Except for Yerushalayim, the town most frequently mentioned in Tanach is Yericho, Town of Palms, the second largest town in Eretz Yisroel in the second Beis Hamikdosh era. Yericho is also one of the oldest towns on earth and the lowest permanently inhabited site on the planet. The Tanach (II Melochim 2:19-22) tells us that when the waters of Yericho became bitter, Elisha sweetened them by throwing salt into their source. Josephus testified that ever since, the waters of the spring are blessed and the plants of the place watered with this water are more blessed than in other places (Wars IV 8:3). Still known as Elisha’s Spring, this principle spring of the town still produces 1,000 gallons of water per minute. Unfortunately, the blessings of this important town are reserved for the exclusive use of the Arabs of the Palestinian Authority.
Yericho has great spiritual relevance. When Yehoshua sent spies into Eretz Yisroel he instructed them, Go and see the land and Yericho (Yehoshua 2:1). The Yalkut asks, “But is Yericho not included in the land?” and answers, “This teaches that it is equal to it all.”
Why is this so?
When Yehoshua was about to capture Yericho, he sanctified everything in the town to Hashem saying, The town shall be sanctified, it and all that is inside it shall be for Hashem… Only, you shall guard [yourselves] from the sanctified lest you become cut off when you take the sanctified, and make the camp of Yisroel cut off (Yehoshua 6:17).
A number of reasons are given for this unprecedented act of sanctifying the contents of a captured Canaanite town. Rashi explains that because the town was captured on Shabbos it was fitting to sanctify its spoil to Hashem. The Malbim explains that everything was sanctified because Yericho was captured through an open miracle when its walls sunk into the ground. According to the Raavad’s rebbi, Yericho was sanctified because it was the first captured town of Eretz Yisroel.
The Raavad cites his teacher’s opinion in his commentary of the Mishnah (Tomid 30:2) that describes an intriguing link between Yerushalayim and Yericho:
“From Yericho they used to hear the sound of the great gate as it was opened. From Yericho they heard the sound of the shovel[a musical instrument]. From Yericho they heard the sound of Ben Arza clashing [the cymbals]. From Yericho they used to hear the sound of the flute. From Yericho they would hear the voice of Gevini the Announcer… From Yericho they could smell the aroma of the compounding of incense.”
The Raavad explains that the noises in Yerushalayim were heard naturally in Yericho because of the special shape of the mountains surrounding Yerushalayim. Then he cites his rebbi who says the sounds were heard through a miracle:
“My rabbi and teacher the chossid z”l said that all the things the Mishnah says were heard at Yericho were miraculous. They were only heard in Yericho and not in other directions because Yericho was like Yerushalayim due to the fact that it was the first place conquered in Eretz Yisroel. Just as one takes terumoh from grain, so terumoh was taken from Eretz Yisroel. Because of this, Yehoshua separated it as terumoh and made it holy, and therefore it is like Yerushalayim. All these noises mentioned by the Mishnah were heard there so that people should feel that Yericho has sanctity to some extent, like Yerushalayim.”
He adds that because Yericho was the beginning of the conquest of the land, people there specifically heard noises connected to the beginning stages of the various avodos of the Beis Hamikdosh.
As mentioned earlier, after the capture of Yericho, Yehoshua adjured that it should never be rebuilt, saying, Cursed be the man before Hashem who rises and builds this town Yericho. With his firstborn he will lay its foundations and with his youngest he will set up its gates (Yehoshua 6:26). What was the reason for this curse?
The Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:50) explains: “The reason is so that that miracle should persist and survive. For whoever sees that wall sunk in the earth will clearly understand that this is not the nature of a building that was destroyed, but that it sunk through a miracle.”
After Israel captured Yericho in 1967, Rav Eliezer Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer vol. 10 1:12) wondered whether developing the town might not contravene Yehoshua’s ban against rebuilding it. He cites the Meshech Chochmoh (parshas Re’eh) who says that Yehoshua’s ban only applied after Yericho was destroyed because this erased the evidence of the open miracle that happened there. But once it was rebuilt after Yehoshua’s time by Chiel (I Melochim 16:34) there was no longer any prohibition to rebuild it again.
This, says the Tzitz Eliezer, explains the fact that Jews lived in Yericho at many different times in the era of the Tanach and Mishnah. This still leaves one difficulty. Dovid, who lived long before Eliyohu, once sent emissaries to comfort King Chanun after the death of his father Nachash, king of Amon, and when Chanun accused them of being spies and cut off half their beards Dovid instructed them to remain in Yericho until their beards grew back (II Shmuel 10:5). This is puzzling because, as mentioned before, it was only rebuilt much later than David’s time. One answer is that the messengers did not stay in the town of Yericho. No town yet existed. Rather, they pitched camp in its ruins so that no should see them while their beards were in such a disreputable state. All this explains why the Rambam doesn’t mention the ban against building Yericho in the Yad Hachazokoh. As explained, the prohibition only applied to the first time the town was rebuilt.
