The Many Names of Yeru-sha-la-yim

Yeru-sha-la-yim, the capital city of Israel has been the beacon of Jewish national aspiration for over three millennia. With great affection Jewish tradition ascertains that ten portions of beauty descended to the world, nine taken by Yeru-sha-la-yim and one by the world at large (Kiddushin 19b). Throughout history, The City had many names and appellations, God's City, Faithful City, and Holy City to name a few. In honor of Yom Ha-atz-ma-ut, Israel's Independence Day, let us look at some of the names given to this most beautiful and beloved city.

Yeru-sha-la-yim is one of the oldest cities in the world. In historical terms her name appears as early as the 19th century B.C.E in Egyptian records as Uru-sa-lim-um and later in an Assyrian inscription as Ursalimmu (circa 701 B.C.E). In the Bible, Yeru-sha-la-yim is mentioned 667 times. Indeed, from the period of the conquest of the land by Joshua (Josh 10:1) to the last verse of the Bible recording Cyrus' declaration for the right to return and rebuilding the Temple (II Chr 36:23), Yeru-sha-la-yim was at the center of Israel's experience.

The City had several names in early antiquity. At the time of Abraham, she was called Shalem after the name of the local deity (Gen 14:19; Ps 76:3).  Abraham called one of her hills Adonai Yir-eh, 'The Lord will see' (Gen 22:14), for here, according to tradition, was the place of the Binding of Isaac. In the time of the Judges The City was known as Y'vus, echoing the name of the people who lived here (Judg 19:10). David knew The City by the name Yerushalem as he set out to conquer her. Originally only part of The City, known as Metzu-dat Tzion, 'The Citadel of Zion' was conquered. This part was renamed Ir David, the City of David. Only then the rest of Yeru-sha-lem was incorporated into David's kingdom and became the capital of the monarchy (II Sam 5:7-9; IChr 11:5-7).

Most scholars believe that Yru-shalem was the original name of the city. The name consisted of the verb ya-ra meaning 'to lay a foundation' and Shalem, after the name of the Canaanite patron god of the city. Thus, Yrusalem meant 'The Foundation (to the temple) of the god Shalem.'  Jewish midrash took a different view. Basing it's etymology on biblical sources, the midrash made a synthesis between Shalem, the old name of the city (Gen 14:18), and yir-eh, meaning 'will see,' the name Abraham gave to the hill in Yeru-sha-la-yim where he was prevented from sacrificing his son Isaac (Gen 22:14). Thus the name Yeru-sha-lem, according to this midrash, is a tribute to both the king who ruled The City with righteousness at the time of Abraham and the Patriarch's own faithfulness (Br. Raba 56:16). Furthermore, in Jewish lore the name Yeru-sha-la-yim also means the 'foundation of peace.'  This lofty meaning is based on the root sh.l.m which means 'complete' or 'whole' and out of which the Hebrew word shalom is derived.

The name Tzi-yon is another name associated with Yeru-sha-la-yim. The origin of this name is equally as difficult to ascertain. Some scholars say it is based on the root tz.v.h meaning 'erect a mark' and thereby Tzi-yon means a 'landmark,' some connect it with tz.i.n, meaning 'protect', thus the name Tzi-yon means 'a fortress', 'a citadel' and yet others link Tzi-yon to tz.y.h, 'a dry place', thereby Tzi-yon means a 'bare hill.'  Regardless to original meaning, in Jewish tradition Tzi-yon, Ir David, and Yerushalayim are synonymous, referring not only to The City but, to the entire Land of Israel.    

It is important to mention in this context that the name of the capital of Israel is Yeru-sha-la-yim; not Jerusalem or any other foreign pronunciation which corrupts the Hebrew origin of the name. For a name is a word affirming existence. If the name Yeru-sha-la-yim is mispronounced her recognition as our capital is at peril. Let us not condone it by indifference. Let us sing with pride the words of Israel's national anthem HatikvahLeh-yot Am Chof-shi Be-artze-nu, Eretz Tzi-yon Viy-ru-sha-la-yim, proclaiming with pride the reality that we are a free nation in our land tzi-yon and in our capital Y-ru-sha-la-yim. Chag Sa-me-ach to all.

Professor Rachel Zohar Dulin teaches Hebrew and Bible at Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago.

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