Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yetze 5770/ November 28, 2009

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


“He named that site Bethel

Dr. Haggi Ben-Artzi

Center for Basic Jewish Studies

Jacob was the father of the Israelite nation: while Abraham fathered both Isaac and Ishmael, and Isaac fathered both Jacob and Esau, only Jacob fathered twelve sons, all of whom took part in forming the people of Israel.   Therefore Jacob’s dream, in which the Divine promise to the patriarchs was reiterated, is the founding event of the Jewish people.  This event took place at a site whose ancient name was Luz, and Jacob was the one to name it Bethel, or House of G-d:  “He named that site Bethel; but previously the name of the city had been Luz” (Gen. 28:19).

Bethel is well-known to us from the Bible; it is an important city north of Jerusalem, on the border between the tribes of Benjamin and Ephraim:   “The portion that fell by lot to the Josephites ran from the Jordan at Jericho – from the waters of Jericho east of the wilderness.   From Jericho it ascended through the hill country to Bethel” (Josh. 16:1-2).  Scripture also tells us that Bethel was the first city to be conquered by the Josephites, since it is situated at the southern tip of the land of Ephraim, the southernmost of the tribes of Joseph:  “The House of Joseph, for their part, advanced against Bethel, and the Lord was with them.  While the House of Joseph were scouting at Bethel (the name of the town was formerly Luz) …” (Judges 1:22-23).

Returning to Jacob’s dream, we discover that Scripture gives special status to the city of Bethel.   When Jacob awakens from his slumber, after his dream, he is filled with fear and trembling (Gen. 28:16-17):   “Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!   This is none other than the abode of G-d, and that is the gateway to heaven.’”  Thus, special sanctity attaches to the spot which is the nexus between heaven and earth, between the world of the heavenly beings and the world of the earthly beings. [1]

When a Jew reads the Bible, the following question immediately arises:  All these descriptions – “house of G-d,” “gateway to heaven,” “awesome place” – are befitting to Jerusalem and Mount Moriah, on which Isaac was bound and on which the Temple was built, and not to Bethel, situated north of Jerusalem.  After all, King Solomon in his oratorical supplication at the inauguration of the Temple repeatedly emphasizes that the Temple in Jerusalem is the sole place whence prayer ascends to heaven; this is the place where heaven and earth meet:   “May Your eyes be open day and night toward this House, toward the place of which You have said, ‘My name shall abide there’; may You heed the prayers which Your servant will offer toward this place” (I Kings 8:29-32). [2]   Of course the Sages grappled with this question, and one of the answers which they gave was that the site of Bethel mentioned in Genesis is not the Bethel of the rest of Scripture:   “Jacob called Jerusalem Bethel” ( Pesahim 88a).

Rashi cites this opinion but strongly objects to it on the grounds that the former name of Jerusalem was Jebus:  “On what grounds do they deduce this, since Bethel was Luz and not Jerusalem?” (Rashi, Gen. 28:17).  To further support his argument that Bethel should not be identified with Jerusalem, Rashi cites the legend from Genesis Rabbah (69.7) which says that the ladder in Jacob’s dream had “its base in Beer Sheba, the middle towards Jerusalem, and its top in Bethel.”   Hence one concludes that Bethel is not the same as Jerusalem.   Rashi adds a geographical explanation:  “Beer Sheba is in the southern part of Judah, Jerusalem is in northern Judah, on the border between Judah and Benjamin, and Bethel is north of Jerusalem, on the border between Benjamin and the Josephites” (loc. sit.).  Thus Rashi is left with the basic question that we posed still unresolved.

As a solution, Rashi proposes an argument based on the gemara in Tractate Hullin (91b):  “I suggest the Mount Moriah became uprooted and came over here (to Bethel); this is the leap that is mentioned in Tractate Hullin, in which the Temple came towards him as far as Bethel.   This is the meaning of the words, va-yifga ba-makom (“he came to a certain place” or “encountered the Omnipresent”).   According to Rashi, in Jacob’s dream Mount Moriah united with the mountain at Bethel for one time in all of history.  Rashi proceeds to cite the gemara that describes Jacob’s travels to Haran.   On his way he passed Bethel, the place where his grandfather Abraham had erected an altar and called on the name of the Lord after he had been promised the land:  “From there he moved on to the hill country east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and he built there an altar to the Lord and invoked the Lord by name” (Gen. 12:8).   But Jacob, fleeing from his brother Esau, did not tarry at Bethel.   It was not until he reached Haran, at the end of his journey, that he remembered regretfully that he had not paused to pray “at the site where his fathers had prayed.”  The Holy One, blessed be He, noted his regret and, in his dream, brought him to Bethel and even brought Mount Moriah to Bethel:   “When he reached Haran, he said:   How could I have passed through the place where my fathers prayed and not prayed there?!  He pondered the matter and returned to Bethel … and the Temple came to meet him at Bethel …and this is the leap that is mentioned in Hullin” ( Rashi, loc. sit.).  Thus Rashi remains true to the geography of the land of Israel, and views Bethel and Jerusalem as separate and distinct places which for a single moment miraculously united in Jacob’s dream.   Therefore Rashi is able to say that the descriptions "House of G-d", "gate of heaven" apply to Mount Moriah, which became one with Bethel in Jacob’s dream.

