Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 15 July 2006 / 19 Tammuz 5766

What is Holier?

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
Become a Supporter Library Library
From: Alex in Chicago
Dear Rabbi,

I always thought that Jerusalem is the one and only holy city in Judaism. Is it true that other cities in Israel are also holy?

Dear Alex,

The entire Land of Israel is considered holy, and therefore all cities in Israel are considered holy by virtue of their being in the Land of Israel. However, there are four cities that are considered especially holy, of which Jerusalem is at the head. The four cities are Jerusalem, Tzefat, Tiberius, and Chevron. Our sources comment that these four cities correspond to the four basic elements: fire, air, water and earth, which in turn are related to enlightenment, spirituality, Torah and consistency.

Tzefat is the city high in the mountains of Galilee. One of the meanings of its name is related to its fabulous viewpoint above the entire region. The air of Tzefat is known for its light, elevating quality. The city of Tzefat has always been associated with spirituality in general, and mysticism in particular. Just as air cannot be perceived directly by the senses, but only indirectly by scents (smell) or colors (sight) it may carry, or by its movement across our skin (touch), or through other objects (hearing), so too mysticism is that realm of spirituality that is not readily and immediately accessible, but rather hidden behind the veil of the apparent.

Tiberius is located at the banks of the fresh-water Sea of Galilee, called the Kineret in Hebrew because of its harp-like shape. Because of the abundance of fresh, sweet water, the entire area is one of the most fertile in Israel. The Talmud considers the fruit of that region to be the most sweet and lush of all fruits. The Torah is compared to life-giving water through which everything is created and sustained. Its pleasant ways are likened to lovely music and delicious fruits. Interestingly, a collection of some of the greatest Talmudic scholars gathered in Tiberius to compile what came to be known as the Jerusalem Talmud.

Chevron corresponds to earth. Abraham’s sojourn there was on account of acquiring a tract of land for the purpose of burying Sarah. In fact, all of the famous four couples are buried there because of the underground cave in which Adam was interred. When Adam (so named because of the earthy origin of his body) returned to the ground upon death, it was to the earth of Chevron that he returned. It was in Chevron that King David originally got his kingship off the ground, and it is Chevron, the burial place of the Forefathers, which is the grounds for the Jewish claim to the Land of Israel. The pact made between them and G-d regarding their offspring, the Jewish People, is consistent and perpetual.

Many are surprised that Jerusalem corresponds not to air and spirituality but rather to fire. Isn’t Jerusalem the spiritual center of the world? The answer is yes, but it’s more than that. The spirituality of Jerusalem is based on the enlightenment and illumination of the Torah: “From Zion shall go forth the Torah, and the word of G-d from Jerusalem”. Any visitor to Jerusalem is aware of the special light emanating from its stones. This is a reflection of the special spiritual light that radiates from, and permeates, the city. In days of old, the sacrifices were burned on the fire of the altar in the Temple, the lights of the holy Menorah shined forth and the sanctity of new moons was promulgated by bonfires originating from Jerusalem, the seat of the Sanhedrin. Regarding Jerusalem our Sages remarked, “With fire You consumed her and with fire You will rebuild her, as it is said, ‘I will be for her a wall of fire around, and I will be glorious in her midst’ (Zech. 2:9)” (from the Tisha b’Av liturgy).

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