Naomi Shemer describing the writing of Yerushalayim Shel Zahav:

"In the winter of '67 I was approached by Gil Aldema of The Voice of Israel. Teddy Kollek (the mayor at the time) had asked him to commission a song about Jerusalem. For many years, the Voice of Israel held a song competition on Independence Day, until then broadcast on the radio only (because we only got television in 1968). That same year, 1967, they elected, on a one-time basis to also commission songs from five professional composers, I among them. I found it very difficult to write the song, until I recalled the legend about Rabbi Akiva promising his wife Rachel a "city of gold," i.e. a piece of gold jewelry depicting Jerusalem. I chose Shuli Nathan to perform the song. She was a 20-year old soldier-teacher, with a guitar and a voice like bells. The song was a hit from the very first performance and, at midnight, when Shuli was asked to return to the stage, the audience was already singing along on the chorus... "

What sources inspired Naomi Shemer's song?

Understanding the First Verse

אֲוִיר הָרִים צָלוּל כַּיַּיִן וְרֵיחַ אֳרָנִים
נִשָּׂא בְּרוּחַ הָעַרְבַּיִם עִם קוֹל פַּעֲמוֹנִים
וּבְתַרְדֵּמַת אִילָן וַאֶבֶן שְׁבוּיָה בַּחֲלוֹמָהּ
הָעִיר אֲשֶׁר בָּדָד יוֹשֶׁבֶת וּבְלִבָּהּ חוֹמָה.

The mountain air is clear as wine

And the scent of pines

Is carried on the breeze of twilight

With the sound of bells.

And in the slumber of tree and stone

Captured in her dream

The city that sits solitary

And in its midst is a wall.

  • What senses are mentioned in the first paragraph?
  • What feeling toward Jerusalem do you get from the first paragraph?
  • Write three adjectives describing Jerusalem from your reading of the first paragraph?
Source 1

אֵיכָ֣ה ׀ יָשְׁבָ֣ה בָדָ֗ד הָעִיר֙ רַבָּ֣תִי עָ֔ם הָיְתָ֖ה כְּאַלְמָנָ֑ה רַּבָּ֣תִי בַגּוֹיִ֗ם שָׂרָ֙תִי֙ בַּמְּדִינ֔וֹת הָיְתָ֖ה לָמַֽס׃ (ס)

Alas! Lonely sits the city Once great with people! She that was great among nations Is become like a widow; The princess among states Is become a thrall.

  • What is the book of Eicha (Lamentations)? Which historical events does it describe?
  • Which emotions does the book of Eicha evoke?
  • When Naomi Shemer wrote the song, who was in control of the Old City of Jerusalem?
  • How many years had passed since Jerusalem had last been under Jewish control?
  • What sentence, in the first verse of Naomi Shemer’s song, refers to the book of Eicha?
  • How does the word “בודדה/solitary” describe the Old City at the time that the song was written?

Understanding the Chorus

First Reading

Read the words of the chorus and answer the questions.

יְרוּשָׁלַיִם שֶׁל זָהָב וְשֶׁל נְחֹשֶׁת וְשֶׁל אוֹר
הֲלֹא לְכָל שִׁירַיִךְ אֲנִי כִּנּוֹר.

Jerusalem of gold, of bronze and of light

Behold I am a harp for all of your songs.

See below for the additional sources referred to in the questions.

  • What colours are used to describe Jerusalem?
  • How would you explain the meaning of the word “light” here?
  • According to the prayer, where does light originate?
  • In the Rabbi Akiva story, a “Jerusalem of Gold” is a crown in the shape of the walls of Jerusalem. What does it represent?
  • Why do you think Naomi Shemer chose the Jerusalem of Gold image for the name of her song?
  • Who was Yehuda Halevi?
  • What do you think it means to be a “harp for all of your songs”?
Source 1

אור חָדָשׁ עַל צִיּון תָּאִיר וְנִזְכֶּה כֻלָּנוּ מְהֵרָה לְאורו.

