Mount Moriah ֠Its Identity and its Name

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Jerusalem in the Bible
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #08: Mount Moriah – Its Identity and its Name

By Rav Yitzchak Levi



A.        Mount Moriah


            At the beginning of the story of the Akeida (the binding of Yitzchak), Avraham is commanded:


"Take now your son, your only one, whom you love – Yitzchak – and go forth to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I shall tell you" (Bereishit 22:2).


The text gives no clear indication as to the location of Mount Moriah. The only piece of information that offers us any assistance in its identification is the fact that Avraham walks for three days from Be'er Sheva until he reaches a spot from where "he sees the place from afar" [1]. Three days is a reasonable span of time for a journey on foot from Be'er Sheva to the Jerusalem region – but the verses say nothing about the direction in which he walks; theoretically Avraham could be heading in exactly the opposite direction. Still, the presence of a ram and a thicket in which it is entangled certainly fits into the Jerusalem area better than the regions that Avraham would find himself in were he to walk for three days in any other direction.


            The identification of the mountain itself is unquestionably far more problematic. How did Avraham identify the place from afar? What is it that makes this mountain unique, distinguishing it from all the others around it? Chazal teach that Avraham saw "A cloud attached to the mountain" (Bereishit Rabba 56,1), and this allowed him to recognize it [2].


            The name "Moriah" is mentioned in only one other place in all of Tanakh – in the context of the building of God's House, by Shelomo:


"Shlomo began to build the House of God IN JERUSALEM, ON MOUNT MORIAH, where God had appeared to David, his father, in the place which David had prepared in the threshing floor of Ornan, the Yevusi" (II Divrei Ha-yamim 3:1).


Here we are told explicitly, for the first time, that Mount Moriah is the site of the threshing floor of Ornan the Yevusi, in Jerusalem. Indeed, this designation is universally recognized (except by the Samarians) and there is no doubt that the mountain in question is the one situated on the north side of the City of David, where the First and Second Temples were eventually built [3].


B.        Significance of the name "Moriah"


            Many explanations have been offered as to the meaning of the name "Moriah"; together, all serve to illuminate the significance of the place from different and complementary perspectives. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba (55:7) offers a series of teachings on the name:


"Go forth to the land of Moriah" – Rabbi Chiya Rabba and Rabbi Yannai [discussed this verse]. One said, "To the place from which teaching/direction (hora'a) emanated to the world." The other maintained, "To the place from which fear (yir'a) [of God] emanated to the world"…


Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught: "From there the Holy One aims at the nations of the world, and brings them down to Gehennom."


Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai taught: "To the place that parallels the Temple on High."


Rabbi Yudan said: "To the place that I will be revealed to you."


Rabbi Pinchas said: "To the place of dominion over the world."


The Sages taught: "To the place where the incense was offered, as it is written: I shall go forth to the mountain of myrrh (har ha-mor), to the hill of frankincense…."


We shall now examine some of these teachings, and others, concerning the name "Moriah."


1. "Moriah" – derived from "hora'a" (instruction)


            This theme correlates with what we discussed in previous shiurim, concerning the location of the Sanhedrin – the Great Court – at the "place which God will choose"; the vision of Yishayahu and Mikha concerning the End of Days, when "Torah (teaching/instruction) shall come forth from Zion, and God's word from Jerusalem"; Psalm 122 in Tehillim, describing the thrones of judgments belonging to the House of David in Jerusalem; and the important place occupied by the kohanim in the justice system.


            However, in addition to the significance of the word "hora'a" in the sense of "mishpat," it also means Torah instruction. THE HEART OF THE TEMPLE IS THE TORAH. Let us review some expressions reflecting this concept:


a.                   "The tablets as well as the broken tablets were placed in the Ark" (Berakhot 8b). The tablets – a Divine creation with Divine inscription – were, in a certain sense, the essence of the revelation of God's word and the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai. The keruvim, symbolizing the throne of God's Kingship (see I Shemuel 4:4 – "The Ark of the covenant of the Lord of Hosts, seated upon the keruvim"), are placed above the tablets and the shards of the original tablets, which symbolize the contract of the covenant and the original connection between the Holy One and the nation of Israel.


b.                  The Torah itself is placed in the Ark. God commands Moshe, "Take this Book of the Torah and place it alongside the Ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be therefore you as a witness" (Devarim 31:26). Rashi, commenting on this verse, quotes a dispute in a Beraita in Bava Batra (14a):


"The Sages of Israel were divided (on this matter): Some said that a board protruded from the Ark outwards, and there [the Book of the Torah] was placed; others said that it was placed alongside the Tablets, inside the Ark."


