The Road to Jerusalem (Part II)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Jerusalem in the Bible
by Rav Yitzchak Levi

Shiur 02: The Road to Jerusalem (Part II)

As noted at the end of the previous lesson, we will continue our study by turning our attention to the entry into the Land by Avraham, Yaakov, and Bnei Yisrael respectively, via Shekhem, Beit-El and Ai, Hebron, and Jerusalem – in light of the character of each city. In this lesson we shall focus on Shekhem and Beit-El.


1. The first characteristic of Shekhem, it is the first:

- In the entry into the Land – as we saw in the previous lesson, in the stories of both Avraham and Yaakov when they come from Charan (Bereishit 12:6; 33:18), and in Bnei Yisrael’s construction of the altar at Mount Eival (Devarim 27:2-8; Yehoshua 8:30-35).

- In the conquest of the Land – the conquest of the city of Shekhem following the rape of Dina (Bereishit 34)

- In being set aside as an inheritance – in the blessing that he gives to his son Yosef, Yaakov says: "I give you one portion (shekhem echad) more than your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Emorites by my sword and by my bow" (Bereishit 48:22).

One of the interpretations offered by the commentaries here (see Rashi and Ramban ad loc) is that "shekhem" (portion) here actually means the city of Shekhem, which was given to Yosef by virtue of his birthright (as the elder of Rachel's children). Indeed, at the end of Sefer Yehoshua we read of Yosef's burial in the plot that Yaakov had purchased, and which was given to Yosef's sons as an inheritance:

The bones of Yosef, which Bnei Yisrael had brought up from Egypt, they buried in Shekhem, in the plot of the field which Yaakov had bought from the children of Chamor, the father of Shekhem, for a hundred kesita, and it belonged to the children of Yosef as an inheritance." (Yehoshua 24:32)

- In the division of tribal inheritances, Shekhem represents the border for all generations between the children of Yosef – Ephraim and Menasheh (Ibid. 16:6; 14:7).

- The first attempt at monarchy, which ended in utter failure, was the coronation of Avimelekh in Shekhem (Shoftim 9:6).

2. The climax of the blessing of Eretz Yisrael is found in the inheritance of the children of Yosef.

- In Yaakov's blessing to Yosef, we read:

By the God of your father, Who will help you; by the Almighty, Who will bless you – with blessings of the heavens above, blessings of the depths that lie beneath; blessings of the breasts and of the womb. The blessings of your father are greater than the blessings of my ancestors, to the utmost limits of the everlasting hills; they shall be upon the head of Yosef and on the crown of the head of the one who was separated from his brothers…. (Bereishit 49:25-26)

- Before Moshe dies, he repeats Yaakov's blessing to the tribes and elaborates upon it. Here the blessing concerns the inheritance of Yosef, with Shekhem as its capital:

To Yosef he said: May his land be blessed by God; for the precious things of the heavens, for the dew, and for the depths that crouch beneath, and for the precious fruits of the sun, and the precious products of the moon, and for the head of the ancient mountains, and the previous things of the primordial hills, and the previous things of the land and its fullness, and the good will of those who dwell in the bush. Let [all of] this come upon the head of Yosef, and upon the crown of the head of the one who was separated from his brothers. (Devarim 33:13-16)

- The purchase of the plot of the field in Shekhem by Yaakov (Bereishit 33:19) is the first purchase by any of the forefathers for the purposes of a dwelling place (Avraham's purchase of Ma'arat ha-Makhpela was for the purpose of burying Sara).

3. Shekhem – a city of opposites

- First of all, topographically, the city sits in the valley, a low place, with Mount Eival to its north and Mount Gerizim to its south.

- It is interesting that the name "Shekhem" has dual meaning On one hand, the word has the etymological meaning of "division" (in accordance with one of the ways of understanding Bereishit 48:22; see Ibn Ezra ad loc); on the other hand, it also means "togetherness," as in, "Then I shall convert the nations into a pure language, that they may all call upon the Name of God and serve Him together (shekhem echad)" (Tzefanya 3:9).