Cause a new light to shine upon Zion, and may we all be worthy soon to enjoy its brightness.

Source 2

ר' עקיבא איתקדשת ליה ברתיה (דבר) דכלבא שבוע שמע (בר) כלבא שבוע אדרה הנאה מכל נכסיה אזלא ואיתנסיבה ליה בסיתוא הוה גנו בי תיבנא הוה קא מנקיט ליה תיבנא מן מזייה אמר לה אי הואי לי רמינא ליך ירושלים דדהבא

Rabbi Akiva became betrothed to the daughter of Kalba Savua. When Kalba Savua heard about their betrothal, he took a vow prohibiting her from eating from his property. Despite this, she went ahead and married him. In the winter they would sleep in a storehouse of straw, and he [Rabbi Akiva] would gather strands of straw from her hair. He said to her: If I had the means I would present you with a Jerusalem of Gold.

Source 3

ר׳ יהודה הלוי

ציון, הלא תשאלי לשלום אסיריך

דורשי שלומך והם יתר עדריך

...

לבכות ענותך אני תנים ועת אחלום

שיבת שבותך אני כנור לשיריך.

Rabbi Yehuda Halevi

Zion, do you ask if the captives are at peace --

the few who are left?

...

I cry out like the jackals when I think of their grief;

but, dreaming of the end of their captivity,

I am like a harp for your songs.

Understanding the Second Verse

Read the words of the second verse and answer the questions below.

אֵיכָה יָבְשׁוּ בּוֹרוֹת הַמַּיִם כִּכָּר הָעִיר רֵיקָה
וְאֵין פּוֹקֵד אֶת הַר הַבַּיִת בָּעִיר הָעַתִּיקָה
וּבַמְּעָרוֹת אֲשֶׁר בַּסֶּלַע מְיַלְּלוֹת רוּחוֹת
וְאֵין יוֹרֵד אֶל יָם הַמֶּלַח בְּדֶרֶךְ יְרִיחוֹ.

How the cisterns have dried

The marketplace is empty

And no one frequents the Temple Mount

In the Old City.

And in the caves in the mountain

Winds are howling

And no one descends to the Dead Sea

By way of Jericho.

See below for the additional sources referred to in the questions.

  • After reading the second verse, what three adjectives would you choose to describe Jerusalem?
  • From which biblical text does Naomi Shemer get the inspiration for her expression of the sadness and desolation of the city while under Jordanian control?
  • Eicha is the Hebrew name for the book of Lamentations. How else is it translated in Naomi Shemer’s song?
  • Do you think "Eicha" is a good name for the book that describes the destruction of the Temple?
  • How does Isaiah use the word Eicha?
  • Naomi Shemer also used a part of the first verse of Lamentations in the first verse of the song. Why do you think that she referenced this verse so often?
Source 1

(א) אֵיכָ֣ה ׀ יָשְׁבָ֣ה בָדָ֗ד הָעִיר֙ רַבָּ֣תִי עָ֔ם הָיְתָ֖ה כְּאַלְמָנָ֑ה רַּבָּ֣תִי בַגּוֹיִ֗ם שָׂרָ֙תִי֙ בַּמְּדִינ֔וֹת הָיְתָ֖ה לָמַֽס׃ (ס)

(1) Alas! Lonely sits the city Once great with people! She that was great among nations Is become like a widow; The princess among states Is become a thrall.

Source 2

(כא) אֵיכָה֙ הָיְתָ֣ה לְזוֹנָ֔ה קִרְיָ֖ה נֶאֱמָנָ֑ה מְלֵאֲתִ֣י מִשְׁפָּ֗ט צֶ֛דֶק יָלִ֥ין בָּ֖הּ וְעַתָּ֥ה מְרַצְּחִֽים׃

(21) Alas, she has become a harlot, The faithful city That was filled with justice, Where righteousness dwelt— But now murderers.

Understanding the Third Verse

Read the words of the third verse and answer the questions below.