Placing the Written Torah alongside the Tablets is a most obvious expression of Divine revelation for all generations, and its proper place is the Ark. Moshe hears the Divine voice speaking to him from above the covering of the Ark, between the two keruvim (Bamidbar 7:89). The revelation from between the two keruvim is the living Torah that is conveyed to Moshe – an Oral Law, as it were, revealed above the "Written Law" that has its fixed place in the Ark.


c.                   There are three Books of Torah in the Temple courtyard: A Beraita in Massekhet Sofrim (6:4) speaks of three Books of the Torah that were in the Temple courtyard, and it was against these that all Books of Torah were checked. Likewise, the Gemara (Ketubot 106a) asserts that "Those who used to check [Torah] books in Jerusalem would receive their wages from the Temple fund." In other words, the Temple was the central location for checking Torah scrolls.


d.                  The Temple was a meeting place to encounter the great Sages of the generation. We find that Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai would sit in the shade of the Sanctuary (Pesachim 26a), and Rabban Gamliel would sit on the steps of the Temple Mount (Tosefta Sanhedrin 2:2). Apparently, one of the aims of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem was the possibility of meeting the Torah Sages of the generation, who would sit in the Temple Mount precincts and teach Torah to the masses.


e.                   The origins of the Mishkan – at the giving of the Torah at Sinai: The Revelation at Sinai along with the giving of the Torah were a one-time Divine revelation to all of Israel.


            The Ramban, in his commentary on the Torah (Shemot 25:1), explains that the Mishkan and the nature of the revelation that took place in it were a continuation of the Revelation at Sinai:


The essence of the Mishkan was that the [Divine] glory which rested upon Mount Sinai, rested also upon it, in a hidden way, as it is written there: "God's glory rested upon Mount Sinai" (Shemot 24:16), and it is further written, "Behold, the Lord our God showed us His glory and His greatness" (Devarim 5:20), while concerning the Mishkan it is written, "The glory of God filled the Mishkan" (Shemot 40:34-35)… And within the Mishkan there remained always, with Israel, the glory that had appeared to them at Mount Sinai, and when Moshe came there he would hear the Divine voice that had spoken to him at Sinai. And just as it is written, concerning the giving of the Torah, "From the heavens He made you hear His voice, that He may instruct you, and upon the earth He showed you His great fire" (Devarim 4:36), so concerning the Mishkan it is written, "He heard the Voice speaking to him from above the covering, from between the two keruvim, and He spoke to him" (Bamidbar 7:89)."


A similar idea is expressed by the Ibn Ezra in his commentary on the words, "When the shofar sounds long, they shall ascend the mountain" (Shemot 19:13):


The Divine glory remained constantly upon the mountain, until the Mishkan was built – as it is written, "The glory of God filled the Mishkan" (Shemot 40:34) – and then God spoke with Moshe in the Tent of Meeting. Perhaps then Moshe sounded the shofar, permitting the nation to ascend the mountain now that the Divine glory had departed from it.


In other words, the Divine glory rested upon Mount Sinai up until the building of the Mishkan; only then did Moshe sound the shofar, AND THE DIVINE GLORY MOVED FROM MOUNT SINAI TO THE MISHKAN.


            Likewise, the details of the Revelation at Sinai and the activities undertaken there parallel the details of the revelation and the Divine service in the Mishkan. For example, Moshe's ascent of the mountain in order to receive the Tablets parallels the entry of the High Priest into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, etc.


f.                    "Hak'hel" in the Temple – reenactment of the Revelation at Sinai once every seven years: In his Laws of Chagiga (Chapter 3, Law 6) Rambam has the following to say about the "hak'hel" gathering:


And strangers, who are not familiar, must prepare their hearts and turn their ears to hear with fear and awe and trembling joy – like the day when the Torah was given at Sinai. Even great Sages who know all of the Torah are obligated to listen with full and great concentration. And anyone who is unable to hear should direct his heart towards this reading, for the text prescribes it solely in order to strengthen the religion of truth, and he should regard himself as though he is commanded the Torah right now, and that he hears it directly from God. For the king is an agent, giving voice to God's words.


