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Jerusalem in Jewish liturgy.

The Historical Problem

There can be little doubt that Jerusalem occupies an honored place in the medley of religious ideas formulated and transmitted by Jewish circles through countless generations. Equally incontrovertible is the notion that liturgy has, during those many centuries, functioned as a central medium for the expression of Judaism's most cherished principles of faith and practice. In the words of the late A. M. Habermann (EJ 9: 1560), "the mention of Jerusalem was obligatory in all the statutory prayers." How then should one attempt to summarize the historical development of the topic of Jerusalem in Jewish prayer?

If one was of a mind to do so, one could simply take the traditional siddur of any of the major rites, before the substantial revisions of the modern period, and summarize the cases in which Jerusalem makes an appearance. One would then have a comprehensive catalogue of texts that had been fairly standard for the best part of an entire millennium but had also, by virtue of their very canonicity and ritualization, lost the link with their original incorporation. I myself prefer to tackle the subject of Jerusalem in the first rather than the second millennium of rabbinic, liturgical history. It is there that one is likely to find the evidence that will prove so central to any understanding of what Jews, Christians, and Muslims had in common and how they differed in their approaches to the Holy City. That is the period during which only two major ritual traditions appear to have existed, one in Babylon and the other in the Land of Israel. They predate both the widespread standardization (based on the Babylonian example) and the subsequent renewal of ritual independence and initiative in both Europe and the Middle East. Here, in the formative era of rabbinic liturgy one is confronted by the problem of placing liturgical texts, which originated in that wide span of time, in a particular geographical, chronological, or theological context.

The historical difficulties are those of working with liturgical texts from the talmudic-midrashic literature, from the geonic corpora, and from the earliest sources preserved in the Cairo Genizah. There are of course general difficulties in dealing with any material from such origins. There are undoubtedly oral and written stages; clear indications of provenance are rare; and traditions often appear isolated. The matter of dating, contextualizing, and expounding the texts is consequently a challenging task. As far as liturgy is concerned, that task is made even more complicated by further considerations. To what extent may we assume that the text preserved in one generation precisely matches its format in an earlier one? Is there not a tendency to adjust versions to accommodate them to current thought? When a scribe cites a prayer, might he not absent-mindedly record what is familiar to him rather than what he is supposed to be transmitting? What is more, it is all too facile a solution to subscribe to the general principle that all short, simple Babylonian texts (from the Talmud, for example) represent the original form while all longer, more complex Palestinian versions (from the Genizah, for example) may universally be judged to be later accretions. These and other difficulties have led scholars to avoid the kind of detailed historical reconstruction of liturgical history that would explain what informed many textual choices in favor of a less speculative approach that concentrates on an account of what these choices simply were. The theological history of rabbinic liturgy deserves no less attention than its text-critical analysis since every variant carries with it a meaningful religious message of some sort. How to proceed in attempting to meet both these needs in this brief and necessarily modest examination of the place of Jerusalem in the first few centuries of rabbinic liturgy?

What I propose to do is to examine a few of the major prayers (but not liturgical poems) that were incontrovertibly central to the rabbinic tradition as they are documented in the talmudic and geonic sources, which are in many cases representative of authoritative viewpoints, and as they are found in the Genizah fragments, which are often more indicative of less conformist trends. I shall deliberately refrain from defining texts as specifically Babylonian or Palestinian in order not to confuse textual evidence with its assumed provenance - nor unjustifiably to restrict the interpretative possibilities.

Yom Kippur Tradition

A start may be made with a liturgical tradition that lays strong claim to be one of the earliest documented in the talmudic-midrashic literature. It describes a ritual that took place in the Temple on Yom Kippur, and, given that it has no real parallels or equivalents in the post-Temple period to confuse or corrupt the text, it may be regarded as a reliable testimony to an important list of theological priorities inherited by the rabbis. The beginning of the seventh chapter in the mishnaic tractate Yoma records that after the High Priest had read out some relevant pentateuchal passages, he pronounced eight benedictions for the Torah, Temple-service ('avodah), Thanksgiving, Forgiveness of Sin, Temple (miqdash), Israel, Priests, and other (more general) matters. The Tosefta (3.13) identifies the first benediction as that familiar to the worshipper from synagogal (or, perhaps, academic) use; the next three as those included in the 'amidah; the fifth, sixth, and seventh as individual (unique perhaps?) benedictions; and the last as a special plea for the security of the Jewish people.