אַךְ בְּבוֹאִי הַיּוֹם לַשִּׁיר לְךָ וְלָךְ לִקְשֹׁר כְּתָרִים

קָטֹנְתִּי מִצָּעִיר בָּנַיךְ וּמֵאַחֲרוֹן הַמְּשׁוֹרְרִים.

כִּי שְׁמֵךְ צוֹרֵב אֶת הַשְּׂפָתַיִם כִּנְשִׁיקַת שָׂרַף

אִם אֶשְׁכָּחֵךְ יְרוּשָׁלַיִם אַשֵּׁר כֻּלָּהּ זָהָב.

But as I come to sing to you today

And to adorn crowns to you

I am the smallest of the youngest of your children

And of the last poet.

For your name scorches the lips

Like the kiss of a seraph

If I forget thee, Jerusalem

Which is all gold.

See below for the additional sources referred to in the questions.

  • According to Naomi Shemer, what is the role of the poet or songwriter?
  • What are the crowns that the Talmud (Menachot) is referring to?
  • According to the midrash, who wrote the crowns?
  • Who was the person who made meaning of the crowns on the letters?
  • How does Naomi Shemer use the image of the crowns on the letters in her song?
  • Who was the youngest who was chosen to be king described in the book of 1 Samuel?
  • Why do you think Naomi Shemer described the poet as the “smallest of the youngest of your children”?
  • Why might a songwriter, writing a song about Jerusalem, choose to reference King David?
  • What does the Psalm say about the place that Jerusalem should take in our thoughts and hearts?
Source 1

אמר רב יהודה אמר רב בשעה שעלה משה למרום מצאו להקב"ה שיושב וקושר כתרים לאותיות אמר לפניו רבש"ע מי מעכב על ידך אמר לו אדם אחד יש שעתיד להיות בסוף כמה דורות ועקיבא בן יוסף שמו שעתיד לדרוש על כל קוץ וקוץ תילין תילין של הלכות

Rav Yehuda says that Rav says: When Moses ascended on High, he found the Holy One, Blessed be He, sitting and tying crowns on the letters [of the Torah]. Moses said before God: Master of the Universe, who is preventing You [from giving the Torah without these additions?] God said to him: There is a man who is destined to be born after several generations, and Akiva ben Yosef is his name; he is destined to derive from each and every thorn [of these crowns] mounds upon mounds of halakhot [Jewish Law].

Source 2

(יא) וַיֹּ֨אמֶר שְׁמוּאֵ֣ל אֶל־יִשַׁי֮ הֲתַ֣מּוּ הַנְּעָרִים֒ וַיֹּ֗אמֶר ע֚וֹד שָׁאַ֣ר הַקָּטָ֔ן וְהִנֵּ֥ה רֹעֶ֖ה בַּצֹּ֑אן וַיֹּ֨אמֶר שְׁמוּאֵ֤ל אֶל־יִשַׁי֙ שִׁלְחָ֣ה וְקָחֶ֔נּוּ כִּ֥י לֹא־נָסֹ֖ב עַד־בֹּא֥וֹ פֹֽה׃ (יב) וַיִּשְׁלַ֤ח וַיְבִיאֵ֙הוּ֙ וְה֣וּא אַדְמוֹנִ֔י עִם־יְפֵ֥ה עֵינַ֖יִם וְט֣וֹב רֹ֑אִי (פ) וַיֹּ֧אמֶר יְהוָ֛ה ק֥וּם מְשָׁחֵ֖הוּ כִּֽי־זֶ֥ה הֽוּא׃ (יג) וַיִּקַּ֨ח שְׁמוּאֵ֜ל אֶת־קֶ֣רֶן הַשֶּׁ֗מֶן וַיִּמְשַׁ֣ח אֹתוֹ֮ בְּקֶ֣רֶב אֶחָיו֒ וַתִּצְלַ֤ח רֽוּחַ־יְהוָה֙ אֶל־דָּוִ֔ד מֵהַיּ֥וֹם הַה֖וּא וָמָ֑עְלָה וַיָּ֣קָם שְׁמוּאֵ֔ל וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ הָרָמָֽתָה׃ (ס)

(11) Then Samuel asked Jesse, “Are these all the boys you have?” He replied, “There is still the youngest; he is tending the flock.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send someone to bring him, for we will not sit down to eat until he gets here.” (12) So they sent and brought him. He was ruddy-cheeked, bright-eyed, and handsome. And the LORD said, “Rise and anoint him, for this is the one.” (13) Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the LORD gripped David from that day on. Samuel then set out for Ramah.