Once every seven years, at the end of a Shemitta (Sabbatical) year, all of the nation of Israel – men, women and children – gathers at the Temple to hear the words of the Torah read publicly by the king, THEREBY RELIVING THE EXPERIENCE OF SINAI AT THE TEMPLE.


g.                   Torah in the Temple – intimate encounter with God: The Midrash (Shemot Rabba 33,1) gives a wondrous description of the connection that takes place in the Temple between the nation of Israel and the Holy One through the Torah:


This may be compared to a king who had an only daughter. Another king came [from elsewhere] and married her. Then he wanted to go back to his country, taking his wife with him. The king said to him: "My daughter, whom I gave to you in marriage, is my only one. I cannot part with her, nor can I tell you not to take her, for she is your wife. So do me this favor: wherever you go, make me a chamber that I may dwell with you, for I cannot be parted from my daughter." Thus the Holy One tells Israel: "I have given you My Torah. I cannot be parted from it; nor can I tell you not to take it. But wherever you go – make Me a dwelling place, that I may live there." As it is written – "Let them make Me a Sanctuary…" (Shemot 25:8)."


i. The Temple – light unto the world: The Gemara (Bava Batra 4a) teaches that the renovation of the Second Temple by Herod was a repair for his slaughter of the Sages: "He extinguished the light of the world… let him go and occupy himself with the light of the world." I.e., the Temple brings much light to the world, just as Torah Sages bring light. Therefore the repair for their slaughter was working on the Temple.


j. "May it be Your will… that the Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days, and grant us our share of Your Torah": This supplication, recited at the conclusion of the Amida prayer, gives rise once again to the connection between the Temple and Torah. The Maharal (Gevurot Hashem, Chapter 8) addresses this connection and defines the Temple and the Torah as the "heart" and the "mind" of the world, respectively, because they are the essence of the reality of the world:


Just as the heart is in the middle of a person and from it all the limbs receive their vitality and life, thus the Temple is situated in the middle of the world, and from it all countries receive vitality and life. And just as the brain represents a person's intelligence, so Torah is the intelligence of the world. Therefore the Torah and the Temple are the essence of all that is. And these two things always go together, for the Temple is physical; it is the perfection of the physical world, while the Torah exists in the mind. Therefore concerning these two things we always say, "May it be Your will that the Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days, and grant our portion in Your Torah" – meaning, let our portion be part of something that is considered real and important, not part of vain, empty things.


k. "God looked into the Torah and created the world [accordingly]" (Zohar Teruma 161; Toldot 122a): In this teaching the Zohar reveals that the creation of the world was, as it were, the result of God's meditation on the Torah; the Torah is the "blueprint" of the world, and the world was created in accordance with it.


            In this context it is very interesting that the Torah – the world's blueprint – is placed at the spot that symbolizes, as it were, the site of its creation: the "foundation stone," from which the world was established" (Yoma 54b). The location and its significance sit well with the teaching of the Mishna in Avot (Chapter 1, Mishna 2): "Upon three things the world stands: upon the Torah, upon Divine service, and upon deeds of kindness." The world stands on Torah. The beginning of the world is the site of the Temple – where the Torah is placed, and the ultimate purpose of the world is for the Divine Presence to fill it, via the Temple, at the heart of which is Torah.


            Thus far we have treated some aspects of Torah as the heart of the Temple, in the spirit of the teaching that "from this place instruction emanated to the world" – in the sense of Torah instruction. (This in addition to the aspect of "mishpat" – justice – which we addressed in previous shiurim.)


2. "Moriah" derived from "yir'a" (fear, awe) – "The place from which fear of God emanated to the world"


            This understanding of the name suits the literal reading of the story of the Akeida: "Now I know that you FEAR GOD and have not withheld your son, your only one, from Me" (Bereishit 22:12).