Further comment is provided in the talmudic tractates. The Palestinian Talmud (7.1) cites the concluding formula for all the benedictions; the ones that are of special interest to us in the present context are those for the Temple-service, Temple, and Priesthood. The latter two allude to God's special choice of these two institutions by the use of the phrases ha-bokher bamiqdash and ha-bokher ba-kohanim, and to the awesome worship of God in the imperfect tense by the use of the phrase she'otekha nira' we-na'avod. What is of special significance here is an alternative phraseology offered for the Temple. Instead of noting its Divine selection, the third-century Palestinian 'amora Rabbi Idi opts for a phrase about the Temple that refers to the Divine presence in Zion (hashokhen betziyyon). Little is added to the discussion by the Babylonian Talmud (70a), which merely cites (but not in the Munich manuscript) a tannaitic tradition virtually at one with that of the Tosefta. What then of Jerusalem the city? Its only mention in this context is in variant texts of the Mishnah which cite it between Israel and the Priests and therefore create a textual problem by referring to nine, rather than eight items.(1)

Grace After Meals

Another liturgical phenomenon that is widely recognized as having had its origins in the pre-rabbinic period is the grace after meals. What remain more open questions are the degree to which its four benedictions - dealing with food, the land of Israel, Jerusalem, and God's goodness - are a revolutionary innovation of the tannaitic rabbis and whether each was appended to a basic text-form at a different point of development. In this case, however, there is little difficulty in locating the context in which Jerusalem occurs, since the third benediction is devoted to it and the concluding formula is exclusively concerned with that city. The problem here is that on approaching sources from the first Christian millennium, one is confronted with a wide variety of content. The closing benediction itself, if we include both the sabbath and weekday versions, may refer simply to the building of Jerusalem, to the consolation of Zion through the building of Jerusalem, or to David's God and the building of Jerusalem.

Such complexity appears positively straightforward when compared with the situation as regards the subjects covered in the body of the benediction, according to a variety of textual and literary traditions. It is obviously not possible in the present context to record all the variants, but if the briefest and most extensive lists are set side by side, the range of content will be clear. The simplest formulation would appear to have included a request for God's mercy to be shown to his people Israel, his city Jerusalem, his Temple (hekhal, ma'on), and, perhaps as early additions to such a formulation, to his glorious habitation, Zion and to the Davidic dynasty. Some versions place an emphasis on the secure provision of food while others make a link between that subject and the main theme of the benediction by stressing that the worshipper's consumption of food and drink by no means indicates that he has forgotten the plight of Jerusalem and its need for restoration. In a number of texts, that theme of restoration is spelled out, in some cases after the concluding benediction, with pleas for some or all of the developments referred to as the consolation of Zion, the building of Jerusalem, and the return there of God's presence and rule, of the Davidic (= messianic) kingdom, of the sacrificial system, and of the Jewish population.


Given that the fourteenth benediction of the daily 'amidah shares with the third benediction of the birkat ha-mazon just discussed the central theme of Jerusalem, it is by no means surprising to find that they have in common many of the related topics that are to be found in the body of the text. The major difference between them is that in the case of the 'amidah benediction there are two options, of sound talmudic pedigree, for the treatment of the restored kingdom of David. According to one, it appears as part of the Jerusalem benediction while, according to the other, it is treated in an independent benediction. Inevitably, there are indications of conflated versions and of the insertion of parts of the text of the grace after meals, but three archetypal formulations stand at the center of most textual witnesses.

The first of these, which is perhaps the closest to the simpler format recorded for the birkat ha-mazon, invokes God's mercy first on Israel his people, on Jerusalem his city, and on his Temple (hekhal, miqdash, ma'on), and then on his glorious habitation, Zion; pleads for the building of an eternal Jerusalem; and concludes with a reference to God as the builder of Jerusalem. In the second formulation, the messianic kingdom of David is added to the subjects of God's projected mercy; these are again Israel, Jerusalem, and Zion, the last mentioned appearing on its own, without any specific word for the Temple itself. After the addendum referring to the Davidic kingdom, the Temple returns in the form of a plea made for the reconstruction of God's house and palace. Since the Davidic kingdom in the Jerusalem benediction is mentioned, the concluding formula understandably describes the recipient of the prayer as the God of David and the builder of Jerusalem.(2) The third archetypal formulation again has the simpler concluding formula on the one theme (boneh yerushalayim), as well as a plea for the building of an eternal Jerusalem, but any similarity with either of the other two formulations ends there. God is in simple terms requested kindly to return to his city of Jerusalem (or, according to a textual variant, make it his habitation) and there is no mention whatsoever of any of its other institutions.

