the Land of IsraelWhile Jewish prayer is as old as the oldest sections of the Bible, its principal development as an organized, prescribed worship service belongs to the period after the Second Temple’s destruction. For the rabbis, prayer represented the proper replacement for the sacrifices, which could no longer be offered. Consequently, great care was taken with it, and the Talmud records many discussions concerning the proper subjects of prayer, formulas, formats, customs, etc. All had to be memorized, for the prayers were then recited by heart. As time went on, the fact of dispersion exerted its own demands for order and uniformity, and in the ninth century the first Siddur (Hebrew-“order” [of prayer]) was published.

It is helpful to recall that the Siddur represents popular theology, not as recorded, but as recited. More than revealing what the masses thought, it reveals what the masses were told. Each day the Jew prayed three times, and on those occasions the text spoke to him, repeating almost verbatim the prayers of the day before. Week by week, the same Sabbath liturgy returned, and after every meal the same grace was recited. These prayers of course reflect the basic tenets and beliefs of the religion. Here, then, one discovers a religion speaking to its people, instructing them. Among other matters, it taught them about the Land of Israel.

Persistently and repeatedly, the prayer book conveyed the message of the Land’s centrality to the Jewish people. The lesson was taught in soft tones, not spotlighted as the specific concern of any one section, but recurring as an ever-present theme. The Siddur attached to each of the cycles of life–the day, the week, the year, and the lifetime–its own corresponding cycle of prayer. Central to each were the basic values and concerns of Judaism, the Land of Israel among them.

The widest cycle was that of one’s lifetime. At the beginning of life and at its end, ceremonies were interlaced with recollections of Zion. After birth, at the celebration of circumcision, each baby boy would be blessed, “May he merit being in God’s presence three times each year” (a reference to the three holidays of pilgrimage to Jerusalem). After a death, each mourner was traditionally comforted in the context of the national tragedy- “May the Lord comfort you among all those who mourn for Zion and Jerusalem.”

Even at a third rite of passage, the moment of marriage, a time of most personal and individual joy, the longing for Jerusalem entered the text of the blessing given the bride and groom.

May the barren one (Zion) rejoice as her children are restored to her in joy. . . Praised be You, O Lord, our God, King of the universe, who created joy and gladness, bride and groom, mirth, song, delight and rejoicing, love and brotherhood, peace and fellowship. O Lord our God, may there soon be heard in the cities of Judea and in the streets of Jerusalem the voice of joy and gladness, the voice of bride and groom, the jubilant voice of feasting and singing. . . 1

Thereafter, at the height of the ceremony, a glass would be broken, a graphic reminder of the Temple’s destruction.

The annual cycle also brought its seasonal recollections of Jerusalem. Just as the Jew had once been reminded three times a year, via the pilgrimage festivals, of the centrality of Zion, so the holidays continued to be pockets of Jerusalem-consciousness. In the late morning of each festival, a prayer of return was recited-

Merciful King, show mercy again to us and to Your Temple . . . and gather our scattered ones from among the nations; our dispersed bring together from the ends of the earth. Bring us in joy to Zion, Your city, to Jerusalem Your Temple, in eternal bliss.

The anniversary of the Temple’s destruction was set aside as a fast of mourning and commemoration. Moreover, twice a year “Jerusalem” would be the final sound of the Jew’s most meaningful ceremonies- in the fall, at the end of the twenty-four hour fast of the Day of Atonement, and in the spring, at the end of the Passover Seder, the meal-and-liturgy of redemption. On those occasions, all gathered would cry out, “Next year in Jerusalem!” Whether the celebration was one of repentance or redemption, the lingering taste was renewal–”Next year in Jerusalem.”

Nor were even these occasional and annual reminders enough. Each day the Jew prayed three times, and every time his longing for Jerusalem was to be reawakened. “Let a new light shine upon Zion,” he would request in the morning; and later, “Bring us in peace from the four corners of the earth, and lead us upright to our Land.” These prayers stand out all the more for being the only requests in the central section of the service, which consists mostly of praise and declarations of faith. Thereafter, in the thrice repeated Amidah (the standing devotion), the Jew would pray, “To Jerusalem, Your city, return in mercy, and dwell therein as You promised. Quickly build it for all eternity, and reestablish the throne of Your servant David soon therein. Praised be You, O Lord, builder of Jerusalem.” The request was phrased in personal and immediate terms- “Let our eyes behold Your return to Zion in mercy.”

The Siddur was concerned with conveying much more, however, than merely the centrality of Israel. The Land had been a primary object of Jewish concern from time immemorial. A change had taken place, however, and this, too, had to be reflected and communicated.

The frequent association in the prayer book of “King David” with “Jerusalem” best illustrates the changed circumstances. David, the most successful of Israel’s kings and founder of the dynasty that ruled until the destruction of the First Temple, also became for the Jewish people the progenitor of the king who was yet to be- the Messiah. This savior would be a descendent of David, and his arrival would signal the renewed unity and harmony of all creation. Included in that golden age would be the reunion of God, people, and Land, and the rebuilding of Jerusalem. This was the new focus reflected in the prayer book- the Israel of the Siddur was an Israel of a time far off, the perfect city which would some day exist.

The contexts within which Jerusalem is mentioned often articulate this messianic longing. Sabbath morning the Jew prayed-

When will You reign in Zion?–Speedily, even in our time, cause Your presence to dwell there forever. May You be magnified and glorified in Jerusalem, Your city, for all generations, for all eternity.

