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Where Was Salem?

Do we know anything about the city of Salem – where Abraham came to after his battle against the four kings (Genesis 14:18)? Melchizedek, its king, is described as a priest to “the most high God.” He brought out bread and wine to Abraham, and Abraham gave him tithes from the spoils he captured in the war. It sounds like a holy place (which many cities are named after). Do we know anything about it?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

In fact the Sages identify Salem (“Shalaim”) as none other than the holiest city in the world, Jerusalem (Targum, Bereishit Rabbah 56:16; see also Psalms 76:3 where Salem is used in reference to Zion). The Sages also identify its king Melchizedek as none other than Shem, the son of Noah (Targum Yonatan, Targum Yerushalmi, Talmud Nedarim 32b).

(Melchizedek was more a royal title than a personal name, similar to the titles Pharaoh and Abimelech. See Joshua 10:1, where the king of Jerusalem is similarly referred to as Adonizedek. The commentators, with some variation, understand Melchizedek to mean “king of the place of righteousness.”)

The word Salem relates to the words shalem and shalom, meaning “whole” and “peace”. Thus, Jerusalem was originally known as a place of peace.

Note that even before Jerusalem became Israel’s capital and home of the Temple, people naturally recognized its holiness and were drawn to it – as the Talmud (Ta’anit 5a) states that a celestial Temple dwells in Heaven precisely above the earthly Temple (but that God refuses to enter it while the physical one lies in ruins below). Thus, it is where Shem went to devote himself to God, and where Abraham came to after his battle. According to our tradition, it was the place of the earth Adam was created from, the place where Noah brought sacrifices after the Flood, the place Abraham bound Isaac, the “field” Isaac went out to pray in (Gen. 24:63), and the place of Jacob’s dream (in which he saw a ladder ascending to Heaven).

The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 56:16) tells us the story behind Jerusalem’s name. After the binding of Isaac, Abraham named the place “may God see” (“Hashem yireh”), as a prayer that God see fit to have His Divine Presence (Shechinah) dwell there. Ultimately, its name became a composite of Shem’s and Abraham’s names: Yireh + Shalem becoming Yerushalayim. Thus, the composite meaning is “He will see peace.” It is a place from which God will see peace spread throughout the world, with all mankind united in His service.

(Some of points above found in ArtScroll Beresishis, Vol II pp. 493-94.)

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