Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Yom Yerushalayim 5780
Mount Zion
The prophet Isaiah wrote one of the most depressing lines in Scripture: “Zion says, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me (Isaiah 49:14).’”  Zion is personified as a bereaved women crying over the fate of her exiled Judean children. The Talmud understands Zion, in this instance, to mean the entire Congregation of Israel (Berkahot 32b). The prophetic selection concludes: “Truly the Lord has comforted Zion, comforted all her ruins. He has made her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the Garden of the Lord. Gladness and joy shall abide there, thanksgiving and the sound of music (51:3).” The verse is best known as the final stanza of the Kinnot liturgy of Tisha b’Av morning. It represents a hopeful reversal of the despondency of the Book of Lamentations. In this context, the term “Zion” is applied to the entirety of the Land of Israel, revivified after a period of desolation.
What is the precise meaning of Zion? Is it a place? A national group? While the question is interesting from a purely intellectual perspective, it takes on added significance in light of the thrice-daily petition “May our eyes behold Your return to Zion in compassion.” Moreover, the modern political movement for Jewish national liberation is called Zionism. It behooves Jewish nationalists to understand their own terminology and to clarify ambiguities.
Scripture mentions Zion over 150 times but is inconsistent in its use of the word.  Zion can refer to the nation of Israel. “I, who planted the sky and formed the earth, have said to Zion: You are My people (Isaiah 51:16).”  Zion can also refer to the Land of Israel. “O My people that dwells in Zion, have no fear of Assyria (10:24).”  Zion can refer, in the more limited geographical sense, to the capital city of Jerusalem. “For instruction shall come forth from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem (2:3).” Alternatively, Zion can refer to the Temple Mount, Mount Moriah, on which Solomon built the First Temple. “And you shall know that I the Lord your God dwell in Zion, my holy mount (Joel 4:17).”
To determine the original meaning of Zion, one must analyze the Scriptural passages pertaining to David’s conquest of Jerusalem. The Jebusites then inhabited the region.  David ascended to Jerusalem from his royal base at Hebron and prepared to attack. The Jebusites mocked David by saying that even the blind and the lame could repel his invasion. They were wrong. “But David captured the stronghold of Zion; it is now the City of David (II Samuel 5:7).”  Zion was a fortress within the city of Jebus. Upon capturing that key military position, David renamed it in his own honor the “City of David.” That the word Zion here refers specifically to the stronghold, and is not a term applied to the entirety of the city, is clear from the way the story is retold by the Chronicler. “David occupied the stronghold; therefore it was renamed the City of David.  David also fortified the surrounding area from the Millo roundabout, and Joab rebuilt the rest of the city (I Chronicles 11:7-8).” The text distinguishes between the fortified compound of Zion/City of David and the rest of Jerusalem.
There is further evidence, in the Bible’s description of Solomon’s activities, for the distinction between Zion/City of David and broader Jerusalem. Solomon’s marriage to Pharaoh’s daughter was the linchpin of his grand diplomatic strategy. Solomon had to take measures to protect his foreign wife. In the early years of his reign, Jerusalem was an open and unprotected city. Only the original Jebusite stronghold of Zion, renamed the City of David, was sufficiently fortified. Accordingly: “Solomon married Pharaoh’s daughter and brought her to the City of David to live there until he had finished building his palace, and the House of the Lord, and the walls around Jerusalem (I Kings 3:1).”
Solomon moved the Ark of the Covenant from the tent in which his father had placed it, decades earlier, to the newly constructed Temple. “Then Solomon convoked the elders of Israel in Jerusalem to bring the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord from the City of David, that is, Zion (II Chronicles 5:2).” The Ark was moved from one location to another within Jerusalem. It follows that, Zion, which is the City of David, is merely a section of the wider city.  Zion is not the totality of the city of Jerusalem. Nor is it the Temple Mount.
The historical books of the Bible never vary in identifying Zion/City of David with a Davidic stronghold (see Nehemiah 3:15 and II Chronicles 32:5). Yet in the prophetic and poetic books, and for post-Biblical writers, the name “Mount Zion” could sometimes connote the Temple Mount. The prophet spoke of the “Lord of Hosts Who dwells on Mount Zion (Isaiah 8:18).”   In 161 BCE, there was an interaction between Jewish leaders and a duplicitous Seleucid general bent on suppressing the Hasmonean rebellion. “Nicanor went up to Mount Zion. Some of the priests from the sanctuary and some of the elders of the people came out to greet him peaceably and to show him the burnt offering that was being offered for the king (I Maccabees 7:33).”  Mount Moriah, the home of the sacrificial cult, is identified as Mount Zion.
There is a plausible explanation why the name “Mount Zion” came to be applied to a new location. In the Davidic period, Zion was the site of the Holy Ark and of an ecclesiastical regime unrelated to the contemporaneous Mosaic Tabernacle at Gibeon.  Zion was a place to serve God. With the removal of the Ark to the Temple atop Moriah and the demise of ancient Zion as a religious center, the place came to be known exclusively as the City of David, while the name “Zion” followed the Ark to the new cultic center built by Solomon.
Where was the original Zion? Archeologists have proven that the City of David was located on the southeastern hill of ancient Jerusalem. Today, Ir David is a Jewish enclave in the Wadi Hilwa section of the Arab neighborhood of Silwan, just south of the walls of the Old City. Jews from the post-Biblical through the pre-modern period, however, did not know precisely where ancient Zion was.