- The various events that take place in this city are a faithful reflection of its inherent contrasts: some are positive events, related to the sanctity of the place and its "first" status; others are negative.

            Positive aspects:

            - The fact that Shekhem is a place of Divine worship upon Jewish entry into the land is apparent as early as Avraham's time (Bereishit 12:6). God's first appearance to Avraham in Eretz Yisrael is in Shekhem, and in its wake Avraham builds an altar there.

- Yaakov, too, erects an altar in the portion of the field which he bought in the city (Ibid. 33:20).

- Upon their entry into the land, Bnei Yisrael carry out the ceremony of the blessings and the curses at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival, with a forging of the covenant, and the building of an altar on Mount Eival upon which the Torah is inscribed (Yehoshua 8:30-35).

- At the end of Yehoshua's life a large gathering is held in Shekhem, where he makes a covenant with them and sets "a statute and an ordinance." The matter is inscribed in the Book of God's Torah, and a large stone is set up as a witness under the oak tree that was adjacent to God's Sanctuary (Yehoshua 24:25-27).

Negative aspects:

- The Sages declare that Shekhem is a "place destined for punishment" (Sanhedrin 102a) [1].

- In the stories of both Yaakov and Yehoshua we find that foreign gods are handed over and buried in Shekhem. Yaakov commands his household to get rid of the foreign gods among them, and he buries them under the oak tree that is adjacent to Shekhem (Bereishit 35:5). Yehoshua commands the nation at the same place to put aside the foreign gods that are among them (Yehoshua 24:23).

- Yaakov views the act of Shimon and Levi in Shekhem in a strongly negative light (Bereishit 34:30; 49:5-7).

- The reign of Avimelekh (Shoftim 9) was unquestionably a bad one.

- Shekhem is a place of divisiveness: first between Yosef and his brothers (Bereishit 34:13-15), then between the Kingdoms of Yisrael and Yehuda (I Melakhim 12). (In the Midrash Or Afeila [2] on Bereishit 35:2-4, Shekhem is referred to as the "bone of contention.")

4. Significance

Let us now try to consolidate the various aspects of the city and to define its character. Our hypothesis is that Shekhem is the northern gateway of Eretz Yisrael [3], the "firstborn" city of Eretz Yisrael, and that in light of this definition all the expressions of first-ness that we listed above are quite understandable.

As the "firstborn" city, Shekhem is given to Yosef – the firstborn son of Rachel, to whom Yaakov awards preference over the firstborn of Leah (Bereishit 49:3-4; I Divrei Ha-yamim 5:1-2). The first place is appropriate for a firstborn son, and by virtue of his status, Rachel's firstborn son receives a double inheritance in Eretz Yisrael. The significance of the birthright is “sanctity of the body.” This is the reason for the special blessing of the Land that is found in Yosef's portion, which highlights its connection to the firstborn of the sons through its special fertility. It is no coincidence that "Mashi’ach ben Yosef" is the first Messiah; he builds the physical, earthly dimension of the State, while "Mashi’ach ben David" comes after him to build, on top of that layer, the higher, spiritual level. Yosef the firstborn, sanctified with the holiness of the "peter rechem," receives the fertile inheritance around Shekhem, the "firstborn" city of Israel, and merits the "sanctity of the body" of Eretz Yisrael and its fertility.

A gateway is, by definition, a place of transition between two worlds - between that which is outside and that which is inside. Therefore the entire Torah is written on the altar on Mount Eival [4], just before the gateway, as if to say, “This is the ‘identity card’ of the country that you are entering; you are entering in order to fulfill the Torah in this Land.” As the Ramban explains, "For it is for the sake of the Torah that you have come there" (Devarim 27:3). This also explains the burial of the foreign gods specifically in Shekhem: before it is possible to proceed further into the Land, the foreign gods must be left outside.

