Menachem Mendel

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Jerusalem of Gold

One of the most well-known Israeli songs ever is Yerushalayim shel Zahav, Jerusalem of Gold. Naomi Shemer wrote the song and it was originally sung by Shuli Natan at a song festival in Jerusalem a few weeks before the Six-Day War. An interview with Shuli Natan about the song can be found here.

Here is a video of Shuli Natan singing the song. I assume that this video was made before the Six-Day War because the lyrics are the original ones that weren’t changed to reflect the liberation of the Old City. Also, I would think that if it was after the war some of the background pictures would reflect this.

Here is a video of her singing the song from 2002.

But what is “Jerusalem of Gold”? The bible scholar Shalom Paul solved the riddle in the late 1960’s. The following is from an article that was originally published in the Jerusalem Post.

Paul’s struggle to decode the Jerusalem of Gold began in the late 1960s with an ancient cuneiform document from the Canaanite city-state of Ugarit, whose ancient Semitic language shares common roots with Hebrew. This ancient bit of bookkeeping, circa 1400 BCE, includes an inventory of the trousseau of one Queen Aatmilku, with the unique Sumerian phrase uru k -gi in her catalogue of jewelry. Translated, the phrase reads “one city of gold,” with a listed weight of 215 shekels – the equivalent of 10 pounds.

Analyzing at the most basic level, Paul realized a crown, unlike a bangle or earring, might feasibly weigh 10 pounds and was not yet mentioned in the queen’s trousseau. The tradition of crowns extends beyond medieval European monarchies. In ancient cultures and theologies, they adorn the heads of goddesses and queens in sculpture and story.

The phrase “city of gold” resonates with anyone familiar with the Talmud, the corpus of ancient Rabbinic literature that expounds upon the Torah with commentary and legend. This opulent symbol of wealth figures in many stories. The Talmud implies it is customary for brides to wear one. It declares that only a wealthy woman is permitted to flaunt one in public. It also relates how Rabbi Akiva presented his wife with a “city of gold” as recompense for selling her hair to subsidize his Torah study. The identification of this article of jewelry becomes apparent from a variant version of this text, which substitutes the reading “crown of gold” for “city of gold.” This same crown bears another name in rabbinic literature: “Jerusalem of gold,” since, according to the rabbis, the term “city” referred to their city par excellence, Jerusalem.

But Paul was at a loss to explain why the crown was described as a “city.” Did it relate to the crown’s appearance? It took a bold stroke of luck to connect the dots.

One of Paul’s colleagues, a linguistic scholar, had casually mentioned the corrupted Greek term for “city of gold” used in the Talmud, whose Hebrew text had absorbed several “loan words” from the era’s prevailing Hellenism. The word was a variant compound of “krisos,” or gold, and “kastellion,” or castle.

In a flash of insight, Paul understood that the crown was designed to resemble a citadel or fortress, sculpted into turreted segments to evoke the ramparts that bordered ancient cities. A city was in fact defined by its surrounding walls.

Racking his brain, Paul recalled the frescoes at the Dura Europus synagogue, in Syria, which depict Queen Esther with a turreted crown on her head. Once he began to search, he found ample evidence. A similar crown adorns the heads of Hittite female deities on the rock sanctuary of Yazilikaya, Turkey, dating from about 1200 BCE; of an Elamite queen depicted within an eighth-century relief in Iran; and of two prominent Assyrian women in the same era.

The motif of the turreted crown had even entered the vocabulary of Greek and Roman art. The mythical Greek goddess Tyche, patron deity of cities, is perpetually rendered with a turreted crown. The missing epigraphical link between the occurrence of this phrase in the Ugaritic text and its reappearance in Talmudic sources appears in an Aramaic tablet from neo-Assyrian times. In recording the sale of a slave, it declares that anyone contesting the case must give a “city of gold” to Nikkal, wife of the moon god Sahar.

The following is a restatement of Paul’s findings (pp. 205-206).

Yom Yerushalayim Sameaḥ.

5 Responses to “Jerusalem of Gold”

  1. 1

    Sorry, I guess I’m a little underwhelmed! The traditional understanding of “ir she zahav” has always been a diadem shaped like a city. I was taught this by older men who were never exposed to any hint of scholarship(unfortunately for them), this was just always the traditional explanation. Paul’s suggestion, that it was shaped like a fortress, is not that unique that it desrves to be called a “flash of insight”.

  2. 2

    Note that Shemer herself never really considered the fourth verse essential:

    “Several months following the war Shemer told Geulah Cohen in an interview that as far as she was concerned, the song was complete without the additional stanza. She wrote it since it was a necessity of the time; She was afraid that people would come and append their own versions to it.”

  3. 3
    Joe in Australia:

    I wonder if Song of Songs 8:9 is relevant to this – אִם־חֹומָ֣ה הִ֔יא נִבְנֶ֥ה עָלֶ֖יהָ טִ֣ירַת כָּ֑סֶף – “If she is a wall we will build upon her a castle of silver.” That is, if she’s chaste she will be crowned in silver.

  4. 4

    perhaps it is worth noting that though she may written the words, the melody is an old baroque piece.

  5. 5
    Menachem Mendel:


    I think that you mean Basque.




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