Other Prayers

There are three other benedictions which use similar formulations in dealing with the topic of Jerusalem and which occur, respectively, in the service for the fast day of the Ninth of Av, in the benedictions that follow the haftarah reading, and in the benedictions that are recited at a wedding feast. The special prayer formulated in talmudic times for the Ninth of Av and inserted at some point in the 'amidah during one or all of the services to be held on that day is designed to make specific mention of the fate of Jerusalem. In its simplest form, this insertion first reads very much like the fourteenth benediction of the 'amidah itself, craving God's mercy (not his compassion) on Israel his people, Jerusalem his city, and Zion his glorious habitation - while then adding to the list the ruined city, whose plight and divinely promised ultimate restoration are duly noted. As far as the concluding formula is concerned, God is again cited as the builder of Jerusalem, or more complexly as either the God of David and the builder of Jerusalem, or the consoler of Zion and the builder of Jerusalem.

The initial word of the second blessing after the prophetic reading on the subject of Zion also occurs as either rahem or nahem and the variant concluding formulas once more contain references to either the consolation of Zion, this time with her children, or to the building of Jerusalem. Since the benediction directly concerns Jerusalem, the remainder of the content is also of importance for our discussion. The titles of Jerusalem are here given as "Zion your city" and "our house of life" and there is also a call for swift vengeance on behalf of those who have been saddened, presumably by its loss.

If Jerusalem stands as a theme in its own right in both of these benedictions, its relevance to the wedding feast is somewhat more problematic. One must assume that the philosophy behind its inclusion is that even at times of self-indulgence and joy one should remember the tragic loss of the historic and spiritual center. Be that as it may, there is still ambiguity about whether to place the stress on the joyous occasion or on the loss, and this makes itself particularly felt in two of the benedictions. In the fourth, the joy of the barren woman, joyfully gathering her children to her (kibbutz baneha), clearly serves as a metaphor alluding to the return of the Jews to Jerusalem since the concluding formula praises God as the one who will gladden Zion through (the return of) her children. The subject of the fifth benediction is the joy of the participants, requested of God, as he produced it in Adam by creating a wife for him (kesamehakha yetzirkha began eden), but the concluding formula varies in different traditions. One placed the emphasis exclusively on God's gift of joy to the bride and groom; another on such a gift to his people (or Zion) and on the building of Jerusalem; and a third on the creation of his people's joy in Jerusalem.

Again 'Amidah

Since this analysis has perforce alluded to such Jerusalem institutions, it will not be appropriate to leave the 'amidah without devoting some attention to the seventeenth benediction, that entitled 'avodah and dealing with the Temple service, at least in so far as the textual data are relevant to the matter of Jerusalem. This benediction is particularly important since it is highly likely that elements of it have their origin in Temple times. Here, the textual options are basically two, even if there is the usual phenomenon of examples that are not wholly consistent with either option but incorporate elements of both. In the first of these, the text remains true to the title given to the benediction in various talmudic passages, namely birkat ha-'avodah, by making use of the root 'avad twice in the body of the text and once in the concluding formula. God is asked to express his favor by dwelling in Zion, and a future is described in which his servants will serve him there and the reciters of the prayer will worship him in Jerusalem. The final phrase of the text is that God will then find favor in them and the concluding formula that the reciters of the benediction will serve him.

The second formulation has a somewhat different style, order, and content. It entreats God to favor his people and their prayer, to restore the service to his Temple (devir betekha), and to accept favorably their service ('avodah), including an ambiguous reference to "fire-offerings" that could allude either to the restoration or the acceptance. There then follows a final appeal for sight of God's merciful return to Zion, followed by a concluding formula that describes him as the one who restores his presence to Zion. It will perhaps be useful to spell out more precisely the differences between the two. The first formulation has a text that centers on what will happen liturgically in a future Zion, followed by a concluding formula that stresses (and presupposes?) divine service there, while the second has a form that centers on God's acceptance of Jewish liturgy, followed by a concluding formula that stresses (and presupposes?) his return to Zion. The mention of Jerusalem is unique to the first version and that of prayer (as distinct from service) unique to the second, while the concern with finding God's favor is common to them both.