Rashi does not deal with the question that arises from the legend:  Why was it necessary to have Mount Moriah transposed to Bethel?   What is so special about Bethel?  Why not have Jacob return to Mount Moriah, the place where Isaac had been bound, and there have G-d reveal Himself to him?  Thus the sanctity of Jerusalem would have been established indisputably and no opening would have been left for Jeroboam son of Nabat, who caused a rift between two different religious centers.

Commentators on Rashi have grappled with this question but have not, in my opinion, found a satisfactory answer.  I would suggest that the special quality of Bethel appears as far back as the Lord’s promise to Abraham.   The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Abraham at Bethel:  “Raise your eyes and look out from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west, for I will give all the land that you see to you and your offspring forever” (Gen. 13:14-15).  The hills around Bethel are the highest mountainous area in the center of the land of Israel, [3] and from there one can see the entire land:  northward as far as Mount Hermon and the peaks of the upper Galilee, southward to the hills of Hebron and the Negev, westward to the Shefelah and coastal plain, and eastward to the Jordan Valley, the hills of Gilead, and the mountains of Moab in eastern Transjordan. [4]   Jacob, in his dream, was also given a promise about the land:  “The ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring…   you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south” (Gen. 28:13-14).   When he returns from Haran, at Bethel Jacob receives a reiteration of the promise of the land:  “The land that I assigned to Abraham and Isaac, I assign to you; and to your offspring to come will I assign the land” (Gen. 35:12).

The sanctity of Bethel is a symbol and expression of the sanctity of the land, because from there one can see the entire land.  In contrast, Mount Moriah is a relatively low hill surrounded by taller ones (Mount Scopus, the Mount of Olives, and Mount Zion), which also are among the lower of the Judean Hills. [5]   But as we know, “One does not pray except from a lowly place,” in line with the phrase, “Out of the depths I call You, O Lord” (Ps. 130:1).  Thus the sanctity of Jerusalem is that of prayer and worship of the Lord, which is not done from a high spot, but rather from a low spot out of a sense of humility and submission.

The conjunction of Mount Moriah and Bethel in Jacob’s dream (according to the legend cited by Rashi) in my opinion expresses the conjunction of the sanctity of the land and the sanctity of prayer.  The people of Israel can have no hold on their land without prayer and worship of the Lord, which are focused around Jerusalem; and there is no meaning to the worship of the Lord by the people of Israel without the land of Israel, which is seen and connected with at Bethel.

The Sabbath on which we read Parashat Va-Yetze is the Sabbath celebrating the settlement of Bethel, which this year celebrates 32 years since its establishment.   After two thousand years of not being inhabited by Jews, the hills of Bethel were once more settled by Jews.  By the Lord’s grace, we have been blessed with seeing Jeremiah’s prophecy fulfilled:  “For thus said the Lord of Hosts, the G-d of Israel:   ‘Houses, fields, and vineyards shall again be purchased in this land.’… Fields shall be purchased, and deeds written and sealed, and witnesses called in the land of Benjamin and in the environs of Jerusalem, and in the towns of Judah; the towns of the hill country, the towns of the Shephelah, and the towns of the Negeb.  For I will restore their fortunes – declares the Lord” (Jer. 32:15, 44).


[1] That was Jacob’s understanding of his vision of a ladder on which messengers of G-d were ascending and descending between heaven and earth.

[2] Here one understands the basis for the policy of Jeroboam, the first monarch of the northern kingdom of Israel after the split of the monarchy.  He set up the central temple of his kingdom at Bethel, apparently basing this act on the explicit verses in the Torah.

[3] The average elevation of the hills of Bethel is 900 meters, and their tallest peak, Ba‘al Hazor, reaches 1020 meters above sea level.

[4] The hills of Bethel have two prominent peaks:   Mount Ba ‘al Hazor, with views primarily eastward, and Pisgat Ya‘akov (“Jacob’s Peak,” known by the Arabs as Hartis), from which the view is mainly westward.

[5] Three ranges comprise the Judean hills:  the hills of Hebron in the south and Bethel in the north, their average elevation being 900-1000 meters.  In the center are the hills of Jerusalem, with an average elevation of only 700 meters, making it like a depression in the range of the Judean hills.