Next Year in Jerusalem

Understanding the familiar phrase in light of modern realities

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Traditionally, Jerusalem has been the focus of longing for Diaspora Jews who were forced from their land and the Temple of their God. Psalm 137 is the well-known lament of the Babylonian Jews who wept "by the rivers of Babylon" and declared, "If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither." 

Yet with Israel a modern state, some see that longing as anachronistic, and with it the phrase that traditionally ends the seder, "Next Year in Jerusalem." The temple was destroyed 2,000 years ago, and many Jews today feel comfortable, religiously and materially, in their Diaspora communities. Some are uncomfortable with the extremes of religious life and the ongoing political strife in the Jewish state. The issue is even more salient for Israeli Jews, residents of a country whose capital is Jerusalem, for whom "next year in Jerusalem" therefore makes little sense on its surface.

What, then, does it mean for today's Jew to utter the words "next year in Jerusalem" at the end of every Passover seder?

the western, or wailing, wall in jerusalem -- next year in jerusalem!Redemption, Past & Future

The most straightforward answer is that "Jerusalem" refers to the future city--and its Temple--rebuilt when the Messiah comes. Most traditional Jews feel quite comfortable expressing this messianic longing at the end of the seder, just as at the end of each Shabbat Jews recite the hope that the Messiah should come "speedily in our day." And to clarify for Israelis, some traditional Haggadot indicate that those in the Jewish state should replace the phrase with "next year in Jerusalem, the rebuilt," implying a rebuilt Temple.

But many liberal Jews do not accept the idea of the Messiah and the return to a Temple-based Judaism focused on Jerusalem. The phrase "next year in Jerusalem," however, can be interpreted in many different ways. These words convey a web of meaning from concrete to abstract, and from earthly to holy.

Although the phrase itself entered the Haggadah only in the Middle Ages, it resonates thematically with ancient biblical themes of past and future redemption. On the seder night, each participant has personally experienced the physical redemption at that Red Sea. As the Haggadah says, "For it was not our forefathers alone whom the Holy One redeemed; He redeemed us, too, with them," and, "In every generation, every individual must feel as if he or she personally had come out of Egypt." Then, as we end the seder, we utter this phrase that reaches forward to the coming of the Messiah and to complete spiritual redemption, represented by Jerusalem.

The Challenge of Jerusalem

The first challenge is Jerusalem itself--is it a place we want to be, this year or next? According to midrash, Abraham called Jerusalem, which by tradition was the site of Isaac's near sacrifice, by the name Yireh ("he will see [God]"). But King Malkitzedak had named the city Shalem ("complete"). Not wanting to offend either of these righteous men, God combined the two names into Yerushalayim. And still today the living, breathing Jerusalem burns with the fervor of the holiness implied by Yireh as well as with the hatreds that sunder the wholeness evoked by Shalem.

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Michele Alperin is a freelance writer in Princeton, New Jersey. She has a masters degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.