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The Jerusalem of the Simple Jew

Jews never forgot Jerusalem. We pray about Jerusalem every day, we pray toward Jerusalem every day, and at every wedding, we break a glass to remember Jerusalem.
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May 18, 2023
I love Jerusalem sign in Jerusalem, Israel (Mindaugas Dulinskas/Getty Images)

On June 7, 1967, the Israeli army returned Jewish sovereignty to Jerusalem for the first time in 1,900 years. And for the last 56 years, this day has been celebrated on the Israeli calendar as Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day).

Yitzchak Rabin, who was then the Chief of Staff of the Israeli army, visited the Kotel (the Western Wall of the Temple Mount) that day. Rabin reported that when they “reached the Western Wall, I was breathless … I felt truly shaken and stood there murmuring a prayer for peace. The paratroopers were struggling to reach the Wall and touch it. We stood among a tangle of rugged, battle-weary men who were unable to believe their eyes or restrain their emotions. Their eyes were moist with tears, their speech incoherent. The overwhelming desire was to cling to the Wall, to hold on to that great moment as long as possible.” Rabin’s wife Leah would later say that he considered that visit to be the “peak moment” of his life. Even though he was a secular and stoic career military man, Jerusalem made a dramatic impact on Yitzchak Rabin, as it has on so many others. The question is why. Where does this Jerusalem mystique come from?

There’s no one answer to this question, and that’s part of the mystique. “Jerusalem has seventy names” declares the Midrash. And while the Tanakh does have several names for Jerusalem, including Tziyon, Shalem and Yevus, the Midrash’s point is that Jerusalem is transcendent, and as such, can be seen through multiple perspectives.

The student of history sees a city that has transformed the world, and is central to three major religions.

Extraordinary historical figures have traversed this city. The founders of Judaism lived here: Abraham and Isaac, David and Solomon, Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ezra and Nehemiah, Judah Maccabee and his sons, Hillel and Shammai, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yishmael. And the list goes on and on.

Jerusalem’s influence is not restricted to Judaism; the important personalities of Christianity, Jesus, James, Peter and Paul, all spent time in Jerusalem as well, and Muslims revere the Temple Mount as the location of Muhammad’s night journey.

Due to religious influence, Jerusalem has always grabbed the headlines. For hundreds of years, maps put Jerusalem at the center. In the Bünting Clover Leaf Map of 1581, the three continents of Europe, Africa and Asia are the petals of a clover, with Jerusalem in a circle at the very center of the world.

Over 60% of tourists who visit Jerusalem are Christian; they come because of the deep connection they have to its history. Thomas Friedman tells of one such visit to Jerusalem:

“When American astronaut Neil Armstrong, a devout Christian, visited Israel after his trip to the moon, he was taken on a tour of the Old City of Jerusalem by Israeli archaeologist Meir Ben-Dov. When they got to the Hulda Gate, which is at the top of the stairs leading to the Temple Mount, Armstrong asked Ben-Dov whether Jesus had stepped anywhere around there. ‘I told him, “Look, Jesus was a Jew,”’ recalled Ben-Dov. ‘These are the steps that lead to the Temple, so he must have walked here many times.’

Armstrong then asked if these were the original steps, and Ben-Dov confirmed that they were.

‘So Jesus stepped right here?’ asked Armstrong.

‘That’s right,’ answered Ben-Dov.

‘I have to tell you,’ Armstrong said to the Israeli archaeologist, ‘I am more excited stepping on these stones than I was stepping on the moon.’”

If you ask a historian what is special about Jerusalem, they will tell you: It is a place that has changed the world. Wherever you go, you are walking in the footsteps of some of the greatest figures in history.

The student of Halakha stands in awe of Jerusalem, a place replete with unique mitzvot (commandments). One-third of the Talmud deals with religious laws connected to Jerusalem, including the Temple service and the rules of ritual purity. Jerusalem was once central to the religious practice of Judaism.

While it is forgotten now, the picture found in the Tanakh and Rabbinic literature is dramatic. The thrice-yearly holiday pilgrimage of aliyah leregel brought millions of Jews to Jerusalem for the holidays; Josephus, the first-century historian, writes of a year when 256,500 Passover sacrifices were brought. He estimates that at least 10 people shared each sacrifice, which works out to over 2.5 million cramming into Jerusalem for Passover! These holidays were a time when people of all classes, countries and observances came together. The Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, described how “countless multitudes from countless cities come, some over land, others over sea, from east and west and north and south at every feast.” A network of highways facilitated the trip to Jerusalem; these are now being discovered by archeologists, all around Jerusalem.

Religious visits to Jerusalem extended beyond the holidays. There is another law called Maaser Sheni, where four out of every seven years the farmer would bring 10% of the value of his produce to Jerusalem, either in fruit or in cash, and use them to enjoy meals in the holy city.