Antiochus IV Epiphanes sent Mysarch to build a protected compound for sinners overlooking the Temple Mount. “Thereupon they fortified the City of David with a high strong wall and strong towers so as to have a citadel, the Akra (I Maccabees 1:33).” The Akra was higher than the Temple, a convenient vantage point from which to observe or disrupt the happenings in the Temple Courtyard. The Akra certainly could not have been south of the Temple on the lower hillock of ancient Zion. It must have been situated just above the northwest corner of the Temple Mount. And yet it was known to the author of I Maccabees as the City of David. He might have erroneously believed that the original City of David was located that far north. [Jonathan Goldstein, in his Anchor Bible commentary, offers another suggestion: “Jews had long been accustomed to name their citadel and city after King David. The natural retort to the Seleucid foundation of a Hellenistic Antiocheia in the Akra with Jerusalem as its subject territory was to insist that the citadel and city were still the ‘City of David.’ The City of David was still on the eastern hill and the Akra was the citadel on its northern peak.”]
In his description of the topography of Jerusalem, Josephus mentions that the “Citadel of David” was on the city’s higher, western hill (Wars of the Jews 5:4:1). He did not mention “Zion” in his description, yet one might conclude that first century CE Jews believed that the western hill was the original Davidic Zion. Though the southwestern hill was still unpopulated in David’s time, by the first century CE (more than a thousand years later) it was enclosed within the city walls and included the High Priest’s private residence.
In the first millennium CE, Jerusalem’s southwestern hill came to be known as Mount Zion. Scholars claim that it was unlearned Byzantine Christian pilgrims who gave the place its name. They noticed that the hill was higher than any other peak in the city and that it had a flat top. They then erroneously assumed that it was the Temple Mount, which they believed was properly to be called Mount Zion. The location became a holy place to Christians as the site of the Last Supper. After the Islamic conquest of Jerusalem, Mount Zion became sacred to Muslims as the site of King David’s tomb. Although the actual tomb of King David most certainly is not located there, the view that it is is the logical extension of identifying the hill as Mount Zion, since David and most of his dynastic successors were buried in the historical City of David – Zion.
For centuries, Christians and Muslims battled for control of the sacred space on Mount Zion. Jews were lucky to be granted even minimal access. The Ottomans naturally gave preference to Muslims. Custodianship of the site was, from the 16th century up until 1948, in the hands of the Dajani family. They added the word “Daoudi” to their family name to glorify their role as protectors of David’s tomb. They covered the sarcophagus with cloth embroidered with Koranic verses.
Mount Zion was supposed to be incorporated within the city walls of Jerusalem constructed in the 1530s by Suleiman the Magnificent. But the engineers performing the work failed to do that. Legend has it that they stole the money that would have been needed to extend the walls. Suleiman beheaded them and buried their corpses inside the Jaffa Gate.
This historical accident of Mount Zion’s having been excluded from the walled city would prove relevant in the 1948 war between Israel and the Jordanian Arab Legion. In May 1948, Jewish forces made repeated attempts to enter the Old City and save the Jewish Quarter. Despite several temporary breakthroughs by Israeli forces via the Zion Gate, ultimately the entire Old City was lost. Still, the border negotiated by Moshe Dayan and Abdullah el-Tell abutted the wall of the Old City, leaving most of Mount Zion in Israeli hands.  Mount Zion was the only section of pre-modern Jerusalem on the Israeli side of the Green Line.
From 1949 until the liberation of East Jerusalem during the Six Day War of 1967, efforts were made to transform Mount Zion into a Jewish holy place. The key figure in this project was Shmuel Zanvil Kahana, Director-General of Israel’s Ministry of Religious Affairs. He organized religious services at the site on major Jewish holidays. He also replaced the Islamic cover on David’s Tomb with a Hebrew parokhet. The first Holocaust memorial in Israel was the Holocaust Cellar on Mount Zion. It had a religious character, unlike the secular Yad Vashem established on Mount Herzl several years later.  David Ben-Gurion’s government favored these Judaic religious efforts as a means of asserting Israeli national sovereignty over a dangerous and contested border region. An upstairs room in the David Tomb’s compound became known as the President’s Room, because Presidents of the State of Israel would regularly hold official meetings there with foreign dignitaries and heads of state. The matter became diplomatically sensitive in 1953-1954 when the Jordanian and Iraqi governments issued formal complaints about the Judaization of Islamic holy places. Even within the Israeli government bureaucracy, there were officials who objected to the artificial religious transformation of Mount Zion.
But it was not only government that had an interest in Mount Zion. Thousands of Israeli Jews enthusiastically ascended the slope of Mount Zion and climbed to the roof of David’s Tomb, from which they could glimpse the inaccessible holy places beyond the border. Moreover, for many Israelis who came from the Middle East or North Africa, holy places were an important part of their religious experience. For them, David Tomb’s – historicity aside – was a major draw. Despite the danger of being in the crosshairs of Jordanian snipers, Jews made pilgrimage to the “holy” place of Mount Zion.
With the liberation of the Temple Mount and the creation of the Western Wall Plaza, Mount Zion has lost its luster. Today, it is home to several Christian churches and the Diaspora Yeshiva.  Mount Zion makes news only when religious tensions boil over. Sadly, some Jewish youth are in the habit of spitting on Christian clerics.
Let it be our fervent wish and prayer that there be inter-religious harmony among the tenants of the western Mount Zion, and that there be no concern for the physical safety of Jewish visitors to the City of David, the eastern Zion.