However, a gateway is not only a point of transition between worlds; it is also a point of meeting and contact between those inside and the world outside. This is hinted at in the separation from the nations of the Land expressed by Shimon and Levi in their war against Shekhem. It is no coincidence that Shekhem served, in later times, as the capital of the Samarians, a place where the uniqueness of Am Yisrael and the differences between them and the foreigners was made clear. In this context it is interesting to note Rav Kook's assertion concerning the uniqueness of Yosef:

The sanctity of Israel is to teach understanding to those who have gone astray, to mingle with the nations and to teach them the ways of God, as the prophet teaches: "Ephraim will intermingle among the nations" – so as to bring sanctity also to the nations of the world, while Yehuda declares that the sanctity of Israel must be kept separate from the nations. (Shemu'ot Ra'aya, Parashat Vayeshev, pg. 73)

The fact that Shekhem is Yosef's capital explains this possible role, where "Shimon and Levi were the first who put their lives at risk for the sanctity of Israel, and waged a battle against the assimilation of Israel among the nations" (Ibid.).

But Shekhem's unique quality as a gateway separating two worlds is expressed not only in the division between Israel and the nations, but also in its inherent nature as a place of separation and divisiveness amongst Israel itself – first between Yosef and his brothers, and later on between the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Yehuda. As a border or boundary between that which is outside and that which is inside, then, a gateway may be revealed, in certain situations, as a place that is destined for bad things to happen.

However, there is another side to this coin. It is specifically as a point of interface that a gateway has the potential to unify "outside" and "inside." This potential explains why the Covenant of the Blessing and the Curse takes place specifically in Shekhem – on Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival. Indeed, if we pay attention to the details we note that the altar is built on Mount Eival, on the northern side of the city – the "outer" side, as it were, in accordance with what we have said above [5].

In this context, the gathering that Yehoshua brings together in Shekhem at the end of his life is quite in keeping with the character of the city and has great significance. At this gathering, Yehoshua presents the nation, in very sharp terms, with a choice:

If it is bad in your eyes to serve God, then choose for yourselves today who you will serve – whether it be the gods that your forefathers worshipped on the other side of the river, or the gods of the Emorites in whose land you dwell. But I and my household – we shall serve God. (Yehoshua 24:15)

In other words, at this assembly in Shekhem man chooses between God and the foreign deities. This is a sort of replica of the revelation at Mount Sinai, where Am Yisrael accepted the service of God and rejected idolatry [6].

Yosef is Rachel's first-born son. The firstborn – the beginning – holds infinite potential. Shekhem, the "firstborn" city of Israel, holds the potential for all of Eretz Yisrael. If the nation is worthy, this will be a place of forging a covenant of unity for all of Am Yisrael to serve God; if not, it will be a place of divisiveness and boundaries [7].

B. BEIT EL [8]

Beit-El is characterized from the very outset, in the stories of the forefathers, as "the" holy place. This is the place where Avraham calls upon the Name of God for the first time in Eretz Yisrael (Bereishit 12:5). It is interesting to note that after his journeys to the Negev and to Egypt, Avraham returns to precisely the same place from which he departed, "between Beit-El and Ai, to the place of the altar which he had made there originally, and Avram called there in the Name of God" (13:4-5). It is there, too, after separating from Lot, that the blessing of descendants and of the Land is given to him – the first explicit blessing that God gives him in Eretz Yisrael.

However, the person who gives Beit-El its special status is Yaakov, who stops there on his way to Charan, and who – on his return journey – makes this place the Divine sanctuary of the forefathers [9]. In this context, attention should be paid to the fact that the city is referred to as "the place" (ha-makom – a title that occurs six times in Bereishit 28 and four times in Bereishit 35), and to the nature of the revelation there: "This can only be the house of God, and this is the gateway to heaven!" (Bereishit 28:17). The Temple expresses, on one hand, the place where the Divine Presence dwells – the "house of God," and on the other hand – the place where man serves God in His home, as it were. It is a place that connects heaven and earth: "a ladder standing upon the ground, with its head reaching to the heavens" (28:12). The name of the place – beit El, the "house of God" – means that it is a 'mikdash.' The awe that overcame Yaakov upon waking was "yirat ha-mikdash" – the awe of God's Sanctuary. The anointing with oil of the stone placed there as a monument hints at the libation offerings.

