Next Year in Jerusalem: When Aspiration Meets Reality
By Naamah Kelman
The Jewish liturgical cannon is full of references to Jerusalem. Jerusalem appears in many prayers and blessings. There is not one prayer service or major lifecycle ritual that does not mention Jerusalem. This includes the daily prayers, the Blessing after a meal, major and minor holiday prayers. References to Jerusalem are included in the blessings at weddings, as are words of comfort for mourners. When Jews pray, they face Jerusalem.
All these rituals begin to evolve after the fall of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Once Jerusalem and the Temple are lost to Jewish control, and the dispersion of Jewish communities accelerates, the yearning for the return to Temple worship, along with the hope of a return to Jerusalem, intensifies. There are blessings, prayers, and rituals that express the idea of remembering Jerusalem. This is most vividly presented in the wedding ritual.
Every Jewish wedding includes this blessing:
Praised be God, Who created joy and gladness, groom and bride, mirth, glad song, pleasure, delight, love, brotherhood, peace, and companionship. Eternal, our God, let there soon be heard in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem the sound of joy and the sound of gladness, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride, the sound of the grooms’ jubilation from their wedding canopies and of the youths from their song-filled feasts. Praised are You Who gladdens the groom with the bride.
This is a nostalgic longing for what once was. In fact, the final blessing recited at the end of the ceremony recalls the voices of bride and groom, as they raised them in the archways and walkways of Jerusalem.
In addition, the breaking of a glass object is considered the climax of the wedding ceremony. This act has different origins than those of its current understanding. Originally, broken jugs were meant to scare away demons from the young couple as they went home after the wedding. Over time, the ceramics turned to glass and the meaning became associated with loss, specifically the loss of Jerusalem. In a traditional ceremony, the groom will recite a passage from Psalms 137:5-7. The words are as follows (a paraphrase rather than an exact translation):
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I forget you, as I must set Jerusalem as my greatest joy.
At our greatest moment of family and community joy and hope, Jerusalem is restored as the grand coda of the ceremony. Our joy cannot be complete without longing for Jerusalem, perhaps remembering a future restored Jerusalem, including the re-establishment of the Temple.
The passage from Psalm 137, “if I forget thee, O Jerusalem,” evolved from longing for Jerusalem to something more aspirational, more directed to actual return to Jerusalem. In addition to the longing, a significant pronouncement was added to two major festivals. As if the longing were not enough, a tradition evolved that we make a collective declaration to affirm a return to Jerusalem. This is the Jerusalem reference that I chose to focus on: “Next Year in Jerusalem.” It appears twice a year, in both cases at the end of important Jewish moments. The first is at the end of the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) Service, and the second is at the end of the Passover Seder.
The liturgy and calendar of the Jewish People are rooted in the Land of Israel with Jerusalem at its heart. The two most significant days of the Hebrew Calendar are Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and Passover. Both are based in the Hebrew Bible, and both involve elaborate rituals and prayer, although they are two very distinct components of the Jewish faith.
Yom Kippur is a day of fasting and collective prayer, a personal day of atonement when the individual is focusing on repentance and restoration. It is considered the holiest day of the year, when we have asked for forgiveness, have made amends with our fellows, and now face God. Much of the liturgy includes lists of our collective sins. Yet, we conclude with a prayer of hope for the entire people. The very last words we chant at the end of our many hours of prayer and fasting are: “Next Year in Jerusalem!”
Similarly, references to Jerusalem can be found throughout the Passover Seder, which is probably the oldest continuous ritual of the Jewish people. Starting in Biblical times and evolving over centuries, much was added and subtracted to this ritual. Passover is a reminder of the collective story of the exodus from Egypt and the formation of the Jewish People, which includes a loose retelling of the Biblical story of the Exodus from Egypt and eating very specific foods. This most joyful ritual also concludes with the words: “Next Year in Jerusalem!”
Throughout history, Jews around the world—from Poland to Yemen, from Iraq to London and to the United States—stood up at the end of these two momentous events and exclaimed this sentence: “Next Year in Jerusalem!” One might say these twin declarations serve as two pillars that hold up these mirror holidays, some six months apart from each other. Yom Kippur is devoted to the individual Jew seeking redemption, in the context of the collective, whereas the Passover Seder, part of the longer seven-day holiday celebrating our collective Redemption, is held in the context of the family. Nevertheless, both conclude with the same stirring words.
Why do these words appear as the coda for the two rituals? In both cases, they express the aspiration for “messianic Redemption.”
The phrase “next year in Jerusalem” appears in the liturgy in the tenth century. It is assumed that it was taken from liturgical poems (Piyutim) that appear in different Jewish communities. Some of these liturgical poems are later integrated into the prayerbook, and this specific saying has found its way into the two fundamental rituals discussed above, serving as the last declarative hope and call.
What does “Next Year in Jerusalem” mean? Is it an aspiration? A messianic hope? A travel plan? A political statement? A desire to celebrate this moment in Jerusalem rather than where the worshipper is currently residing? It is over centuries that Jews chanted these lines and had no clue as to what Jerusalem was in reality. Who was there? What did Jerusalem look like? What was built over the “remains” of the Holy Temple? Who was sovereign over Jerusalem?
Yet, in effect, nobody translated these words into action. Jews stayed where they were for another year, and another year, and if they moved, it was to another Diasporic location. Jewish tradition developed a theological construct that justified the need to refrain from moving to the land of Israel. It was argued that “next year” is only a metaphor for the future and the return to the ancestral land will only happen when the Messiah will come. And the Messiah will come only when God decides and when the people are worthy of redemption.