            God "becomes aware," as it were, of Avraham's fear of Him only after he has been tested.


            The connection between the principle of fear of God and Mount Moriah throughout the generations as a dwelling place for the Divine Presence is a fundamental and well-rooted one. The principle of fear of God is manifest for the first time in the awesome Revelation at Sinai:


"All the people who were in the camp trembled…" (Shemot 19:16).


"The people saw, and they were shaken, and they stood at a distance. And they said to Moshe: You speak to us, and we will hear; let God not speak with us lest we die. And Moshe said to the people: Do not fear, for God is coming to test you, and in order that His fear be before your faces, that you will not sin." (Ibid. 20:15-17).


            "The day when you stood before the Lord your God at Chorev, when God said to me: Gather the nation to Me and I shall cause them to hear My words, that they may learn to fear Me all the days that they live upon the earth, and teach their children" (Devarim 4:10).


            As a continuation of the experience of Sinai, then, it is only natural that this concept be emphasized also in the Mishkan and the Temple. Indeed, one of the commandments pertaining to the Temple is that of "mora ha-mikdash" – proper awe for the Sanctuary: "You shall observe My Shabbatot and have awe for My Sanctuary; I am God" (Vayikra 19:30; 26:2).


            As a Beraita explains (Yevamot 6a): "It is not the Sanctuary itself that you fear, but rather He Who commands concerning the Sanctuary" [4].


            The concept of fear also arises from another commandment associated with the Temple – the "hak'hel" ceremony (Devarim 31:10-13):


"Moshe commanded them, saying: At the end of seven years, at the conclusion of the Shemitta year, during the festival of Sukkot, when all of Israel comes to present itself before the Lord your God at the place that He will choose, you shall read this Torah before all of Israel, that they may hear. Gather the nation – the men, the women and the children, as well as the stranger who is in your gates – in order that they may hear and in order that they may learn and fear the Lord your God, and observe to perform all the words of this Torah. And their children, who do not know, shall hear and learn to fear the Lord your God all the days that you live on the land which you are passing over the Jordan to inherit" (Devarim 31:10-13).


At the end of the Shemitta year – a year during which farmers, too, have spent their time engaged in Torah study – the whole of the nation of Israel, including women and children, gathers as at Sinai, an event which itself is referred to as "the day of gathering" (see Devarim 9:10; 10:4; 18:16), and the king reads the Torah to them in the Women's Section of the Temple (see Sota Chapter 7, Mishna 8). The idea of this auspicious occasion is a sort of reliving of the Sinaitic experience once every seven years in the Temple – an experience of fear of God: "In order that they may hear, and in order that they may learn AND FEAR THE LORD YOUR GOD and observe to perform all the words of this Torah."


            It is no coincidence, then, that the mood of the occasion of the Akeida is predominantly one of fear of God [6]. Indeed, there are further midrashim that link the name of the site to the awe and fear of God that are related to it. In Ta'anit 16a the name is explained as follows: "The mountain from which fear emanated for the idolaters." The Tanchuma, expounding on the story of the Akeida provides the following insight as to the verse, "He saw the place from afar" (Bereishit 22:4):


How did he see it from afar? This teaches that originally this had been a low place. Since the Holy One intended to rest his Divine Presence there and to have a Sanctuary made, He said: It is not appropriate for a king to dwell in a valley; rather, he should be located in a place that is high, elevated and beautiful, and visible to all. Immediately the Holy One hinted to the environs of this valley that the mountains should gather together to a single spot so as to create a place for the Divine Presence. Therefore it was called "Mount Moriah," for OUT OF ITS FEAR OF GOD IT BECAME A MOUNTAIN.


3. "Moriah" – from the word "mor" (myrrh)


            One of the explanations that we reviewed in Bereishit Rabba connects the name "Moriah" to a verse from Shir Ha-shirim (4:6): "I shall go forth to the mountain of myrrh (har ha-mor), to the hill of frankincense," as a hint to the incense that was offered in the Temple:


The Sages taught: To the place where the incense was offered, as it is written: "I shall go forth to the mountain of myrrh, to the hill of frankincense.


