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Yom Yerushalayim – 50 Years of a Unified Jerusalem

I remember the day and the exuberant feeling. I was a senior in high school. I came to school that day for our graduation rehearsal. But the real excitement that day, June 8, 1967, was for the unbelievable news and moving pictures shown on TV the night before. On June 7, 1967, the Israeli army, in the midst of a defensive war for survival, captured the old city of Jerusalem. There were high-5’s all around! Jerusalem was now a united city and this reunification brought the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, under Jewish control for the first time in 2000 years.

Jerusalem is not just another ancient city among the many others in the land of Israel. Our Jewish law makes a unique charge and duty on us with regard to Jerusalem. The unique position of Jerusalem to the Jewish people was first expressed during the exile of Nebuchadnezzar after the destruction of the First Temple. By the banks of the rivers of Babylon, the exiled Leviim composed Psalm 137. “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 set Jerusalem above my highest joy.” (Psalms 137: 5-6)

These verses are the backdrop for and have generated many laws and customs established by our religious leaders over the many centuries of our continued exile. One law that demonstrates the centrality of Jerusalem in our religion is the requirement to face Jerusalem whenever we pray. Someone standing at the North Pole faces south. Another Jew visiting China, prays facing west. In Eilat we face north and in America we face east. In Jerusalem we face the Temple Mount, site of the Holy Temple.

Another familiar custom takes place at every Jewish wedding. Just before the conclusion of the ceremony when we exclaim our good wishes of “mazal tov” to the bride and groom, ashes are placed on the forehead of the groom. He recites the verses above from Psalms 137, and then he steps on and breaks a glass. This custom was designed precisely to comply with the words, “If I do not set Jerusalem above the height of my greatest joy.” The bride and groom must pause for a moment, at the pinnacle of their happiest personal occasion, and remember that Jerusalem and the Holy Temple are in ruins. Their joyous celebration is thereby rendered incomplete.

There are other customs referring directly to Jerusalem that are sprinkled throughout the cycle of the Jewish year. At the closing of the Yom Kippur prayers and again at the end of the Pesach Seder we say, “Next year in Jerusalem!” When we visit someone who is ill or a mourner we say, “May the Omnipresent comfort you among the other infirmed or mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” To remember the destruction of Jerusalem some people have the custom of leaving a small corner of a wall in their house unpainted; some women have the practice to slightly reduce the look or radiance of their jewelry. Others leave an empty place setting at their simcha. These customs are established to remind us that all of our joyous acquisitions and occasions are diminished as long as the splendor and majesty of Jerusalem and the Temple are in ruins.

The idea behind all of these laws and customs is not just because ancient Jerusalem happened to be the capital of the Jewish civilization or the location of the king’s palace and governmental institutions. Jerusalem itself derives its specialness from the two Holy Temples that existed there.

The sanctity of Jerusalem stems directly from that fact. In the time of the Temple, the city of Jerusalem was fit for fulfilling the mitzvah to eat certain sacrificial meat. This law demonstrated that Jerusalem, in certain cases, was considered a legal extension of the Holy Temple’s courtyard.  As an aside, the Talmud tells us that the women of Jerusalem never needed to use perfume. The reason? The aroma and fragrance from the incense used on the altar in the Temple permeated the air of Jerusalem. Again we see that due to its relationship to the Holy Temple, Jerusalem always had a sweet and beautiful smell about it.

Both Holy Temples were built with a special chamber where the Supreme Court of Israel, the Sanhedrin, would convene. The 71 top Torah scholars and their students were readily accessible in and around Jerusalem. The requirement for the Sanhedrin to sit in session in Jerusalem is mentioned in a statement from the prophet Isaiah. We recite this law whenever the Torah is taken out of the ark. “כי מציון תצא תורה ודבר השם מירושלים”, “For the Torah shall come forth from Zion and the word of Hashem from Jerusalem.” The word of Hashem is established by the great Torah scholars of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.

Lt. General Mordecai (Motta) Gur, responsible for leading his paratroopers to capture the old city of Jerusalem, was well aware of the long standing devotion of Jews to Jerusalem and its centrality to Judaism. Addressing his troops upon their recapture of the old city and holy sites, he said:

For some two thousand years the Temple Mount was forbidden to the Jews. Until you come–you, the paratroopers– and returned it to the bosom of the nation. The Western Wall, for which every heart beats, is ours once again. Many Jews have taken their lives into their hands throughout our history, in order to reach Jerusalem and live here. Endless words of longing have expressed the deep yearning for Jerusalem that beats within the Jewish heart. You have been given the great privilege of completing the circle, of returning to the nation its capital and its holy center…Jerusalem is yours forever.

As we remember and celebrate next week these 6 miraculous days of June, 1967 may it be Hashem’s will that “Jerusalem is ours forever!”

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan