Perhaps many of us have never stopped to think about the names Zion and Jerusalem. We may have always assumed that the two terms are synonymous, and even interchangeable. However, if one closely examines the Scriptures and other traditional works, one will realize that Zion and Jerusalem do not necessarily refer to the exact same place. In fact, the customary formula recited in consoling mourners already implies such: “May the Omnipresent console you amongst the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” Zion and Jerusalem — two different places.
When inaugurating the newly-built Holy Temple, the Bible states, “King Solomon gathered the Elders of the Jewish People and leaders of the tribes in Jerusalem in order to bring up the Ark from the City of David — which is Zion” (I Kings 8:1, II Chron. 5:2). The wording of this passage clearly demonstrates that Jerusalem and Zion are indeed two different places. This proof-text is adduced by Rabbi Ashtori HaParchi (1280-1366), Rabbi David Ibn Zimra (1479-1589), and Rabbi Elazar Azkiri (1533-1600). Indeed, Rashi (to Sotah 5a and Yoma 77b) writes quite emphatically that Zion is outside of Jerusalem.
Zion is sometimes known in the Bible as the “City of David” (Ir David) or “Fortress of David” (Metzudat David). That city had its own wall (see Rashi to II Sam. 8:7). However, later on, the outer walls of Jerusalem were expanded to include Zion as well. This may have happened in the late First Temple period, or in the beginning of the Second Temple period. Because Zion was added to the Holy City only later, it may not have had the same halachic status as the rest of Jerusalem regarding permission to eat certain sacrifices and tithes. For this reason, the inner walls known as chomat beit pagi separated Jerusalem proper from Zion, even in the late Second Temple period by which time the two cities had already merged. That wall served to demarcate the area inside greater Jerusalem within which one may or may not eat from the ritual sacrifices.
Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer of Vilna (1720-1797), also known as the Vilna Gaon, writes (in his commentary to Isa. 1:9) that the population demographics of Zion differed from that of Jerusalem: the noblemen lived in Zion, while ordinary people lived in Jerusalem.
We all know where Jerusalem is on a map, but where is Zion?
Psalms 48 speaks about the City of Our G-d in the most superlative terms. In that context, the Psalmist mentions that Mount Zion is the most beautiful of all places, is the happiest place on Earth, and is tucked away in the north (Ps. 48:3). Ibn Ezra and Radak explain that this means that Mount Zion is in the northern part of Jerusalem. Rashi, on the other hand, cites Dunash ibn Labrat (925-990) as explaining that Mount Zion is another name for Mount of Olives (Har HaZeitim).
However, none of these sources are in consonance with the location of what we call nowadays “Mount Zion”, which is southwest of the Old City. This point is actually made by the Sages, as Midrash Socher Tov asks: “Is Mount Zion really in the north of Jerusalem? Is it not actually in the south of Jerusalem?” Rather, explains the Midrash, “north” in this context does not refer to the physical direction were Mount Zion stood vis-à-vis Jerusalem. Rather, it refers to the intense elation one can experience at Zion/Jerusalem when one slaughters a sin-offering north of the altar (as required by Lev. 1:11). For this reason, Mount Zion is described as being in the north.
The thirteenth century exegete Rabbi Yosef Tuv-Elem (Bonfils), in his super-commentary Tzafnat Paneach (to Lev. 1:11), also discusses this. He cites Ibn Ezra’s assertion concerning the location of Mount Zion and disagrees with it. Instead, he asserts that Mount Zion is not north of Jerusalem, but south of Jerusalem. To this effect he cites the abovementioned Midrash Socher Tov, which clearly positions Mount Zion to be to the south of Jerusalem. Rabbi Tuv-Elem writes that this Midrashic source is more believable than Ibn Ezra’s assertion because its author, Rabbi Yochanan, actually lived in the Holy Land. Although he admits that Ibn Ezra also visited Jerusalem, he assumes that Ibn Ezra did so only after he already mistakenly wrote that Mount Zion is north of Jerusalem. Rabbi Tuv-Elem further notes that he personally lived in Jerusalem, and saw that Mount Zion is south of Old Jerusalem.
