Topography of Ancient Jerusalem ֠Part II

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy


In this shiur we shall examine various aspects of the location of the city, reasons for its selection, the stages of its development, and the spiritual significance of its expansion.


1.         Reasons for the choice of this city


Every ancient city had four main factors influencing the choice of its location: water, security, proximity to a road, and proximity to agricultural areas.


We shall now investigate how these factors influenced the choice of Jerusalem by its earliest Canaanite inhabitants [1].


a.              Water – In the nearby Wadi Kidron, on the eastern slopes of the city, the Gichon spring flows all year round, undoubtedly capable of supplying the water needs of the city's inhabitants (in addition to cisterns that existed on private properties).


b.              Security – the city is relatively well protected by Wadi Kidron to the east and the south, and the Middle Wadi in the west and the south. On the northern side of the city there is no natural protection [2], and therefore from this perspective its overall protection is incomplete.


c.              Proximity to a road (see map A) - the city is not close to a road. The highway passed, naturally, over the watershed (Chevron Road up until the old railway station, center of town, the entrance to the city, and from there northward via Romema up to the area of French Hill). A narrative illustrating this fact quite clearly is the story of the Concubine in Giv'a. The man described in the story came with his concubine from Bethlehem in Yehuda, and on his way down to the bottom of the mountain of Ephraim he passed by Yevus and deliberated as to whether to turn off to this Jebusite city or not (Shoftim 19).


The formulation of the text tells us that the city was not located on the highway but rather at some distance from it [3]. Thus, from this point of view, its location is not ideal.


d.              Agricultural areas – there were no significant fields or broad valleys in proximity to the ancient city; this factor, too, is less than ideal.


We may summarize these factors in relation to Jerusalem by saying that the main reason for its ancient inhabitants choosing to settle there was the availability of water, and – to a significant extent – also the security factor (imperfect as it was). The other factors did not exist here. Our principal conclusion is, therefore, that King David chose Jerusalem despite its topographical conditions, rather than because of them. Although the natural conditions of the city were less than ideal, other – spiritual - reasons drew him to it. His motivation in choosing Jerusalem was the desire to unite, by means of his kingship, the tribes of Binyamin and Yehuda, representing the children of Rachel and Leah respectively. Hence, in this case, it is specifically an examination of the topography that proves that the reasons for choosing this city were based on the spiritual significance of the place.


2.         Stages of Development of the City (see map B)


Having examined the basic topographical conditions of the ancient city, let us now briefly review the stages of its development – particularly in light of archaeological findings.


First stage: The south-eastern hill


The beginnings of the ancient city – in the Chalcolithic period – are to be found in the southern part of the eastern hill. Settlement began here around the spring and continued to spread westward. The boundaries were, as noted, Wadi Kidron in the east and to the south, with the Middle Wadi in the west and the south. The area of the city remained the same from its beginnings, throughout the Early and Middle Bronze Age (corresponding to the period of the forefathers) and the Later Bronze Age (corresponding to the period of the conquest and settlement of the land), up until the time of King David – including his reign (it was during the reign of David that the altar was established at the threshing floor of Aravna the Jebusite – on Mount Moriah).


Second stage: The entire eastern hill


The city expanded to include Mount Moriah to the north and the City of David to the south. During the time of Shelomo, with the construction of the king's palace and the House of God, the city expanded northward to include the Millo [4]. Shelomo built a wall around the entire city, including the entire eastern hill.


Third stage: Westward expansion


A central question that occupied scholars for over a hundred years was during which period the city expanded westward so as to include the area of the Jewish and Armenian Quarters of today, and Mount Zion. After the Six-Day War the puzzle was finally solved, when Prof. Avigad conducted an archaeological dig in the Jewish Quarter and found a massive wall, which he dated back to the 8th century B.C.E. – the days of Chizkiyahu. The discovery of this wall immediately ended the decades-long debate [5].


We have reviewed the expansion of the city up until the end of the First Temple period. Towards the end of the Second Temple period, the city developed most significantly in a northern direction, but this process actually began at the end of the First Temple period, where – as far as we are able to ascertain – it overflowed northward beyond the existing wall. It may be that these are the areas outside of the wall referred to by the prophet Tzefanya (1:10) as "Geva'ot" ("Hills") [6] and by the prophet Yirmiyahu, perhaps, as "the hill of Garev" and "Go'a" (31:38).