Ramban likewise comments (ad loc), on the basis of the verse in Shir Ha-shirim, that "Moriah" is derived from the word for incense, although to his view this is not necessarily related to the incense in the Temple: "It seems correct, on the literal level, that this is like [the expression, "to the mountain of myrrh; to the hill of frankincense" – for myrrh and and cinnamon are to be found growing on that hill."


4. "Moriah" – arising from the word "mar'eh" – to show; "to the place which God will show you"


            While Avram goes to the Valley of Shaveh - the King's valley – of his own will to meet Malki-Tzedek, King of Shalem, and the King of Sodom, in the story of the Akeida he is commanded to go to A PLACE THAT GOD WILL SHOW HIM. Not only does Avraham not choose to go, he does not even choose where he is going; God decides for him.


            This point is of great significance; it is part of the essence of the Divine choice of this place. For both the First Temple and the Second Temple, the selection of the site of the Temple was clearly a Divine decision, revealed to man by means of the prophets. Before the First Temple is built, God reveals its place through the prophet Gad, and commands David: "Establish an altar to God in the threshing floor of Arnon the Yevusi" (II Shemuel 24:18). In light of this command, David purchases the site and builds an altar there. Likewise, at the start of the Second Temple Period, during the days of Zerubavel ben She'alti'el and Yehoshua ben Yehotzadak, the Gemara teaches: "Three prophets came back with them from the exile… and one who testified to them concerning the site of the altar" (Zevachim 62a). What we learn from this is that the revelation of the site and its selection are not in mortal hands; rather, it is God Who chooses, and He reveals the site to the leaders of the generation by means of His servants, the prophets.


5. "Moriah" meaning "marut" – authority, dominion – "The place of dominion over the world." According to this interpretation, "Moriah" is derived from the word "marut," meaning dominion or kingship. This echoes all that we discussed in the previous shiur concerning the Temple as the seat of kingship.


6. "God will provide" – Avraham's understanding of the name "Moriah"


            Following the Akeida, Avraham calls the site "God shall see" (Bereishit 22:14). What is the significance of this expression? Various explanations are offered:


- According to Rav Sa'adya Gaon, the name means that God reveals Himself at this place.

- Rabbi Avraham, son of the Rambam, highlights the intensive Divine Providence extended to this place, as promised to Shelomo when he built the Temple: "My eyes and My heart shall be there perpetually" (I Melakhim 9:3).

- The Chizkuni understands this expression as referring to actual sight: "God will see, and it shall be a witness forever that I have performed His commandments."

- Rashi: "The literal understanding is as translated (into Aramaic): that god will choose and look out for this place to rest His Presence in it, that the sacrifices may be offered here."


            We shall adopt Rashi's interpretation, according to which "God will see" is "God will choose." This interpretation is based on the expression, "The place which God will choose," which is repeated more than twenty times in Sefer Devarim. Indeed, in this context we see the roots "r-a-h" (to see) and "b-ch-r" (to choose) being used interchangeably:


"Guard yourself lest you offer your burnt offerings in every place THAT YOU SEE. Only at the place which God WILL CHOSE, in one of your tribes – there shall you offer your burnt offerings, and there shall you do all that I command you" (Devarim 12:13-14).


"Seeing" is interchangeable with "choosing" – i.e., seeing is choosing [7].


Indeed, the root "r-a-h" is used in the sense of "choosing" in other places, too. For example:


"I have seen for Me a king among his sons" (I Shemuel 16:1).


"And now, let Pharoah appoint (lit. "see") a man who is insightful and wise" (Bereishit 41:33).


Thus, the meaning with which Avraham imbues the name "Moriah" sits well with the principle which we discussed above – "to the place which He shall show you." In other words, the choice of the site for the Temple is Divine, and God reveals the place to man. It is important to note with precision that both Avraham here, and the Torah throughout Sefer Devarim, speak of a future reality when they use the expression, "The place which God will choose" [8].


7. "Moriah" – derived from "Emori"


            The Rashbam offers an original and innovative explanation as to the name:


"Moriah" – ha-Amori'a; the land of the Emori. There are many instances of the letter "aleph" being omitted….


            In other words, the original name was "Amoria," but the Aleph in the beginning fell away; this referred to the land of the Emorites – apparently, the central mountainous region [9]. According to this understanding, Avraham was commanded to offer up Yitzchak as a sacrifice in the land of the Emori – perhaps in order to demonstrate the contrast between his faith in One God and the paganism of the Canaanite nations.


