Two Jerusalems

Two Jerusalems? No, I’m not talking about East and West Jerusalem, but about a word of hope embedded in the very spelling of the city—hope that we can use as we think about Jerusalem today.

The Hebrew name of the holy city is Yerushalayim. This spelling includes two yods—the Hebrew equivalent of the English Y or J—one at the beginning of the word and one in the final syllable. But in the Hebrew Scriptures, with just four exceptions (Jer 26:18, Est 2:6, I Chron 3:5 and II Chron 25:1), the name of the holy city has just one yod, the one at the beginning, so that you’d normally expect it to be pronounced “Yerushalem.” In fact, Yerushalem sounds closer to the earliest name of the city, Shalem, which is mentioned in Genesis 14 (see also Hebrews 7). Anyone familiar with Hebrew will recognize that this name is related to Shalom, meaning “peace,” “wholeness,” “completion.” So Yerushalem means “city of peace,” or “foundation of peace.” Yerushalayim would have the same meaning, but the extra yod and the longer ending tend to obscure the verbal link with the word Shalom, which is clearer in the simpler and, some scholars say, original pronunciation.  The vowel markings were added to the text of Scripture many centuries after the text was first written down. In the case of Jerusalem, an extra dot was added so that the name could be pronounced Yerushalayim wherever it appears in Scripture, but normally it would have been pronounced Yerushalem.

I know this sounds pretty technical, but this little technicality provides us with a clue to a much bigger truth that you might find most encouraging. Let me explain.

Jerusalem is always worthy of discussion, but even more so this time of year, between Tisha B’Av (July 26) and Rosh Hashanah (September 14), when we read the seven weekly portions from the prophet Isaiah that are called the Haftarot of Comfort. Tisha B’Av, of course, is a day of mourning over the loss of the holy temple, and it’s not fitting to enter the holy day of Rosh Hashanah in a state of gloom. So, for seven weeks, we read passages of comfort from Isaiah, beginning with chapter 40: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. / Speak tenderly to Jerusalem . . .”

The comfort that awaits God’s people begins with a message of hope for Jerusalem. Isaiah spoke of the Jerusalem of his day, destined for destruction at the hand of the Babylonians, and also of a future Jerusalem to be restored, as we read in a later Haftarah of Comfort: “Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted his people; he has redeemed Jerusalem” (Is. 52:9). There are two Jerusalems, then—the Jerusalem of this age, awaiting redemption, and the Jerusalem of the age to come, Jerusalem redeemed. The extra yod in Yerushalayim hints at this two-fold nature by changing the pronunciation of the word into the plural, with the familiar –im ending.

But there’s more, because the ending isn’t simply –im, the plural ending, but –ayim, the dual ending. Regel is foot, reglayim is two feet; yom is day, yomayim is two days, etc. Once when my wife, Jane, and I were in Israel and needed to take a bus into town, our friends told us to tell the driver “pamayim” when we got on, meaning twice or double—in other words, two tickets. So, here’s my midrashic interpretation: Yerushalayim speaks of a dual Jerusalem, one Jerusalem that is really a pair. Somewhere in their reading of the prophets, the Hebrew scholars began to pronounce it this way—not the simple Yerushalem but Yerushalayim, the city that is and the city that will be. The promise of the age to come is embedded in the very name of the city.

Yerushalayim as a dual noun is a key to properly understanding the hope of redemption. Often, especially in the Christian world, this hope is misinterpreted to mean that the new Jerusalem replaces or supplants the old. But if the hope is embedded in the very name of the city then the old contains the new, and the new fulfills the old without replacing it. In the very name of the city that is a source of strife among all nations today is the hint of the age to come, when Jerusalem will be a source of peace for all nations. As the last of the Haftarot of Comfort says,

You who put the Lord in remembrance,
take no rest,
and give him no rest
until he establishes Jerusalem
and makes it a praise in the earth. Isaiah 62:6b-7


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