Whether or not the prayer entitled ya'aleh we-yavo was originally more closely associated with another liturgical context, by the geonic period it is certainly part of the 'avodah benediction and consequently deserves some attention at this point in the discussion. The prayer is inserted on festive occasions and expresses the hope that on this special day God will remember his special Jewish connections. What these connections are is a matter of textual controversy, although it may safely be said that certain circles tended to expand the list into a kind of litany. Perhaps there was a simple form that referred to no more than the divine remembrance of the worshippers, God's people Israel. Be that as it may, one dominant formulation in the post-talmudic period also opted for a number of references associated with Jerusalem, not only mentioning God's city, without specific name, but also using a number of poetic terms for the Temple. The other specified Jerusalem by name, also cited "our fathers," and in some versions included the Davidic messiah, but made no mention of the Temple.

Five Other Contexts

Before an attempt is made to summarize and analyze the textual evidence, attention must be drawn to some additional data relating to Jerusalem's treatment in five other contexts, where it is of less central significance than in the cases noted above. In the musaf prayer for the pilgrim festivals, the basic theme is the future offering, on the respective occasions, of the requisite sacrifices ordained in the Pentateuch. Again there are two basic styles. In the first, biblical verses play an important part, the formulation is not greatly at odds with those used for the other 'amidot of the day, and there are simple references to the return to Zion and Jerusalem, to the joyous sighting of the Temple, and to the festal offerings. The second version is more complex, differs from the other 'amidot, and expands on the theme of the return to Jerusalem and the future offerings in the Temple. It decries the current inability to make the pilgrimage to the Temple site and looks forward not only to the return of the people and the sacrifices but also to the restoration of God's presence and of the specific duties of the priests, levites, and Jewish population.

In the second post-shema' benediction of the evening service, God is entreated to protect the worshippers from catastrophes and to ensure their peace and security. While one version of the concluding formula remains with the general theme of God's protection of Israel, the other extends this to include God's "stretching the canopy of peace" over his people Israel, consoling Zion and building Jerusalem. The matter of peace is itself the subject of the final 'amidah benediction and in some versions the blessing is invoked not only on God's people Israel but also on his city, or, more specifically, on Jerusalem.

As far as the qaddish is concerned, the version that came to be used at the burial service and at a siyyum ceremony goes beyond the simple praise of God and contains a passage of messianic character, probably originating in the early rabbinic academy. The theme there is that God will establish his kingdom, revive the dead, build Jerusalem, reconstruct the Temple, and replace heathen ritual with authentic worship. Finally, it is interesting to note that the text of the ge'ulah benediction included in the Passover Haggadah (Pesahim, 10.6) also includes a messianic section, in various formulations, that looks forward to the restoration of the Temple and the sacrifices and to the joy to be engendered by that development and by "the building of your city." Another version, however, refers more simply to next year's joyous celebration of the Temple service in "Zion your city."

In Summary

What then emerges if we now attempt to capture an image of the thematic wood rather than the textual trees, first bringing into view the overall treatment of the city and its special institutions, and then moving on to the activities of God and of Israel, as they are all described in the sources examined earlier? The city is referred to as Zion, as the city of God, and simply as Jerusalem. The Temple enjoys a larger number of epithets, the basic forms alluding to it as a holy place (miqdash), glorious habitation (mishkan kavod) or house of God, while the more lyrical terms include hekhal, ma'on, devir, and bet hayyim. The act of liturgy, or divine service, attracts the term 'avodah but there are also more specific references to sacrifices, as well as instances in which prostration and prayer are included in the formulations.

It appears that the Jewish people involved one way or another with Jerusalem are priests, levites, Israel, and Zion's children, and there are mentions of the royal Davidic dynasty. Apart from the references to its worship of God, reports of Israel's activities are fairly limited, with notes about her exile, her renewed sight of the holy place, and her return. As is only to be expected in praises of God and his power, on the other hand, the divine activities vis-a-vis Israel and her institutions receive considerable attention. They include (as well as his divine status) his presence and his potentially favorable treatment of Israel; his mercy, compassion, and building program; his vengeance, and his blessing of happiness; and his eternal restoration of Israel's lost glories.

The data collected and the themes identified are also capable of being interpreted in the context of the variety of religious ideas to be found in Jewish liturgical material in the period under discussion. There is some ambivalence about whether it is the Temple or the city that is spiritually predominant. While the Temple is sometimes seen as God's place, it also functions in a special way to the benefit of Israel. The service of God may be expressed and his favor obtained not only through the Temple rituals, past and future, but also through other acts of worship. The separate functions of Israel, the priesthood and the levites are blurred in contexts in which more general reference is made to Zion and her children.

The theological and political significance of Davidic rule and the building of Jerusalem are stressed in some prayers while in others the dominant theme may be the cultic shortcomings of exile and how these will be made good by the restoration, or Israel's tragedy and how its pain may be assuaged by God's mercy, or the exercise of his power as purveyor of joy or recompense. Descriptions of the future may be oriented towards security, the recovery of what was lost, or the messianic eon. It may be presupposed either that it is primarily God's presence that requires to be restored to Zion, or that his special favor will be obtained when Jerusalem again becomes the center of his cultic service.

Some Interpretations

It is possible with some degree of confidence to identify early tannaitic material, distinguish it from later talmudic and geonic sources, and date the contents of the Genizah texts to the end of the first Christian millennium, and a reconstruction of the development of liturgical ideas becomes possible. In the period before 70 C.E., a realistic picture emerges of the Temple and its service, with the priests at their center and the people of Israel at their edge, all of them the beneficiaries of the special favor expressed by God for Zion, a term that alludes to the whole religious arrangement. During the talmudic period, there is the keen anticipation of a recovery from the disasters that befell these institutions and the expectation of an almost imminent restoration of the city of Jerusalem, the Temple and its service, and the special relationship with God that they represent. God's compassion and mercy will bless Israel with security, and the people's prayers, as well as their offerings, will attract divine favor.

As even the vaguest folk memories of actual Jerusalem institutions fade through the passing of the centuries, so the prayers chosen most commonly to relate to them become less embedded in experience and convey a more futuristic and messianic message. God's infinite power will bring unexpected joy and recompense to those suffering the pain of exile and persecution. A detailed picture is painted of an idealized future, with Jerusalem functioning with more than its former glory. The Temple and the Davidic kingdom are presupposed and each group of Jews is seen to be playing a part in the scene. Economy of expression and simplicity of language, particularly as championed by the Babylonian formulations, give way to the kind of generous augmentation and colorful vocabulary that are more characteristic of Palestinian prayer texts.

What if, however, the dating of tannaitic material is more problematic and the talmudic traditions as they have come down to us are less than reliable witnesses to the precise prayer forms of the talmudic period? Perhaps geonic testimonies are not disinterested records of liturgical developments but contain more than their share of propaganda on behalf of their own notions and ambitions. Is there always such a clear-cut distinction between what is authoritative and Babylonian on the one hand and what is deviant and Palestinian on the other? Conceivably, Genizah texts of the ninth and tenth centuries are authentic bearers of liturgical traditions that predate the geonic tendency to standardization but became popular only afterwards. It must be allowed that such doubts would call into question some of the chronological reconstruction just attempted. At the same time, however, it would still be possible to maintain that the religious ideas identified in the liturgical texts examined, in all their variety and difference of emphasis, testify to changing conceptions of Jerusalem and its institutions on the part of Jews in the first Christian millennium. The changes may be due as much to the different milieus from which various forms of liturgy emerged as to chronological developments over a period of centuries. But a synchronic rather than a diachronic analysis would still detect the same rich variety of theological notions appertaining to Jerusalem. The problem is that any attempt to set their emergence and development in particular historical contexts suffers seriously from a lack of matching historical data. Whatever the methodological preference, there can be no avoiding the conclusion that Jerusalem stood close to the hearts and minds of Jewish worshippers whenever and wherever they formulated prayers that were central to their reflections on the present and their aspirations for the future.


1. Palestinian Talmud, Yoma 7.1, ed. Krotoschin, f. 44b:

[Greek Text Omitted]

There is some doubt about the precise identification of the Idi here since he is entitled "Rabbi" and not "Rav" and is apparently therefore not the Palestinian teacher with the strong Babylonian background.

2. Y. Luger, The Weekday 'Amidah Based on the Genizah (Ph.D. thesis, Bar-Ilan University, 1992; Hebrew; 2 volumes), 1, pp. 169-179. The two options are perhaps already presupposed in Tosefta 3.25, ed. Zuckermandel, p. 9. There are three archetypal formulations, the third of which is as follows:

[Greek Text Omitted]

STEFAN C. REIF is the Director of the Genizah Research Unit and of the Oriental Division at Cambridge University Library. His major fields of research are Jewish liturgy and the Cairo Genizah. His most recent books are Judaism and Hebrew Prayer (1993) and Hebrew Manuscripts at Cambridge University Library (1988).
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Author:Reif, Stefan C.
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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