3. Spiritual significance of the expansion of the city


We shall examine this subject from two different angles: the halakhic and the philosophical.


a. The halakhic aspect [7]


Nechemya (12:27-47) describes the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem at the beginning of the period of the return following the Babylonian exile. Chazal deduce various halakhic principles from this description as to the manner in which the city is to be expanded (Gemara – Shevu'ot 14a, 15b). The Rambam summarizes the necessary conditions for expansion of the city (Laws of the Temple, 6:12-14) as follows:


"How are the city boundaries expanded? The Beit Din offer two thanksgiving sacrifices and take the leavened bread from them, and the [people of the] Beit Din proceed after the two offerings, and the two offerings one after the other, and they stand with harps and lyres and cymbals at every corner and at every stone in Jerusalem, and declare: 'I shall extol you, Lord, for You have lifted me up…' – until they reach the boundary of the area that they are sanctifying, and they stop there. There they eat one of the breads of the two thanksgiving offerings, and the second is burned. The prophet determines which is to be burned and which to be eaten.


Likewise, if area is added to the Sanctuary, it is to be sanctified with portions of the mincha offering. Just as the thanksgiving offering that is eaten in [the new area of] Jerusalem causes it [the area] to be sanctified, so the Sanctuary – which is the only place where parts of the mincha offering may be eaten, is sanctified through them, and they are eaten at the boundary of the area that they sanctify."


The expansion of the city has various ramifications from the point of view of the sanctity of the city – such as the consumption of sacrificial foods of lesser sanctity, ma'aser sheni, etc. This law rests upon a perception that the Temple, the House of God, is the place where the Divine Presence rests. The city that is surrounded by the wall is built around the place where God's Presence rests. Therefore, its expansion symbolizes a spreading of God's Presence in the world, the expansion of the manifestation of God's Kingship, and therefore it is performed specifically by a prophet, the Sanhedrin, and the urim ve-tumim [8].


b. The spiritual aspect


Chazal describe, in several different sources, how the Temple in particular and Jerusalem in general have an aspect to them that exceeds the physical measure of the place. In other words, this place has a quality that highlights its lack of dependence on physical space; it is above space.


The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 5:8) tells us that in the case of both the Mishkan and Jerusalem, "The smaller bore the greater" – i.e., there is no significance to the area itself and its limitations, since even in a small area an enormous number of people could be accommodated. This itself, explains the Midrash, is an expression of the fact that God's Presence rests in this place: "Thereby you shall know that the Living God is in your midst" [9].


This special reality exists in modern-day Jerusalem and will continue to exist in the future.


The expansion of the city beyond its boundaries is fundamentally bound up with the Holy of Holies, the place of the Creation of the world: "The place of the Ark is not related to physical area" (Megilla 10b).


"A person never said to his fellow, 'It is too crowded for me to sleep in Jerusalem' (Avot 5:5)


"When they stood, it was crowded; when they prostrated themselves, they had place."


Jerusalem as a whole is fundamentally connected to the place of the Creation of the world, and the inner meaning of this fact is that the limitations of space are suspended there. A place which, by its essence, is above space will not be defined or limited by considerations of space [10].


4. The future expansion of the city in the time to come


1. Expansion of the city in prophetical visions


Jerusalem of the future is described as a city that bursts beyond all of its original boundaries. This phenomenon is described by various prophets, as well as by Chazal in great detail.


Yishayahu addresses Jerusalem (54:1-3) as follows:


"Sing, barren one who did not bear; break forth into song and call out – she who did not travail in childbirth, for the children of the desolate one are more numerous than the children of the married one, says God. Enlarge the place of your tent and the let them stretch the curtains of your habitations, spare not; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. For you shall burst forth to the right and to the left, and your seed shall possess nations, and cause desolate cities to be inhabited." (see also Yishayahu 49:21).


The instruction to Zion is to prepare a broad space so as to be able to absorb all of its children. The expansion of the boundaries of Jerusalem and of Eretz Yisrael, according to this prophecy, involves the land of the nations. Further on, this prophecy describes the rebuilding of the city with peace and justice, with glory, splendor, and precious stones. The enemies of the city will not be able to prevail over it, and God's covenant with David is destined to be renewed; the nations will obey Israel and will come to their land for the glory of God.


In other words, the beginning of the process described in the prophecy is the expansion of the population, causing the expansion of the city. This process of expansion will involve, at the same time, a possession of the nations living in the land, and these will ultimately recognize the Kingship of God. Thus the city will be rebuilt with peace, with the nations of the world recognizing God's absolute reign. This is itself the rebuilding of Jerusalem with peace [11].