Source 3

אִֽם־אֶשְׁכָּחֵ֥ךְ יְֽרוּשָׁלִָ֗ם תִּשְׁכַּ֥ח יְמִינִֽי׃ תִּדְבַּ֥ק־לְשׁוֹנִ֨י ׀ לְחִכִּי֮ אִם־לֹ֪א אֶ֫זְכְּרֵ֥כִי אִם־לֹ֣א אַ֭עֲלֶה אֶת־יְרוּשָׁלִַ֑ם עַ֝֗ל רֹ֣אשׁ שִׂמְחָתִֽי׃

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.

In his article about Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, Ofir Ben Yair asks the question: why does Rabbi
Akiva feature so prominently in Naomi Shemer’s song?


See below for the midrash that Ben Yair refers to in his answer and answer the following
questions.

  • Summarise the midrash in your own words.
  • What do we learn about Rabbi Akiva from the midrash?
  • What was his attitude toward Jerusalem?
  • How were his feelings different from those of the other rabbis mentioned in the story?
  • Do you think that he is the right person to be associated with a song about Jerusalem?
  • What other historical figure might Naomi Shemer have used to present the Jewish people’s love for Jerusalem?
שוב פעם אחת היו עולין לירושלים כיון שהגיעו להר הצופים קרעו בגדיהם כיון שהגיעו להר הבית ראו שועל שיצא מבית קדשי הקדשים התחילו הן בוכין ור"ע מצחק אמרו לו מפני מה אתה מצחק אמר להם מפני מה אתם בוכים אמרו לו מקום שכתוב בו (במדבר א, נא) והזר הקרב יומת ועכשיו שועלים הלכו בו ולא נבכה אמר להן לכך אני מצחק דכתיב (ישעיהו ח, ב) ואעידה לי עדים נאמנים את אוריה הכהן ואת זכריה בן יברכיהו וכי מה ענין אוריה אצל זכריה אוריה במקדש ראשון וזכריה במקדש שני אלא תלה הכתוב נבואתו של זכריה בנבואתו של אוריה באוריה כתיב (מיכה ג, יב) לכן בגללכם ציון שדה תחרש [וגו'] בזכריה כתיב (זכריה ח, ד) עוד ישבו זקנים וזקנות ברחובות ירושלם עד שלא נתקיימה נבואתו של אוריה הייתי מתיירא שלא תתקיים נבואתו של זכריה עכשיו שנתקיימה נבואתו של אוריה בידוע שנבואתו של זכריה מתקיימת בלשון הזה אמרו לו עקיבא ניחמתנו עקיבא ניחמתנו:

Again it happened that Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria, Rabbi Joshua, and Rabbi Akiva went up to Jerusalem. When they reached Mount Scopus, they tore their garments. When they reached the Temple Mount, they saw a fox emerging from the place of the Holy of Holies. The others started weeping; Rabbi Akiva laughed.

Said they said to him: Why are you laughing?

Said he to them: Why are you weeping?

Said they said to him: A place [so holy] that it is said of it: “the stranger that approaches it shall die”, and now foxes walk in it; and we shouldn't weep?

Said he to them: That is why I am laughing...But the Torah makes Zechariah's prophecy dependent on Uriah's prophecy. With Uriah it is written: “Therefore, because of you, Zion shall be plowed as a field; With Zechariah it is written: “Old men and women shall yet sit in the streets of Jerusalem”.

As long as Uriah's prophecy had not been fulfilled, I feared that Zechariah's prophecy may not be fulfilled either. But now that Uriah's prophecy has been fulfilled, it is certain that Zechariah's prophecy will be fulfilled.