In short – all the elements that we have discussed – the name "Beit-El," the ladder joining heaven and earth, the titles "the house of God" and "the gateway to heaven" – all testify that this place was a natural "mikdash" for Avraham and Yaakov [10].

Once settled, Beit-El became the boundary between the tribes of Rachel's children – Ephraim and Binyamin (Yehoshua 16:2; 18:13).

Following the episode of the "concubine in Giva," all of Bnei Yisrael gathered to wage war against Binyamin. We read:

They arose and went up to Beit-El, and they asked of God, and Bnei Yisrael said: Who shall go up first among us in war against the children of Binyamin? And God said, Yehuda first… So all of Bnei Yisrael went up, and all the people, and the came to Beit-El, and they cried, and sat there before God and fasted on that day until the evening, and they offered up burnt offerings and peace offerings before God. Then Bnei Yisrael asked of God, for the Ark of God's covenant was there in those days. (Shoftim 20:18, 26-27)

What is the meaning of this gathering in Beit-El, and why was the Ark there in those days? Was the Mishkan at that time not in Shilo? And what about the beginning of Chapter 20, where a great gathering of all of Bnei Yisrael is held in Mitzpa?

It would seem that the primal sanctity of the city did not dissipate after the period of the forefathers, and Bnei Yisrael – who were well aware of the holiness and uniqueness of that place – chose to go there to ask of God, to cry, and to "sit there before God," to fast, and to offer sacrifices. And so it was to this place that the Ark of God's covenant was brought for that period of time. The place remained as holy as ever.

During Shmuel's time, too – after the destruction of the Mishkan in Shilo – the sanctity and uniqueness of Beit-El were preserved, as we understand from one of the signs that Shmuel gives Shaul on the day that he anoints him as king:

You will be met there by three men going up to God at Beit-El; one carrying three goat kids, one carrying three loaves of bread, and one carrying a bottle of wine. (I Shmuel 10:3)

During this period, too, then, Beit-El retained its uniqueness as a site for pilgrimage where people brought animals, bread, and wine.

Following the splitting of the kingdom, Yeravam – who rules over the Kingdom of Israel from Shekhem – decides to separate the seat of his reign from the place of worship [11], and places the two golden calves in Dan and Beit-El (I Melakhim 12:29). The installment of the calves in Dan and Beit-El is unquestionably related to the fact that these are border cities. Yeravam establishes important centers of worship at the borders of the kingdom, "border temples," as it were – the northern one in Dan, the southern one in Beit-El [12]. But it is not by chance that specifically these two border towns were chosen. Yeravam proposes, as it were, a religious alternative to Jerusalem in the form of Beit-El – the 'mikdash' of the forefathers, with its primal, ancient sanctity [13]. Against the backdrop of its sanctity during the period of the forefathers, then, Beit-El makes a come-back during the period of the splitting of the kingdom, to become a significant place of worship – as happened during the period of the judges.

Various prophets addressed this religious worship in Beit-El, especially Amos and Hoshea – the latter regarding it as outright idolatry and a betrayal of the covenant between God and Israel [14].

Beit-El's special status is maintained up until the end of the First Temple period. And even when Shomron is conquered by the Kingdom of Ashur and new settlers are brought in, one of the kohanim who had been exiled from Shomron is sent back to Beit-El to instruct the new inhabitants as to "how they should fear God" (II Melakhim 17:28).


In this shiur we have examined Shekhem and Beit-El. In the next shiur we hope to address Hebron and Jerusalem, and thereafter we shall try to understand the significance of the route as a whole.


[1] The spiritual significance of the expression, "a place destined (mezuman) for punishment" is itself an interesting subject. It appears that Chazal understand that a place has a certain character and essence – in this case, one of bad things happening. This sits well with the assumption with which we introduced the first shiur – that places in Eretz Yisrael each have their own character and essence. The scope of this shiur does not allow for further elaboration.

[2] Quoted in Rav Kasher's Torah Sheleima, Vayishlach 35, note 24.