The prophet who provides the most explicit description of the expansion of Jerusalem beyond all physical measure is Zekharya (2:5-9) –


"I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold – a man, an in his hand a measuring cord. I said, 'Where are you going?' He told me, 'To measure Jerusalem; to see how broad and how long it is.' And behold, the angel who was speaking to me went out, and another angel went out to meet it. And he said to me, 'Run; speak to that lad, saying: Jerusalem shall be inhabited like the unwalled towns for the multitude of people and cattle within it. And I shall be for it, says God, a wall of fire around, and I shall be the glory in the midst of it.'" (See also Zekharya 8:4-8)


What is common to the prophecies quoted above is that in the future there will be a new reality in the land as a whole, and in Jerusalem in particular, with a very great increase in population that will bring about a renewal of the city and its expansion beyond its original boundaries. The details of the expansion differ from one prophet to the next, in accordance with the period when each lived and the purpose of his prophecies.


In several instances the expansion of the city is bound up with a renewed Divine revelation upon the city, expressed in a change of its name. Thus we find that Yechezkel prophesies that its name will be "God is her name" (48:35); Yirmiyahu – "God is our righteousness" (233:16); Yishayahu foretells (62:2,12), "Nations shall observe your righteousness, and all the kings – your glory, and you shall have a new name that shall be determined by God's mouth" – in other words, God will be revealed once again upon Jerusalem, and will give the city a new name (that includes the name of God).


The expansion of the city, then, expresses the Divine destiny of the city – the city of God's Kingship. In this sense, the expansion of its boundaries is directly connected to the recognition by the nations of the world of God's Kingship, the cessation of their warfare, and the justice that God is destined to mete out to them. Since these are two sides of the same coin, the expansion of the city and its renewal are also bound up with a process on Israel's part of strengthening justice, righteousness and judgment within the city. This is a reality that gradually spreads throughout the world, finding physical expression in the expansion of the city to the point where it has no boundary and needs no wall, and where God's Presence dwells within it (as described explicitly by Zekharya).


2. Expansion of the city in the teachings of Chazal


Chazal, in several different places in various ways (Bava Batra 75b; Sifri Devarim 1; Pesachim 50a; Shir Ha-shirim Rabba 7; etc.) describe this phenomenon of the expansion of the city. In essence, this phenomenon parallels the creation of the world. It was from this Archimedean point, the "navel" of the world, from the point which God chose as the beginning of the Creation, that the whole world came into existence. It was by means of this that all of the world recognized God's Kingship.


In this sense, the expansion of Jerusalem in future days will express the spread of Divine manifestation throughout the world, as it did at the time of the Creation, and therefore the description also includes the physical spread of the city as well as its elevation up to the Throne of Glory.


It appears that from a spiritual perspective, the significance of the expansion of the area of the city to the entire world represents the spread of recognition of God's Kingship throughout the world, and therefore the very fact of its expansion is, in effect, the attaining of the Throne of Glory.


In various sources, and especially in some psalms of Tehillim, it is emphasized that the source of blessing is "from Zion," from whence it emerges and spreads throughout the world:


"God shall bless you from Zion, and you shall see the goodness of Jerusalem all the days of your life" (Tehillim 128:5)


"Blessed is he who comes in the name of God; we have blessed you out of the House of God" (Tehilim 118:26)


"Like the dew of Chermon that descends upon the mountains of Zion, for there God commanded the blessing – life forever" (Tehillim 133:3)


"May God bless you from Zion – He Who created the heavens and the earth" (Tehillim 134:3)


"Blessed be God from Zion, He Who dwells in Jerusalem, Halleluya" (Tehillim 135:21).


The essence of the blessing is the multiplying, numerous abundance that God grants to all of the world. This blessing is one of the expressions of the ongoing connection between the place from which the world was created and all of Creation.


In contrast to the blessing that constantly flows from Zion when the Divine Presence rests there, Yechezkel describes how, following its "banishment," as it were, from the Temple, the Divine Presence is found everywhere: "Blessed be the glory of God from His Place" (Yechezkel 3:12). The blessing emanates from God wherever He is – not from Zion.


Chazal discuss and interpret these verses in many different places. In Midrash Tehillim, for example (14:6) the influence of Zion on the whole world is discussed:


"Torah emanates from Zion – as it is said, 'For Torah will emanate from Zion' (Yishayahu 2:3);


Blessing emanates from Zion – as it is written, 'May God bless you from Zion' (Tehillim 128:5);


Divine manifestation emanates from Zion, as it is written, 'Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God appears' (Ibid. 50:2);


Divine assistance emanates from Zion, as it is written, 'And from Zion He shall help you' (Ibid. 20:3);


Life emanates from Zion, as it is written, 'Like the dew of Chermon that descends upon the mountains of Zion, for there God commanded the blessing – life forever' (Ibid. 133:3);


Greatness emanates from Zion, as it is written, 'God is great in Zion' (Ibid. 99:2);


Salvation emanates from Zion, as it is written, 'Oh that the salvation of Israel may come from Zion' (Ibid. 14:7)."


