Jerusalem, circumscribed by walls since it was a tiny hamlet inhabited by Jebusites thousands of years ago, is finally fulfilling its prophesied destiny as an unwalled city – a reality which seemed almost impossible until very modern times.
Numerous ancient walls have been discovered by archaeologists plumbing the depths of Jerusalem’s past, including a 7-meter-wide wall from the First Temple period which was found beneath the modern Jewish quarter. The massive wall was built to shore up Jerusalem’s northern defenses in view of the impending invasion by Assyrian king Sennacherib, but it is also testimony to the strategy required to defend a town topographically inferior to the mountains surrounding it.
It would have been unthinkable at this stage to envisage a Jerusalem without walls. David, king of Israel, prayed that God maintain the walls of his capital, asking:
The walls of Jerusalem were destroyed by the Babylonians during the destruction of the First Temple, but immediately after the Jews returned to Zion, their initial task was to erect walls around Jerusalem. Nehemiah describes in extended detail the building of this wall (Nehemiah 3:1-32) as well as the attempts by the Samaritans to belittle the wall and harm its construction. (3:33-35).
These attempts led to a remarkable feat of construction being attempted by Nehemiah, with workers holding their hammers and chisels in one hand and their swords in the other to prevent the enemy from taking advantage of the unfinished wall.
It is against this backdrop that the prophet Zechariah made the remarkable prophecy that Jerusalem would one day be unwalled.
Yerushalayim shall be inhabited without walls for the multitude of men and cattle therein. For I saith Hashem will be unto her a wall of fire round about and I will be the glory in the midst of her. Zechariah 2:8-9
With such a struggle going on to complete the construction of the wall and its necessity so evident, it seemed utterly far-fetched to imagine a city being inhabited in a defendable manner without walls surrounding it. Indeed, even in subsequent eras Jerusalem remained a walled city and the wall’s status was halakhically (adhering to Jewish law) defined by the requirement to eat certain tithes and sacrifices within the walls of Jerusalem.
At the end of the Second Temple period, with Jerusalem growing and sprawling further northwards beyond the original walls, a second fortified wall was built to the north, containing 14 towers according to the historian Josephus, as well as a moat in front of it. Later, during the life of Jesus, a third wall was built stretching the city even further north.
In subsequent generations, Jerusalem was renamed, repopulated and denuded of its walls, but no Jews were allowed to enter the city by the Roman conquerors. The walls of Jerusalem were erected once again later in a vain attempt to protect against Sassanian, Muslim and Crusader invaders but Jerusalem did not grow beyond its borders even as it gained influence in three religions.
Suleiman the Magnificent restored the walls of Jerusalem in 1536 and they have stood the test of time, but it was only 150 years ago that Jews seriously began contemplating establishing neighborhoods and communities outside the walls.
It was the dream of one Jew, Joseph Rivlin, to be the architect of the fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy. Rivlin, a scion of the establishers of the Ashkenazic community in Jerusalem, wished not only to escape the crowded, squalid living conditions in the Old City but also to be surrounded by “the walls of fire” envisaged by Zachariah.
He was a practical dreamer and set about establishing the Nahalat Shiva neighborhood together with six other friends. The only problem was that none of those friends were willing to live in the neighborhood. With armed robbers and wild animals abounding and no walls of fire visible, Rivlin was the sole brave soul who ventured to move there.
Even his wife refused to join him there, and Rivlin led a solitary existence outside the walls for two years and eight months, suffering from frequent attacks by marauders until others finally racked up the courage to join him.
Rivlin went on to found a total of 13 neighborhoods outside the walls, until he earned himself the Yiddish nickname “Shtetlmacher”, or Town-Maker. He died impoverished, unable to pay even the doctor who treated him, but his legacy as the harbinger of Zachariah’s prophecy lives on in modern Jerusalem
Today, in a clear fulfillment of Zechariah’s unlikely prophecy, just 5 percent of Jerusalem’s 800,000 population live today within the walls, while the other 95 percent are spread over a vast municipal area. While Zechariah’s “wall of fire” is not visible to the naked eye, few believers could deny that the modern, unwalled Jerusalem, simply by virtue of its blessed continuance, is protected by Divine grace.