The Real Meaning of Yom Yerushalayim

Essentially, Yom Yerushalayim was made for something else. It was after the Six Day War and the notion was that entering back into the whole Jerusalem was a symbol, which it was of course, of getting back the real connection with the whole country, which didn’t really happen the first year.

Still it became a holiday for the goal of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is first and foremost identified with the land. In so many sources, a person from Jerusalem is called a person from Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). What we call the Talmud Yerushalmi, the Jerusalem Talmud – there is no Talmud from Jerusalem: it’s just a Talmud from Eretz Yisrael. A story tells of how, in future days, Jerusalem will expand and grow and grow until it comes to the gates of Damascus. In modern geography, Jerusalem now is almost just that big. Jerusalem is a concept that grows.

Jerusalem also is kind of the core, the inner city, of the whole country; in many ways the notion of the holiness of the land is connected to – and begins with – the holiness of The Temple. So around the Temple exists the holiness of Jerusalem, around which is the holiness of Eretz Yisrael. So Jerusalem is not just a town.

Jerusalem has existed since the time of King David a few thousand years ago. (But what are those few thousand years for the Jewish people? For America, 500 years are before the beginning of history. For us, a few thousand years are just in the middle of our life.) Anyway, Jerusalem was chosen to be the heart of the country. So speaking about Jerusalem is not just speaking about the place, but the place is a way of depicting the innermost parts of the land. It’s not a land as a land – not the hills and the mountains, – it is the essence of Jerusalem, which became, for many people in the world, Zion. For many people, Zion has lost any kind of a geographical meaning, but it has become the notion of the wholeness itself – that’s Jerusalem.

So when we speak about Yerushalayim we speak about the double meaning of it. Thus, Yom Yerushalayim deals with two things. One is the glory of Jerusalem. (Now, I cannot be objective because I was born there. And everybody who was born there – almost everybody who’s born there – any place is for him just a foreign place, including Tel Aviv, which is almost a completely foreign country. But Jerusalem is Jerusalem.)

I’ve spoken many times about the colors of Jerusalem. Jerusalem has a special golden color that nobody could put in filigree in paintings. That is kind of what you can see in Jerusalem. And so many different people – people who had seen so much of the world, and students who wrote in all kinds of places about Jerusalem – say that it’s the most beautiful place in the world. And so that’s also Jerusalem. And we try to speak about Jerusalem and about our personal connection with it.

There is the song, Jerusalem of Gold. Jerusalem is of stone, and that’s a part of Jerusalem – the harshness, the hardness and the whole worn heart of it. Jerusalem is something terribly prickly and unruly, yet on the other hand Jerusalem is a city of peace.

Now to see how these contradictions go together…the notion of getting to harmony means that you get all different things and bring them together. Speaking about Yom Yerushalyim speaks about lots of things. It speaks of Jerusalem as a place, it speaks of Jerusalem as a history, it speaks of Jerusalem as a place in which people live, about what Jerusalem wants to mean when it becomes the center of the whole world. We should speak about Jerusalem on Yom Yerushalyim, as the prophets speak about it:

And the days will come when all the people from all the nations will say, “Let us go to Jerusalem to dwell in the place of the LORD”.

That’s what Jerusalem is.

This essay is adapted from a 2016 Talmud Circle lecture for Lehrhaus Judaica in Berkely, CA. Hear Rabbi Steinsaltz speak about his city in this video clip.