With these words they replied to him: "Akiva, you have comforted us; Akiva, you have comforted us."

Understanding the Fourth Verse

The last verse of the song was added after the Six-Day War. Naomi Shemer explained:
“At that point [when the song was first performed ] we were moving toward war, and three
weeks later, when the paratroopers liberated the Western Wall, they had an anthem at the
ready. On that day, June 7, 1967, I added a fourth verse to the song in honour of the victory.”

This photograph shows Naomi Shemer’s first draft of the
fourth verse.

Jerusalem of Gold (Yerushalayim Shel Zahav), 1967 from the collection of the National Library of Israel

  • Where was the draft written?
  • What can you learn about circumstances of the writing of the verse from looking at where it was written?
  • What can you learn about Shemer’s writing process from looking at her handwriting?

Read the fourth verse and answer the questions with reference to the pictures
below.

חָזַרְנוּ אֶל בּוֹרוֹת הַמַּיִם לַשּׁוּק וְלַכִּכָּר
שׁוֹפָר קוֹרֵא בְּהַר הַבַּיִת בָּעִיר הָעַתִּיקָה
וּבַמְּעָרוֹת אֲשֶׁר בַּסֶּלַע אַלְפֵי שְׁמָשׁוֹת זוֹרְחוֹת
נָשׁוּב נֵרֵד אֶל יָם הַמֶּלַח בְּדֶרֶךְ יְרִיחוֹ

We have returned to the cisterns

To the market and to the market-place

A shofar calls out on the Temple Mount

In the Old City.

And in the caves in the mountain

Thousands of suns shine

We will once again descend to the Dead Sea

By way of Jericho!

  • Which of the previous three verses does the fourth verse relate to?
  • How does the mood change from the first verse to the fourth verse?
  • What is the connection between the sign in Photograph 1 and the fourth verse?
  • Look at the photographs that were taken days after the Six-Day War. What do they tell you about the atmosphere in Israel at that time?
  • The song “Yerushalayim shel Zahav” was written a short time before the Six-Day War and became popular immediately.
  • How do you think it was received after the Six-Day War?
  • Ofir Ben Yair claims that the song straddles the definition of a modern Israeli song and a prayer. Which do you think it is? Can it be seen as both? Explain your answer.

Photograph 1 – The Border in Jerusalem

מלחמת ששת הימים 1967

From the Dan Hadani archive of the National Library of Israel

Rabbi Shlomo Goren

After the capture of the Old City, IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren blew the shofar at the Kotel.

  • Where is this event referenced in Naomi Shemer’s song?

In the days immediately following the Six-Day War, the photographer Dan Hadani took moving photographs of the changes that were taking place in Jerusalem. Thousands of Israelis came to Jerusalem to visit the Kotel and parts of the city that had been previously denied to them. The city of Jerusalem prepared for the large numbers of visitors by expanding the plaza in front of the Kotel.

Photograph 2 – The Kotel (Western Wall) in 1918

From the video, "100 Years in the Western Wall", from the National Library of Israel

Photograph 3, 4 – Expanding the Plaza, 1967

מלחמת ששת הימים 1967

From the Dan Hadani archive of the National Library of Israel

The First Days After the 6-Day War

From the Dan Hadani archive of the National Library of Israel

Photograph 5 – Returning to the Kotel


Israelis from all backgrounds came to Jerusalem to pray at the Kotel.

The First Days After the 6-Day War from the Dan Hadani archive of the National Library of Israel

Creative Activities

  • Learn the song, “Yerushalayim shel Zahav.”
  • Create a presentation of photographs to accompany the song. Recommended websites: Canva, Emaze, Prezi.
  • Write a blog post explaining the textual roots of “Yerushalayim shel Zahav.”
  • Interview someone who remembers the Six-Day War.

Ask them how they felt when they heard that Jerusalem had been reunified.
Ask them what they feel now and felt then about the song.