The return to Jerusalem is seen as coincidental with the reestablishment of God’s sovereignty. No less than the supernatural was expected and prayed for. It is no wonder that the prayer book places the return within the context of the miraculous-

May He who performed miracles for our forefathers, redeeming them from slavery to freedom, redeem us quickly, gathering our scattered from the four corners of the earth.2

Neither is it any accident that the prayers centered around Israel are found in particular concentration in the Sabbath liturgy. The Jewish tradition had established the Sabbath as a “foretaste of the World-to-come,”3 a mini-messianic preview. In this day of rest and forced abstention from creative (or destructive) activities, the tradition found an anticipation of the total peace expected with the advent of the Messiah, when people would struggle neither with nature nor with their fellows. It was only natural, then, that the Land make a major claim for recognition specifically on that messianic day. Thus the end of the daily evening prayer seeking God’s protection is altered on the Sabbath to include mention of God’s protective care of Jerusalem. Even the hymns sung at the Friday night meal end with verses of hope for the return to Zion- “O were the Temple rebuilt,/ The city of Zion refilled;/ A new song we would sing there,/ Joyously ascending, fulfilled.”4

Jewish mystics were particularly sensitive to this association of the day of rest, the Messiah and Jerusalem. One of their number, Shlomo Alkabetz, in sixteenth century Safed, composed a Friday night hymn in which the Jew addressed Jerusalem in reassurance and hope. The prayer, “Come, O Beloved,” welcomed the Sabbath as bride each Friday evening. It soon became universally accepted into that liturgy. It reads, in part, addressing Jerusalem-

Spoiled shall thy spoilers be; banished afar

They that devoured. But in thee, evermore,

God shall take joy; as the bridegroom, what hour,

Blushing, the bride lifts her veil to gaze.

Stretch out thy borders to left and to right,

Fear but the Lord, whom to fear is delight–

The man, son of Perez, shall gladden our sight

And we shall rejoice to the fullness of days.5

The same prayer, however, took care to remind the Jews of the differences between Jerusalem as it then was, and the Jerusalem for which, and of which, they prayed. The contemporary city is therein described as sitting in ruins, dwelling in the Valley of Weeping, lying in the dust, “ashamed,” “confounded,” “cast down,” and “disquieted.” In such ways the Siddur did not allow the Jew to confuse even for a moment the ideal with present reality. If one’s eyes were set Zionward, they were also primarily set toward the future. The “city of the kings, royal city” was such in potential, but in the present she could only be called on, in the words of that prayer, to “arise, come forth from the rubble.” On the Sabbath in particular, but in all other prayer cycles as well, the “Israel” of note is a future, ideal, rebuilt, perfected Zion–in short, messianic Jerusalem.

Despite this emphasis, the Siddur does not reflect a process identical to the early Christian choice of the celestial Jerusalem over the earthly Jerusalem.6 For all the expanse of time placed between the Jew and his “Zion,” that city was still of this world, a measurable distance away. The continued preoccupation was with a return to the real Land, the same to which Abraham had once traveled. The earthly Jerusalem remained central to the Jew.

Of still greater import is that the real, contemporary Israel was not abandoned, even by the prayer book. Daily prayers recalling rain (or dew) were changed according to the Israeli seasons, not the local calendars of the various Jewish communities. One, therefore, could find snow-covered communities in northern Europe praying about rain, while in the summer, Jewish settlements in the deserts of North Africa would pray about dew!

The physical orientation of prayer, too, was entirely Jerusalem centered. The Torah scrolls in each synagogue were placed on that wall which was closest to Israel, so that the Jew could obey the commandment,

When one rises to pray anywhere in the Diaspora, he should face towards the Land of Israel, directing himself also toward Jerusalem, the Temple, and the Holy of Holies.7

The real Jerusalem was not abandoned, for there lay both past glory and future hope. Even that messianic future, it must be recalled, was desired “quickly, in our own time.” Toward that end, some Jews undertook rising every night at midnight to confess their sins and to pray for the immediate rebuilding of Jerusalem.

Still, the history of the idea and ideal of the Land of Israel demands recognition of the overwhelming impression left by the prayer book- “Jerusalem” is a messianic term. Even in the grace recited after each meal, the building of Jerusalem, though a prominent concern, is so grouped as to make it part of “the messianic package.”

Have mercy, O Lord our God, on Israel Your people, on Jerusalem, Your city, on Zion the dwelling place of Your glory, on the messianic kingship of the House of David, and on the great and holy Temple whereon Your name was placed. . . .Blessed are You, O Lord, Who builds Jerusalem in mercy.

“Zion” was more a dream than a reality.

The prayer book continued the work that the rabbis had begun. The latter had idealized Jerusalem, and had concentrated on its anticipated return to perfection. The Siddur, in turn, articulated that hope as a recurrent prayer, in the process crystallizing the messianic concentration. The effect of the prayers was to split the Jewish psyche- the longing for Zion became both internally active and externally passive. The Land of Israel remained an ultimate concern for the Jews, but they remained scattered throughout the world. The prayer book had the strength to bring Israel to all the people, but it did not have the strength to bring all the Jews back to the Land of Israel.


1. Citations and translations of prayers are given without reference. They may be found in any standard Jewish prayerbook. Translations are by the author, unless otherwise noted.

2. Prayer recited on that Sabbath which precedes the advent of a new month.

3. B’rachot 57b.

4. Final verse of the hymn “Tsur Mishelo” (The Rock, from Whom we have received food. . . .).

5. Perez was David’s grandfather. The reference is therefore again messianic. The translation is that of Solomon Solis Cohen, nineteenth century.

6. See Chapter 11.

7. Shulchan Aruch, “Orach Chayim,” 94-1.