As the name Jerusalem rolls off my tongue, my mind conjures images of stone cobbled streets, upon which ancient prophets and kings once trod, and more history than a thousand books could ever hold. I was wondering what the name actually means and who made it up?


The word Jerusalem, or Yerushalayim in Hebrew, is not mentioned in the Five Books of Moses and first appears in the Book of Joshua.1 At least, it's not mentioned in full in the Pentateuch—but both halves are there. Let me explain:

Yerushalayim—more specifically, the Temple Mount—was the very spot where Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac. Look in the narrative there and you'll see that after he was told by an angel of G‑d not to sacrifice his beloved son, it reads:

And so Abraham named that place "G‑d will see," as it is said to this day, "On the mountain, G‑d will be seen."2

The Hebrew word for "will see" is yireh. That's the first half.

Now, what was the city called before Abraham renamed it Yireh? To discover this, we need to backtrack a few chapters. After rescuing his relative, Lot, from captivity, we read how Abraham was greeted by "Malchizedek the king of Shalem," who greeted him with bread and wine.3 An ancient tradition tells us that Malchizedek was actually one and the same as Shem, son of Noah, and that Shalem was none other than the very place that Abraham would eventually rename Yireh. So Shalem is the second half: Yireh + Shalem = Yerushalayim.

So how did Shalem and Yireh get together to become Yerushalayim?

The Midrash4 shares a beautiful glimpse into the process:

Said the Holy One, blessed be He, "If I call the place Yireh like Abraham did, the righteous Shem will complain. However if I refer to it as Shalem, the righteous Abraham will complain. Rather, I will call it Yerushalayim, and that name will contain the way it was called by both of them: Yireh Shalem."

On a deeper level, Yireh Shalem has an alternate meaning: "Complete awe." You see, on a soul level, Jerusalem is not just a patch of hilly earth or a dot on a map. It is that special place within each and every one of us where we are one with G‑d and deeply in tune with His presence. Yireh Shalem (or Jerusalem) therefore means "complete awe," a state where one is so in touch with G‑d as to be in constant rapture.5