In his discussion, Rav Waldenberg mentions an additional link between Yerushalayim and Yericho. The Sifri (Bamidbar 10:32) states, “When the Jews were dividing the land, they left of the ashes of Yericho 500 by 500 amah so that whoever the Beis Hamikdosh was built in his portion could take the ashes of Yericho.” The shu”t Zichron Yosef (Choshen Mishpot 2) points out that this was because the Temple Mount too was 500 by 500 amah.
After demonstrating this additional spiritual link between Yerushalayim and Yericho, the Tzitz Eliezer concludes: “All this teaches us that just as it is clear to us that we should not let Yerushalayim slip out of our hands, so too, we should not let Yericho out of our hands.”
The only serious attempt to make Yericho a significant Jewish town in modern times began in 1872 when the Turkish government put up two thirds of its land for auction due to non-payment of much of its agricultural taxes. Two people were interested in buying the land, a wealthy Arab from Yerushalayim and another from Egypt. Then a Jewish organization in Yerushalayim titled The Organization for Buying the Land of Yericho stepped into the picture and made a deal with the two Arabs to step down. Local rulers in Yerushalayim approved the deal and all that remained was to register the land in Istanbul, the center of Turkish control. The place was to be called Petach Tikvah after the verse of Hoshea, And I will give her her vineyards from there, and the valley of Achor as a door of hope (2:15).
A problem arose because the Jews financing the deal were European citizens to whom the Turks were reluctant to sell Ottoman property. In those days, the normal course to circumvent this obstacle was to register land sales under Ottoman subjects, but the investors feared they might be bilked of their money if the fake owners turned out to be dishonest and instead boldly tried to register the sale in their own names. This alerted the Sultan to their identity and rather than sell the land to Europeans he personally offered more money than they were giving for the land and bought it himself.
The group subsequently brought a stretch of land near the Mediterranean coast, and this is why modern Petach Tikvah is sited near Tel Aviv and not near the Dead Sea.
Yericho was the first town handed to the Palestinians after the Oslo Accord of 1993. The only time Israel breached Palestinian rule was in March 2006 when the IDF launched Operation Bringing Home the Bikurim, raiding a Yericho prison to capture Ahmad Sa’adat, a Palestinian leader charged with assassinating Israel Tourism Minister Rechavam Ze’evi in 2001. After the murder, when Sa’adat took shelter in Yassar Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah, Israel besieged the headquarters until an agreement was reached to try Sa’adat and hold him in a Yericho jail under the supervison of British and U.S.A. monitors. When the monitors left in 2006, Israel suspected the murderer would be free and raided the jail in order to incarcerate him and five others involved in the murder to an Israeli prison. Despite Palestinian demands, Sa’adat was not among the terrorists freed in exchange for Gilad Shalit.
Jewish presence in Yericho during the early centuries after the churbon is testified to by three ancient shuls. Near Yericho, the Israeli archeologist Ehud Netzer identified one room of a ruined Chashmonai winter palace as a shul. If this is correct, the Yericho Shul, as the room is known, would be the oldest shul ever discovered as it dates back to over a century before the Churbon.
The best known shul of Yericho dates back to the 6th or early 7th century. First discovered in 1936, it became known as the Shalom al Yisroel Shulbecause of an intricate mosaic on the floor that depicts a menorah, a shofar, and the inscription Shalom al Yisroel. After Yericho’s capture by Israel in 1967, an Arab whose house was built over the site brazenly charged admission to visiting Jews.
After Israel’s National Park Authority bought the shul in 1986, a modern building was erected over the ruins and a permanent minyan was established. In the early ‘90s a yeshiva opened. This continued its activities even after the town was handed to the Palestinians. Talmidim came in every day under army escort until October 2000 when Palestinians broke in and burnt the place. Since 2010, tefillos, shiurim, and a weekly kollel comprised of 20-25 talmidim has been organized under army protection.
The third shul is the ancient Na’aran shul discovered near Yericho in 1918 which is also visited for tefillah and learning even though it consists of only a floor protected by modern roofing. This is the situation in golus Palestine.
May the day soon come when the sweet sounds of the avodas Beis Hamikdosh once more reach down to Yerushalayim’s sister city.
(Sources include: Rav Yoel Shwartz, Tiferes Yericho, Devar Yerushalayim, Yerushalayim, 5754, Wikipedia)