8. "Moriah" meaning "Marva" or "Morit"


            Noga ha-Reuveni [10] proposes that the name "Moriah" is related to "marva" (or "morit") – a plant shaped like a lampshade, commonly found in the mountainous region. According to his interpretation, Avraham is commanded to go to the land of Moriah, which is characterized by this mountain vegetation.

Obviously, if we rely on this interpretation it is impossible to identify a specific mountain to which the Torah is referring.


C.        Summary


            In this shiur we have addressed the question of identifying "the land of Moriah" and the various connotations and meanings of this name.


            The different commentaries are more than just studies on the name of the place; they offer different understandings as to its essence and the various roles attributed to it. At the same time, the explanations complement one another, and what is common to all of them is that which emanates from God's Revelation in that place and His selection of it, and hence also from the revelation of His Kingship there: the Torah, representing the heart of the place; the dimension of "mishpat" which arises from this, and the awe that is therefore appropriate to this place.


            These interpretations emphasize principally one aspect: the fact that it is the place where the Divine Presence rests - God's House. The other aspect of the Temple – man's role in serving God in His House (including both "internal" service in the Sanctuary, involving the menora, the table for showbread, and the incense altar; and "external" service involving the courtyard and the copper altar for sacrifices). This aspect is less prominent here, but it complements the expression of the essence of the Temple.


            In the next shiur we shall address several elements of the story of the Akeida that are related to the essence of the place – Mount Moriah.



[1] Concerning the identity of the spot from which Avraham "saw the place from afar" and where he left his attendants until after the Akeida several opinions have been offered; we adopt here the view of my teacher and mentor, Prof. Elitzur z"l, who proposed the environs of the Armon ha-Netziv promenade.

[2] In his commentary on the Akeida in the Olat Ra'aya Siddur, Rav Kook points out the relationship between the command concerning "the mountain which I shall tell you" and the revelation of the place by Avraham's own vision, without any Divine utterance.

[3] It should be pointed out that the Torah makes no connection between the encounter with Malki-Tzedek, King of Shalem, in the Valley of Shaveh and the Akeida, even though the archaeological dig at the City of David - revealing remains of impressive walls, towers and a water system, dating to the Middle Bronze Period, i.e., the period of the forefathers – tells us that Shalem at the time was a large and important city. The command to offer Yitzchak as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah completely ignores the existence of a city at that site, for the Torah is not interested in describing the reality itself, but rather the encounter between man and God, or the spiritual reality, as viewed in God's eyes.

[4] We shall not discuss here at length the halakhic details of the fulfillment of this command; we shall note only that it requires special treatment of this place in one's preparations for visiting it and during one's stay there, as well as other requirements including prostration – which is a clear expression of man's complete self-nullification before God, out of awe.

[5] As emphasized in Rambam's words, quoted above (Laws of Chagiga, Chapter 3, Law 6)): "Strangers who are not familiar [with it] must prepare their hearts and listen with their ears to hear, with awe and fear and trembling joy, LIKE THE DAY WHEN IT WAS GIVEN AT SINAI."

[6] There is room for discussion as to whether Avraham's act at Mount Moriah is an expression of his perfection in the sphere of "fear of God," or an expression of his perfection in the sphere of "love of God." The Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim Part III, Chapter 24) adopts the second possibility and asserts that the Akeida was meant "to make it known among mortals [the extent of] what one ought to do for love of the blessed God and fear of Him… and as the angel says (Bereishit 22:12), 'Now I know that you fear God.'"

[7] I heard this proof from my teacher and mentor, Rav Yaakov Medan.

[8] In a shiur that will be dedicated to "the place that God will choose," we shall try to grapple with the question of why this choosing is formulated in the future tense.

[9] There are places where the name "Emori" is used as a general reference to the nations of Canaan, for example, in the expression "malkhei ha-Emori" ("the kings of the Emorites").

[10] Noga ha-Reuveni, "Teva ve-Nof be-Moreshet Yisrael," Neot Kedumim 1980, p. 128.


Translated by Kaeren Fish