Mystics have a more dramatic vision. For them, Jerusalem is the center of the universe. The Midrash Tanchuma (Kedoshim 10) writes that Jerusalem is where the creation of the world began, or what is sometimes called Umbilicus Mundi, the navel of the world. Inside the Temple is “the foundation stone from which the world was founded.” The Spanish Kabbalist Yoseph Gikatilla takes this a step further and explains that: “From the Temple, all the channels of divine influence spread out to the world … the divine presence sends blessing to the entire world through the Temple.”

When it comes to Jerusalem, most people are mystics. They visit the Kotel and put in a kvitl, a small note of prayers. Everyone does this: Presidents, Prime Ministers, actors and rock stars.

The mystical view is well-traveled. There is an old joke, that was retold by Prime Minister Menachem Begin to President Reagan at a White House State dinner, that reflects this view. Begin’s joke goes like this:

“The President brought me into the Oval Office, and he showed me on the table three phones— one white and one blue. And he explained to me: ‘The white is the direct line to Mrs. Thatcher; the blue to President Mitterrand.’’ And then I asked him, ‘What is the red phone?’ ‘That is a direct line to God.’’ So, I asked the President, ‘Mr. President, do you use it often?’ And the President said, ‘Oh, no, very rarely. It’s very expensive. Long distance—so long a distance. And I cannot afford it. I have to cut the budget and…’ [Laughter]

So, then the President visited Jerusalem, and I showed him my office, and there are three phones. One was white, one was blue. And I said, ‘The white is a direct line to President Sadat.’ By the by, I have such a line, and he has such a line. ‘And the other, well, to Mrs. Thatcher.’ And there is a red phone. And the President asked, ‘What is the red phone for?’ And I said, ‘This is a direct line to God.’ So, the President asked me, ‘Do you use it often?’ I say, ‘Every day.’ ‘How can you afford it?’ And I said, ‘Here, in Jerusalem, it is being considered a local call.’

(Begin continued on another note and said: ‘Now, Mr. President, neither of us has direct lines to God. I only believe that God listens to the prayer of a Jew and a Christian and of a Moslem—of every human being. But, if I have to continue with the story, then I will say that when you come, as I do believe, to Jerusalem, I will immediately put at your disposal the red phone. [Laughter] On the house. [Laughter] A local call.’)”

To the mystic, Jerusalem is different because a call to God from Jerusalem is a local call.

To the mystic, Jerusalem is different because a call to God from Jerusalem is a local call.

I appreciate the perspectives of the Halakhist, the mystic and the historian, but I believe there is one perspective that exceeds them all: that of the simple Jew.

The simple Jew never left Jerusalem. Shmuel Yosef Agnon spoke for them when he said this in his 1966 Nobel Prize Speech: “As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem.”

And in 1967, the simple Jew came home.

The first time I visited Israel was when I was 7. My grandfather, who was 71 at the time, came with us; it was his first trip to Israel. The look he had on his face when visiting the Kotel was the look of a man transformed, a Jew achieving his dream.

My grandfather’s dream is an ancient dream. Jews have dreamed of Jerusalem from the moment they went into exile. As they were driven out of their homeland in 587 B.C.E., they declared: “If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in mind even at my happiest hour (Psalm 137).”

Jews never forgot Jerusalem. We pray about Jerusalem every day, we pray toward Jerusalem every day, and at every wedding, we break a glass to remember Jerusalem. At the Passover Seder we sing “next year in Jerusalem.” In Ethiopia, Jewish children would look at the storks migrating northward toward Israel and sing a song:

“Stork, stork, how is our land?
Stork, stork, how is Jerusalem?
Stork, stork, give us the word!”

The simple Jew always dreamed of Jerusalem.

It is the love of the simple Jew that makes Yom Yerushalayim special. Moshe Amirav, one of the first soldiers to reach the Kotel on June 7, 1967, said this:

“I can’t help from smiling today when I recall how we searched for the Kotel. There we ran, a bunch of panting soldiers, wandering around the Temple Mount, looking for a huge stone wall … We pass the Mograbim gate, pushing, hurrying, and all of a sudden we are stopped, as if hit by lightning. In front of our eyes stands, grey and large, quiet and sad—the Kotel. … Little by little I started getting closer to the Kotel. Slowly … I came closer, an emissary of dad, grandpa, greatgrandpa, and all the generations from all the diasporas that didn’t make it here, and so they sent me here. Someone said the Shehechiyanu prayer, and I couldn’t say amen. All I could do was put my hand on the rock. The tears flowing out of my eyes were not mine … they were the tears of all the People of Israel, tears of hope and prayer.”

This is what the Jerusalem mystique means to me. It is not about history, Halakha or Kabbalah; it is about the simple Jew, and the dreams of the Jewish People.

Fifty-six years ago the simple Jew could finally go home again. And that is what I celebrate on Yom Yerushalayim.


Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.

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