The City of Jericho features quite prominently in the Bible: In the Books of Numbers and Deuteronomy, Jericho is mentioned multiple times as the place adjacent to the Jews’ last stop in the wilderness, right across the Jordan River from where they would enter the Holy Land (Num. 22:1, 26:3, 26:63, 31:12, 33:48, 33:50, 34:15, 35:1, 36:13, Deut. 32:49, 34:1, 34:3); while in the Book of Joshua, the name of Jericho appears 30 times, most notably as the first city the Jews conquered when they entered the Promised Land. Now, read this very carefully: Every time that Jericho is mentioned in Numbers and Deuteronomy, it is vocalized in the original Hebrew as Yereicho — and the same is true of whenever the city is mentioned in Jeremiah (Jer. 39:5, 52:8), Ezra-Nehemiah (Ezra 2:34, Neh. 3:2, 7:36), and Chronicles (I Chron. 6:63, 19:5, II Chron. 28:15). But, when the city is mentioned in the Book of Joshua and Samuel (II Sam. 10:5), it is always vocalized as Yericho. In the Book of Kings, the city is sometimes vocalized as Yereicho (II Kgs. 25:5) and sometimes, Yericho (I Kings 16:34, II Kings. 2:4-5, 2:15, 2:18). In this essay we explore the different names for Jericho and discuss how each name focuses on one particular aspect of the Ancient Canaanite stronghold.
One of the appellations given to the City of Jericho in the Bible is Ir HaTmarim, “the City of Dates” (Deut. 34:3, II Chron. 28:15). Indeed, when the Bible refers to Ir HaTmarim without stating which city is meant (Judges 1:16), Targum and Rashi explain that it refers to Jericho, which, Radak notes, was blessed with a plethora of date-producing palm trees. Similarly, when discussing the future borders of the Holy Land, Yechezkel mentions a city named Tamar (Yechezkel 47:19), and again Targum and Rashi explain that this refers to Jericho.
The Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus (37-100) is one of the earliest sources to mention the city of Jericho in connection with its palm trees and balsam trees (see his Antiquities of the Jews Book IV, ch. 6 and Book XIV ch. 4, War of the Jews Book I, ch. 6 and ch. 18). This connection is elaborated upon in the later work Yossiphon, which is a Hebrew abridgement and adaptation of Josephus’ writings, probably written in tenth century Italy. Yossiphon adds that the city of Jericho is also known as Ir HaReyach, “The City of Scent” on account of the balsam trees that grew there that produced the sweet-smelling balsam oil.
Of course, the Hebrew word for “smell” is reyach, so it seems that Yossiphon understood the etymology of the place-name Yereicho as stemming from its connection to good smells. Indeed, this is how Rashi (to II Kings 20:13, Isa. 39:2, Yechezkel 27:17, and Brachot 43a) understood Yossiphon’s intent, because he quotes Yossiphon as explaining that Yereicho is called such because of the sweet-smelling balsam that grew there. Rabbeinu Yoel and the Peirush HaRokeach likewise note that in most places in the Bible, the name of Jericho is vocalized as Yereicho — which is similar to the word reyach (“smell”) — in allusion to the smell of the dates that are found there.
By the way, Jericho’s associated with good smells can also be gleaned from the Mishna. The Mishna (Tamid 3:8) relates that some of the sounds associated with the service in the Temple in Jerusalem were so powerful, that they could be heard as far away from the Holy City as Jericho. The Mishna even relates that the smell of the ketoret (“incense”) burnt in the Temple was so strong that it could be smelled even as far away as Jericho. This also implies some sort of connection between Jericho and smells, but I have not seen any sources that explicitly tie this into the name of the city.
Yossiphon continues by relating a legend that claims that the balsam tree was only able to grow in the environs of Jericho, and when foreign kings tried to transplant a balsam tree to their land, the tree would dry up and shrivel. This state of affairs apparently only lasted until the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, but once the Temple was destroyed, people outside of Jericho were able to successfully plant and cultivate balsam trees in such faraway lands as Egypt.
But then, Yossiphon switches topics and says something else about Jericho. He writes that the city was also called Ir HaYareach, “The City of the moon.” Of course, the Hebrew word for “moon” is yareyach, so it seems that Yossiphon understood the etymology of the city’s name as somehow stemming from its connection to the moon. Yossiphon explains that every month when the New Moon would first be visible, the very first place where it could be sighted would be Jericho, which is why the most reliable witnesses who would testify to the Sanhedrin about the appearance of the New Moon tended to come from Jericho.
What emerges from Yossiphon’s writings is that the name of Jericho is associated with both the Hebrew wordreyach (“smell”)and yaryach (“moon”). The anonymous editor of the 1999 Oraysa edition of Yossiphon writes that based on this we can perhaps account for the variants in spelling: Sometimes the name of the city is spelled with the letter YOD between the letters REISH and CHET, and sometimes is spelled sans the YOD. Whenever Jericho is spelled with that YOD, it alludes to the city’s association with “smell,” because reyach also has a YOD between the REISH and CHET. But when the city’s name is spelled without that YOD, it alludes to the city’s connection to the “moon,” because yaryach also does not have a YOD between the REISH and CHET.