This Midrash expresses the spiritual and practical centrality of Jerusalem for the entire world, in the senses that it enumerates. Its centrality, here, means an influence that indicates the source of the blessing and abundance. In this sense, the blessing of Zion and its influence upon the whole world actually represents the continuation of the creation of the world, which was the first blessing that emanates from Zion to the world.




In this shiur we looked at the basic topographical features of the city, the reasons for this place being chosen, the stages of its development, and the halakhic and spiritual significance of its expansion. We pursued our contention from the previous shiur – that the topography of Jerusalem has spiritual significance. We are left with two topographical aspects which we have not yet addressed: the height of the city and its proximity to the desert. The former will be discussed within the framework of a shiur devoted to the inheritance of Binyamin – the portion of the Divine Presence. We shall mention here only the essence of the discussion as related to the context of our present discussion:


Jerusalem is chosen despite the fact that it lies relatively low. This choice expresses God's humility. Another reason for its choice despite its low altitude is as a contrast to the idolaters. The pagans deliberately chose high places, based on their perception of physical, material divinity. The Holy One – as the antithesis to their accepted view – specifically chooses Jerusalem, whose elevation is relatively not all that great.


Yishayahu foretells how, in the time to come, the city will change, and Mount Moriah will be uplifted. In the future reality the disparity between physical height and spiritual elevation will disappear, and all the world will "ascend' to worship at the mountain of God in Jerusalem – "For Torah shall emanate from Zion, and the word of God from Jerusalem."


The other topographical issue that remains to be discussed is the proximity of Jerusalem to the desert, and its significance. This will be the subject of the next shiur.


Map A


Map B





[1] According to archaeological findings, the city has existed from the earliest period of civilization, but the wall, fortifications and water works date back only to the Middle Bronze Age – the period of the forefathers; hence we specify "the earliest Canaanite inhabitants."

[2] We may say of Jerusalem, to borrow a phrase, that which Yirmiyahu said of Eretz Yisrael as a whole: "Trouble will start from the north" (Yirmiyahu 1:14), since this boundary has no natural protection.

[3] This fact has symbolic significance in that Jerusalem is attained not immediately but rather after some additional journeying – both in time and in terms of spiritual progress, when the nation is ready. We shall elaborate on this point in future shiurim.

[4] This subject will have a shiur devoted to it in its own right – the Period of Shelomo.

[5] This hill has many names; we shall review them briefly here: "The 'shoulder' (south side) of the Jebusites (Katef ha-Yevusi)" (Yehoshua 15:8; 18:16), seemingly also the "second quarter (mishneh)" (II Melakhim II 22:14; II Divrei Ha-yamim  34:22; Tzefanya 1:10), and perhaps the south-eastern portion was known as the "Makhtesh" (Tzefanya 1:10-11). This subject requires further study; we shall not pursue it any further in the present discussion.

[6] In the northern part of the ancient city (in the Christian and Muslim Quarters), in places where archaeological studies have been conducted, a layer of habitation dating back to the First Temple period has been discovered. There are also remains of a large trench to the north of the ancient city, in between the Damascus Gate and the Flower Gate, and to the north of it - along the length of the northern slopes of the Middle Wadi – there is a grand burial ground from the end of the First Temple period.

[7] An all-encompassing discussion of this aspect requires a shiur on its own; we shall therefore address here only the major source and its significance.

[8] The Amoraim known as Rav Huna and Rav Nachman are divided as to whether all of these conditions are necessary. This discussion is related to the question of whether the original sanctity bestowed on Jerusalem was temporary or permanent. The Rambam rules in accordance with the view of Rav Huna – that Ezra the Scribe merely made some earthly sign, since the original sanctity was bestowed on the city both "for its time" and for "the time to come." We shall not elaborate here.

[9] There is room to consider the spiritual significance of the expansion of Jerusalem following the Six-Day War as a direct fulfillment of the prophetic vision – we shall not elaborate here.

[10] There is room for discussion concerning the fact that "THE place" that God chooses, in order to rest His Presence there, is actually beyond the boundaries of physical space. What this means is that physical reality cannot contain the spiritual, which is beyond space and measure.

[11] This is a fascinating philosophical topic, it is related, more generally, to the phenomenon of the Temple, which embodies contradictions. We present here no more than a "reference" for further study of this profound subject.

[12] The expansion of the city is described by several prophets – for instance, Mikha 2:13, 14:8; Yirmiyahu 31:37-39. In Yechezkel's prophecy, the expansion of the city and the Temple is an integral part of the renewed dwelling of God's Presence.


Translated by Kaeren Fish