[3] Obviously, by this we do not mean that Shekhem was an official, formal border. It was not – neither in the Canaanite period (the period of the forefathers, during which the Land was inhabited in different region-states, each with its capital city); nor during the period of conquest and settlement; nor during the First Temple period, when the northern border of the northernmost tribes reached up to southern Lebanon of today. Our intention, rather, is mainly to characterize the place as a primal site through which the forefathers pass, thereby making everything north of it into an area that is of little significance in their lives. It is in this sense that Shekhem is indeed the northernmost point – a sort of gateway.

[4] This clarifies the internal connection between Mount Eival and Shekhem, which appear – at first glance – to be two distinct, unrelated sites. Mount Eival is connected to Shekhem by a fundamental bond, while the status of Shekhem as a "firstborn" city and a gateway explains the actions that are performed on Mount Eival.

[5] In his commentary on Devarim 24:4-8, Rav David Tzvi Hoffman writes that the Torah commands that the altar be built on the northern mountain, just as the slaughter of the sacrifices for the Holy of Holies in the Mishkan and in the Temple takes place on the northern side. What is the significance of this parallel? In his commentary on Vayikra 1:11, Rav Hoffman notes that, according to Ibn Ezra, the slaughter on the northern side parallels the location of the table (for the showbread) on the northern side. He explains that the north – representing the hidden, opaque aspect – is appropriate to the table as representative of the material assets of the nation. According to what we have said above, the altar is built on Mount Eival on the northern side of Shekhem – the "outer" side, as we have defined it.

[6] This idea is discussed in a wonderful booklet by Rav Yisrael Leibowitz, "Tavor ha-Aretz," published by Yeshivat Od Yosef Chai, Shevat 5748, pp. 14-19.

[7] Rechavam's move to Shekhem may have been a concealed aspiration for unity. As we read there: "For it was to Shekhem that all of Israel came, to coronate him" (I Melakhim 12:1). However, when it became clear that this desire was not going to be fulfilled, the aspect of divisiveness became apparent. First, concerning Rechavam himself, Adoram, who was responsible for the tax, was stoned to death and the king was forced to flee to Jerusalem (Ibid. 18-19). Later, Yeravam took up residence in Shekhem (Ibid. 25) and turned it into the capital of the Kingdom of Israel.

[8] While in Avraham's journeys reference is always made to the station "between Beit-El and Ai," in the stories of Yaakov the text speaks of Beit-El alone. After Yehoshua's time Ai disappeared as a place of any significance, and for all subsequent generations only Beit-El remains as an important site.

[9] It is no coincidence that despite the revelation at the time of the Akeida, Yaakov does not choose Mount Moriah as his special stop (at least, according to the literal text). The revelation at Mount Moriah falls into the category of an "act of the forefathers that is a sign for their descendants" – just a hint (at the Temple) for future generations. The Akeida was a one-time event that involved Avraham, Yitzchak, and God; there were no other witnesses, and the place was destined to be revealed anew to all of Israel only in the time of David, in the revelation at the threshing floor of Aravna the Jebusite.

[10] Chazal identify the revelation at Beit-El as taking place upon Mount Moriah (see, for example, Pesachim 78a and other sources), even though the literal text speaks of Beit-El. This interpretation by Chazal reflects the importance that they attach to Beit-El as a 'mikdash' in all senses; a place that served the forefathers as a site of both revelation and worship.

It is interesting to note that Yitzchak does not visit Beit-El at all. As we saw in the previous shiur, Yaakov follows – in many senses – the route set out by Avraham, while Yitzchak has an independent route. The scope of this shiur does not allow for elaboration.

[11] Unlike David and Shlomo, who chose to unite the place of their reign – Jerusalem – with the place where the Divine Presence rested: Mount Moriah and the Temple.

[12] Obviously, one of the major objectives in presenting a golden calf in Beit-El was to prevent pilgrims from visiting Jerusalem. We shall not elaborate further here.

[13] Dan, too, has significance that relates to the forefathers: this is the place that Avraham reached in his pursuit of the four kings (Bereishit 14:14).

[14] See, for example, Hoshea 4:15; 5:8; 8:5; 10:5-16; 13:2.

Translated by Kaeren Fish