Rabbi Yedidya Tia Weil (1721-1805), son of Rabbi Nesanel Weil (1687-1769) the famed author of Korban Netanel, presumes that the city’s two vocalizations correspond to the two spellings found in the Bible. Indeed, whenever the name Jericho is vocalized as Yericho, the letter YOD appears in between the letters REISH and CHET, while whenever the city is vocalized as Yereicho, that YOD is absent.
At first, Rabbi Weil considers that the additional YOD in Yereicho appears as a tribute to Hashem (whose four-letter name begins with the letter YOD) and hints to the great miracle He performed when the Jews conquered Jericho and subsequently consecrated it.
But then, Rabbi Weil concludes that the difference between Yericho and Yereicho is more practical. He argues that while the city itself is called Yericho (with the additional YOD), the surrounding area was called Yereicho — associated with reyach — because that is where the sweet-smelling balsam and date trees grew. To bolster this argument, Rabbi Weil goes through all the different places in the Bible wherein the names Yericho or Yereicho appear, and accounts for why in each case the Bible uses one name and not the other. Interestingly, Rabbi Shimon Schwab (1908-1995) in Maayan Beit HaShoeivah independently came to the same conclusion as Rabbi Weil.
The great Kabbalist Rabbi Menachem Azaria of Fano (1548-1620) offers a different way of reconciling the names Yereicho and Yericho. He writes that at first the city was named Yereicho by its Canaanite inhabitants, who worshiped the moon and other celestial bodies. Afterwards, once the Jews conquered Jericho, a special Divine blessing was bestowed upon the dates that grew there that gave off a strong scent, so the city was later renamed Yericho. This explains why in the Pentateuch (which predates the Jewish conquest) always refers to the city as Yereicho, while Joshua and Samuel (later books of the Bible) refer to the city as Yericho. However, this does not explain why Jeremiah, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles, and Kings (which post-date the conquest) use the old city’s name.
A similar explanation is offered by Rabbi David Luria (1798-1855), who writes that the city of Jericho was originally named Yereicho after the moon, as its pagan Canaanite inhabitants were evidently idolaters who worshiped the moon. In fact, archeologists have found evidence of the ancient Canaanite worship of a moon-god known as Yarikh. Because of the idolatrous connotations of the city’s original name, when the Jews conquered the place, they changed its name to Yericho, which instead alludes to the sweet-smelling balsam that the Jews encountered when they conquered the city. The problem with Rabbi Luria’s explanation is that he too does not account for the appearances of Yereicho in later books of the Bible.
When considering the etymological roots of these words related to Jericho, there are some interesting points. The classical lexicographers like Menachem Ibn Saruk (920-970), Yonah Ibn Janach (990-1055), and the Radak (1160-1235) all trace the word reyach to the triliteral root REISH-YOD-CHET and the word yareyach to the triliteral root YOD-REISH-CHET.
However, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) actually sees a shared etymological connection between reyach and yareyach. He sees both of these terms are derivatives of the two-letter root REISH-CHET (“air”). The most common manifestation of “air” in Hebrew is in the word ruach (“wind”). But Rabbi Pappenheim takes this a few steps further, explaining that just as “air” is light and almost indiscernible, so does the term ruach refer to the “soul” or anything else “spiritual/abstract” that is likewise immaterial and cannot be detected by the physical senses. In that sense, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that reyach refers to olfactory sensations that cannot be perceived by the other senses, but travels within the ruach. Similarly, he explains that the moon is called yareyach because its movements somehow control the ruach (“tides/winds”).
A parallel discussion occurs with the word tamar. The aforementioned classical lexicographers all understand the word tamar and its cognate tomer to be derived from the triliteral root TAV-MEM-REISH, which refers to “dates or date trees.” Radak adds that because of the tall and straight appearance of palm trees, this root also expanded to refer to anything that is tall and straight, including pillars of smoke, known as timrot in Hebrew (Yoel 3:3, Song of Songs 3:6). Interestingly, Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843-1916) claims that the root of the Hebrew tamar is related to the Akkadian/Sumerian word for “sight,” because tall palm trees can often be “seen” from quite a distance.
Rabbi Pappenheim traces the word tamar to the biliteral root MEM-REISH, whose core meaning he sees as “replacing/switching.” He explains the connection by noting that different parts of the palm tree are often cut down for various purposes (e.g., branches to use for a lulav or schach, or dates to be eaten), but they are duly “replaced” by the relatively fast-growing tree. I elaborated on other words derived from this biliteral root in various essays, including “Razor’s Edge” (May 2018), “That’s Amore” (June 2019), “The Old Switcheroo” (May 2020), and “Revolting Revolutions” (June 2021).
*NOTE: The Mishna (Yevamot 16:7) refers to Zoar as Ir HaTmarim, as does Targum Yerushalmi (to Deut. 34:3). See Hagahot HaRashash to Yevamot who already notes that this is contradicted by Deut. 34:3, which clearly calls Jericho Ir HaTmarim, not Zoar.