Some sources suggest that Tziyon is sometimes used as a synonym for Jerusalem (see Jer. 31:5 and Ps. 132:14). Actually, a more accurate term might be synecdoche — which is when a literary device, whereby a term that really refers to part of something, is used to refer to the entire thing. Indeed, in our daily prayers we beseech G-d that He restore the Holy Temple by saying, “May our eyes see Your return to Zion with mercy”. In this case we refer to the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem by mentioning Zion instead of Jerusalem. Similarly, in the Mussaf prayer on Rosh Chodesh we request of G-d: “You shall prepare a new altar in Zion”, again referring to the site of the Temple as Zion, instead of Jerusalem.
Nonetheless, the Zohar (Idra Zuta, 296b) states that Zion and Jerusalem are two spiritual levels, as one refers to the aspect of mercy and the other to the aspect of justice. This suggests that both terms refer to the same physical location.
Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tukachinsky (1871-1955) too disagrees with some of what we have written. He understands that Zion in the Bible does not always refer to a separate city adjoining Jerusalem, but rather refers to a neighborhood within Jerusalem itself.
Rabbi Tukachinsky further notes that sometimes the word tziyon appears in the Bible as a synonym for the Holy Temple (e.g., Joel 4:18 and Ps. 2:6) or, as a general term for the Jewish People (such as Isa. 51:3). In those cases, the word tzion is not a proper name for a Jerusalemite neighborhood, but is a common noun which means “outstanding” (derived from the word tziyun). In this vein, Rabbi Tukachinsky explains that sometimes Mount Zion actually refers to Mount Moriah, where the Temple stood.
Rabbi Ashtori HaParchi — a prominent rabbinic topographer — actually concedes this point by admitting that sometimes the phrase “mountains of Zion” or “mountain of Zion” does not refer to Mount Zion, per se, but to the mountains in that general vicinity, which includes Mount Zion, Mount Moriah and the Mount of Olives. Accordingly, Rabbi HaParchi maintains that when Zion appears in conjunction with the Temple, it refers to the general area of Mount Zion, which can also include the Temple Mount.
Somebody once asked the anti-Zionist rabbinic figure, Rabbi Yosef Rozin (1858-1936), better known as the Rogatchover Gaon, for his opinion about Zionism. Instead of directly answering the question, Rabbi Rozin playfully replied by explaining that Zion is an area outside of Jerusalem proper where gentile heretics historically gathered. The Mishnah (Shekalim 8:1) rules that spittle found in the Upper Marketplace of Jerusalem should be assumed to originate from a non-Jew, and the Rogatchover Gaon explains that this refers to the area known as Zion. By highlighting the historical fact that Zion in Mishnaic times was essentially a slum, the Rogatchover Gaon registered his disapproval with secular Zionists, whom he deemed akin to said historical heretics.
“A Song of Ascent for David: How good and how pleasant it is, the dwelling of brothers together” (Ps. 133:1). The Targum explains that this refers specifically to the unity between the twin cities of Zion and Jerusalem. In fact, the spelling of Jerusalem in the Bible, and the Aramaic name of the Holy City, Yerushalem/Yerushaleim are written in the singular form, as though the city is made up of one singular component (the English name Jerusalem is derived from this form of the name). However, the way we traditionally pronounce the city’s name in Hebrew — Yerushalayim — is in the double form, as if to allude to the fact that Jerusalem is actually made up of two cities joined together. Just as the Hungarian cities Buda and Pest united to become one city — Budapest — so do Zion and Jerusalem unite to become one Unified Jerusalem.
Much of the information for this article was culled from Har HaKodesh by the late Rabbi Moshe Nachum Shapiro, and Ir HaKodesh VeHaMikdash by Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tukachinsky.