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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. 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.

What people might not notice, however, is that every time that Jericho is mentioned in Numbers and Deuteronomy, it is vocalized in the original Hebrew as Yereicho, but when the city is mentioned in the Book of Joshua and Samuel (II Samuel 10:5) it is always vocalized as Yericho. Whenever the city is mentioned in Jeremiah (39:5, 52:8), Ezra-Nehemiah (Ezra 2:34, Nehemiah 3:2, 7:36), and Chronicles (I Chronicles 6:63, 19:5, II Chronicles 28:15) – Yereicho. In the Book of Kings: sometimes Yereicho (II Kings 25:5) and sometimes Yericho (I Kings 16:34, II Kings 2:4-5, 2:15, 2:18).


What is going on here?

In this essay, we explore how each of the two variations of the name focuses on a particular aspect of the Canaanite stronghold.

One of the appellations given to Jericho in the Bible is Ir HaTmarim, “the City of Dates” (Deuteronomy 34:3, II Chronicles 28:15). Indeed, when the Bible refers to an Ir HaTmarim with no further identifiers (Judges 1:16), Targum and Rashi explain that it refers to Jericho, and Radak notes that Jericho was blessed with a plethora of date-producing palm trees. When discussing the future borders of the Holy Land, Ezekiel mentions a city named Tamar (Ezekiel 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 Antiquities of the Jews Book IV, chapter 6 and Book XIV, chapter 4 and War of the Jews Book I, chapter 6 and chapter 18). This connection is elaborated upon in the later work Yossiphon, 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 to produce sweet-smelling balsam oil. 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, Isaiah 39:2, Ezekiel 27:17, and Brachot 43a) understood Yossiphon’s intent, because he cites Yossiphon’s explanation that Yereicho was named for 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 pronunciation of reyach (“smell”) – as an allusion to the good smells of the area.

Another nickname for Jericho according to Yossiphon is Ir HaYareach, “The City of the moon.” The Hebrew word for “moon” is yareyach, and every month the very first place in the Holy Land where it could be sighted would be Jericho (this 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 word reyach (“smell”) and yaryach (“moon”). The anonymous editor of the 1999 Oraysa edition of Yossiphon writes that this 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.

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. 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. Rabbi David Luria (1798-1855) agrees that the city of Jericho was originally named Yereicho after the moon, and cites archeological 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. All this would explain why in the Pentateuch, which predates the Jewish conquest, always refers to the city as Yereicho while Joshua and Samuel refer to the city as Yericho. It does not explain, however, why Jeremiah, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles, and Kings would use the city’s old name.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (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”). Rabbi Pappenheim explains that just as air is light and almost indiscernible, so does the term ruach refer to the soul or anything else spiritual or abstract that is similarly intangible. In that sense, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that reyach refers to olfactory sensations that cannot be perceived by the other senses but travels via ruach. Similarly, he explains that the moon is called yareyach because its movements somehow control the ruach (in this case conflating the force of the wind with the pull of the moon in creating the tides).

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Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein writes The Jewish Press's "Fascinating Explorations in Lashon Hakodesh" column.