly gale.
9) The likes of what we heard we have now witnessed in the city of the Lord of hosts, in the city of our God – may God preserve it forever! Selah

10) In Your temple, God, we meditate upon Your faithful care.
11) The praise of You, God, like Your name, reaches to the ends of the earth; Your right hand is filled with beneficence.
12) Let Mount Zion rejoice! Let the towns of Judah exult, because of Your judgments.

13) Walk around Zion, circle it; count its towers,
14) take note of its ramparts; go through its citadels, that you may recount it to a future age.

15) For God – He is our God forever; He will lead us evermore.

Verses 2-3 describe Jerusalem as the city of our God, His holy mountain, city of the great king.

Verses 4-9, in sharp contrast, describe a battle scene of kings who join forces to attack the city. They are stunned, terrified, panicked and trembling.

Verses 10-12 return to the idyllic mode of Verses 2-3. We meditate in God’s Temple. God’s right hand is filled with beneficence. Let Mount Zion rejoice and Judah exult because of God’s judgments.

Verses 13-14 return to “fortress Jerusalem”: towers, ramparts, and citadels.

The Psalm concludes (v. 15) in an ambiguous fashion – God is our God forever – both the Holy God and the fighting God. Thus, Psalm 48 captures the tension we have described in a wonderful fashion: heaven, earth, heaven, earth, heaven and earth.

We skip forward 2500 years to the medieval period. Most of what we know about Jerusalem in the medieval period comes from the letters and chronicles of travelers, and there is no spicier description of Jerusalem than that of Rabbi Ovadia of Bartinura. He made aliyah in 1488 and sent home three letters describing his journey and what he experienced in Jerusalem. His description captures the dichotomy we have been discussing.6

He begins with a description of heavenly Jerusalem:

There are some excellent regulations here. I have nowhere seen the daily service conducted in a better manner. The Jews rise an hour or two before day-break, even on the Sabbath, and recite psalms and other songs of praise till the day dawns. Then they repeat the Kaddish; after which two of the Readers appointed for the purpose chant the Blessing of the Law, the Chapter on Sacrifices, and all the songs of praise which follow with a suitable melody, the “Hear, O Israel” being read on the appearance of the sun’s first rays. The Cohanim repeat the priestly benediction daily, on weekdays as well as on the Sabbaths; in every service this Blessing occurs. At the morning and afternoon service, supplications are said with great devotion, together with the thirteen Attributes of God.
The very next paragraph describes earthly Jerusalem:

Jerusalem, notwithstanding its destruction, still contains four very beautiful, long bazaars, such as I have never before seen, at the foot of Zion. They all have dome-shaped roofs, and contain wares of every kind. They are divided into different departments: the merchant bazaar, the spice bazaar, the vegetable market, and one in which cooked food and bread are sold.
A few lines later, Rabbi Ovadia describes a heavenly inhabitant of the Holy City:

At present there is only one Ashkenazic Rabbi here, who was educated in Jerusalem. I have never seen his equal for humility and the fear of God; he weaves night and day when he is not occupied with his studies, and for six months he tasted no bread between Sabbath and Sabbath, his food consisting of raw turnips and the remains of St. John’s bread, which is very plentiful here, after the sugar has been taken out of it.
The final paragraph we shall quote comes back to earth and describes the banana tree and other foods eaten in earthly Jerusalem:

Now, the wheat harvest being over, the famine is at an end, and there is once more plenty, praise to God. Here, in Jerusalem, I have seen several kinds of fruits, which are not to be found in our country [=Italy]. There is one tree with long leaves, which grows higher than a man’s stature and bears fruit only once; it then withers, and from its roots there rises another similar one, which again bears fruit the next year; and the same thing is continually repeated. The grapes are larger than in our country, but neither cherries, nor hazelnuts, nor chestnuts are to be found. All the necessities of life, such as meat, wine, olives, and sesame-oil can be had very cheap. The soil is excellent, but it is not possible to gain a living by any branch of industry, unless it be that of a shoemaker, weaver, or goldsmith; even such artisans as these gain their livelihood with great difficulty.
We now skip forward 500 years to contemporary Jerusalem. Here too we find the tension we have described.

Abraham Joshua Heschel visited Jerusalem in July 1967, one month after the Six Day War. He left us his impressions in Israel: An Echo of Eternity. As usual, his prose reads like poetry:

July, 1967… I have discovered a new land. Israel is not the same as before… Jerusalem is everywhere, she hovers over the whole country. There is a new radiance, a new awe…

My astonishment is mixed with anxiety. Am I worthy? Am I able to appreciate the marvel?…

…in Jerusalem past is present, and heaven is almost here. For an instant, I am near to Hillel, who is close by. All of our history is within reach.

Jerusalem is a witness, an echo of eternity…

Jerusalem was stopped in the middle of her speech. She is a voice interrupted. Let Jerusalem speak again to our people, to all people…

This is a city never indifferent to the sky. The evenings often feel like Kol Nidre nights… The Sabbath finds it hard to go away…(Abraham Joshua Heschel, Israel: An Echo of Eternity, New York, 1967, pp. 5-8.8).

This is the quintessential heavenly Jerusalem as described by a visitor from the Diaspora. Heschel sees only history and eternity and Kol Nidre and Shabbat. He does not see the army or garbage or poverty or any of the things that exist in the earthly Jerusalem.

Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000), who lived in Jerusalem for over sixty years, rebelled against this Diaspora approach to Jerusalem. In his poem “Tourists”, he reacts to the heavenly approach:

Visits of condolence they conduct here,
They sit at Yad Vashem,
They put on grave faces at the Western Wall
And they laugh behind heavy curtains in hotel rooms.
They have their pictures taken with famous dead people
at Rachel’s Tomb and Herzl’s Tomb
and on Ammunition Hill.
They weep over the beauty of our brave boys
and lust over our tough girls
And hang up their underwear
to dry quickly
in cool, blue bathrooms.

Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Citadel, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!” I said to myself: redemption will come only if they tell them, “You see that arch there from the Roman period? It’s not important. But next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who bought fruit and vegetables for his family” (Yehudah Amichai, Shirei Yerushalayim: a bi-lingual edition, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1987, pp. 176-177. The translation is my own).

If Heschel is the thesis and Amichai the antithesis, then Dvora Waysman is the synthesis. She made aliyah from Australia over thirty years ago, and has published a number of books of prose and poetry about Jerusalem. Her ethical will to her children, written in the early 1970s, captures both sides of the Jerusalem equation:

As I write this, I am sitting on my Jerusalem balcony, looking through a tracery of pine trees at the view along Rehov Ruppin. I can see the Knesset, the Israel Museum, and the Shrine of the Book – that architectural marvel resembling a woman’s tilted breast that houses the Dead Sea Scrolls.

I am at an age where I should write a will, but the disposition of my material possessions would take just a few lines. They do not amount to much… had we stayed in Australia where you – my four children – were born, they would be much more. I hope you won’t blame me for this.

For now you are Israelis, and I have different things to leave you. I hope you will understand that they are more valuable than money in the bank, stocks and bonds, and plots of land, for no one can ever take them away from you.

I am leaving you the fragrance of a Jerusalem morning… unforgettable perfume of thyme, sage, and rosemary that wafts down from the Judean hills. The heartbreaking sunsets that give way to Jerusalem at night… splashes of gold on black velvet darkness. The feel of Jerusalem stone, ancient and mellow, in the buildings that surround you. The piquant taste of humus, tehina, felafel – foods we never knew about before we came here to live.

I am leaving you an extended family – the whole house of Israel. They are your people. They will celebrate with you in joy, grieve with you in sorrow. You will argue with them, criticize them, and sometimes reject them (that’s the way it is with families!). But underneath you will be proud of them and love them. More important, when you need them – they will be there!

I am leaving you the faith of your forefathers. Here, no one will ever laugh at your beliefs, call you “Jew” as an insult. You, my sons, can wear kippot and tzitzit if you so wish; you, my daughters, can modestly cover your hair after marriage if that is what you decide. No one will ridicule you. You can be as religious or as secular as you wish, knowing it is based on your own convictions, and not because of what the goyim might say. You have your heritage… written with the blood of your people through countless generations. Guard it well and cherish it – it is priceless!

I am leaving you pride. Hold you head high. This is your country, your birthright. Try to do your share to enhance its image. It may call for sacrifice, but it will be worth it. Your children, their children, and all who come after, will thank you for it.

I am leaving you memories. Some are sad… the early struggles to adapt to a new country, a new language, a new culture. But remember, too, the triumphs… the feeling of achievement when you were accepted, when “they” became “us”. That is worth more than silver trophies and gold medals. You did it alone – you “made” it.

And so, my children, I have only one last bequest. I leave you my love and my blessing. I hope you will never again need to say: “Next year in Jerusalem.” You are already there – how rich you are!(Dvora Waysman, Woman of Jerusalem, Jerusalem and New York, 1999, pp. 43-44. The version quoted here is an earlier version, which was circulated in Xerox form; it is slightly different from the printed version. Emphasis added – D.G).

Waysman’s Jerusalem is both earthly and heavenly. The Shrine of the Book is an “architectural marvel resembling a woman’s tilted breast”. Her Jerusalem is experienced through four senses: smell, sight, touch, and taste. But it is also an extended family, faith, pride, and memories.

I would like to conclude with one more Jerusalemite who published many poems about his city. Moshe Hana’omi Zinger (b. 1935) has translated over sixty books from various languages into Hebrew. In this poem, entitled simply “Jerusalem”, he captures both sides of Jerusalem in a whimsical fashion:

On the road to Bethlehem I live
And on Emek Refa’im a
friend of mine
bakes little cakes, sprinkles
sugar in the German Colony.

It’s amazing
How the old sticks to the new
like sewage pipes on an old wall
In this Jerusalem, like on canvas, a painter added
here a flower, there a tree –

And here I am with a detective book,
And there an old lady, and here
train tracks , and a church, and
an Ethiopian priest.

And one man who waits for his Messiah
And a hand which writes on a wall:
A holy place, it is forbidden to urinate here (Moshe Hana’omi, “Jerusalem” in: Hayyim Be’eer, editor, Tzippor Ha’even: Yerushalayim Bashirah Ha’ivrit Hahadashah, Tel Aviv, 1983, p. 66. My thanks to Prof. Hayyim Be’er who introduced me to his poems).

My Jerusalem is the Jerusalem of Psalm 48, Rabbi Ovadiah, Dvora Waysman and Moshe Hana’omi. Jerusalem is a unique synthesis of Heavenly and Earthly. The Kotel, the Mosque of El Aqsa and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Yeshivot, Meah She’arim, Hebrew University, The Schechter Institute, Hebrew Union College, monasteries and museums exist side by side with people from seventy lands and Jerusalem stone, sunsets and parks, Mahane Yehuda and the Old City shuk, the Haas Promenade and the City of David, the Malha Mall and pubs and discos. If Jerusalem were only heavenly, no-one could live there; if Jerusalem were only earthly, it would simply be a city like any other.

In Jerusalem, “the evenings often feel like Kol Nidrei nights”, but in the morning, the people of Jerusalem go to the shuk to buy fruits and vegetables for their families.

All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

Prof. David Golinkin is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate the article, please contact Rabbi Golinkin at:

The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.

Jerusalem Tapestry Credit Kimon Berlin

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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