Modern Zionism changed this construct. “Next Year” could actually literally mean “next year” or, if not that, then in the near future, whenever conditions will allow. Modern Zionism was a mixture of rebellious secular alternative to the religious tradition and new theology that explained why the time has come. Modern Zionism turned this call into an action plan.
As a liberal religious Jew who lives in today’s Jerusalem, I wish to address the complex meaning of this prayer / statement and other references to Jerusalem that exist in our tradition. I do so, knowing well what Jerusalem on the ground is like. My Jerusalem is as concrete as it gets; it is part of my daily life.
What comes to my mind when I chant “Next Year…”? Should I stop saying it, given the fact that I am already there? And if I hold on to my tradition and say these words, what do they mean to me? What do other Jews in Israel think about this phrase when they are confronted with it? Similarly, what do Jews around the world who can freely travel to Israel think about when they perform those same rituals? This is complicated, as Jewish people live and thrive in Diaspora communities, and for Israeli Jews, I would venture to say that this declaration has “returned” to its original aspirational meaning. We remain in an imperfect world, and today’s longing for Jerusalem represents this imperfect world.
For centuries, Jerusalem included the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and two mosques, the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Western Wall, the one remaining segment of the Holy Israelite Temple’s Outer Wall. In today’s Jerusalem, they stand together in an increasingly fragile reality, and literally on the same spot.
Jerusalem remains a complex and divisive city. No one expresses the dichotomy of this City for Jews better than the modern Hebrew poet, Yehudah Amichai, in his last book of poetry, Open Closed Open; Poems:
Sometimes Jerusalem is a city of knives.
Even the hopes for peace are sharp, to cut through
the hard reality…
Church bells keep trying to ring out a calm round tone;
But they grow heavy, like a pestle in a mortar pounding
The Cantor and the muezzin want to sweeten their tune,
But in the end, a piercing wail cuts through the din:
The Lord God of us all, the Lord God is
One, one, one (Chad!),
And there are days here when everything is sails and more sails,
Even though there’s no sea in Jerusalem, not even a river.
Everything is sails: the flags, the prayer shawls, the black coats,
the monks’ robes, the kaftans and kaffiyehs,
young women’s dresses and headdresses,
Torah mantles and prayer rugs, feelings that swell in the wind
Are sails, all of them sails in the splendid regatta
On the two seas of Jerusalem:
The sea of memory and the sea of forgetting.
These two stanzas from the poem “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Why Jerusalem?” express the fact that we live both in the Middle East and in the Mediterranean region. There are days when all we hear are sirens, and booms, and ambulances whirling, and then days when we sit at our cafés sipping coffee enjoying the lovely breezes, where “everything is sails.” We experience the endless horizons as well as the vertical posts that hold up the walls and fences that separate.
“Chad” in Hebrew means “ONE” as well as “sharp, cutting.” Three religions exist here side by side, each claiming the Oneness, the only-ness of their GOD, or so we live together when we cannot avoid the church bells, the muezzin calling Muslims to prayer, and the siren announcing the Jewish Sabbath.
Walk in the Old City, through the Arab shuk (souk) and look up. Blowing in the breeze are the Jewish prayer shawls, the Arab dresses, kufiyahs, scarves, and Christian robes, for sale, side by side. Pilgrims from all over the world, Ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews, Christian tourists of all denominations walk the narrow steps leading to church or mosque or to the Wailing Wall and synagogues. But exit any gate, and we return to the mundane of our lives, in our segregated city, where people segregate from each other by ethnicity, language, religious beliefs, and social strata.
If we manage to avoid each other, we can live together.
The realities of Jerusalem were not part of the family Seder nor the liturgy that culminates the end of Yom Kippur. It is only with the rise of Zionism and the return to Jerusalem, and with the establishment of the State of Israel, that Jews began to face the real Jerusalem. Two significant dates have changed the relationship to Jerusalem for Jews. The first is May 1948, when the State of Israel was established but the city was divided, with the Holy places remaining in Jordan. Then in June 1967, when Israel regained control of the Old City, a new connection emerged.
It is not the intention of this essay to explore the political issues of what is a contested, “united” city. Nor do I offer any geo-political insights or analysis that can contribute to a possible resolution.
Are we doomed to live between the poet Amichai’s “chad” and the sharp sounds of bullets, bombs, and knives, each claiming a monopoly on the earthly and the heavenly Jerusalem? Or can we all sail on the poet Amichai’s regatta of ships gliding freely on the “seas” of Jerusalem, propelled by forgetting and remembering? Are these hopes expressed from the ancient Book of Psalms possible?
From Psalm 122
A song of ascents. Of David. I rejoiced when they said to me,
“We are going to the House of God”
Our feet stood inside your gates, O Jerusalem,
Jerusalem built up, a city knit together,
to which tribes would make pilgrimage,
the tribes of the Holy One
Pray for the well-being of Jerusalem;
“May those who love you be at peace.
May there be well-being within your ramparts,
peace in your citadels.”
We live in times when divisions and fractures are consuming us, making working together and even simple conversations more challenging and increasingly impossible. This is true in the political climates of the U.S. and Israel. There are moments when Jerusalem offers a faint hope of coexistence. Our Israeli health system is often cited as a model where all residents work together and are treated together. There are important educational projects for shared society, at the institution that I lead. However, more often there are mutual disdain and disconnection.
Until we can all see one another, until we can hear the multiple stories and attachments, we will live in a beautiful but disputed, disjointed city. If we succeed in reaching out to the other, perhaps, like the broken glass that ends each Jewish wedding, we can sweep the pieces together, and fire them once more in a new form, shimmering for all.