It was in 1267 that Rabbi Moshe Ben-Nakhman (known as Nachmanides or by his initial, as the RaMBaN) arrived in Jerusalem from Gerona in Catalonia, Spain, to bring new life and organization to the city’s Jews. He quickly set up a synagogue in a “half-ruined house with marble pillars and a fine dome” (as he wrote to his son, Nakhman)and for centuries after it continued to serve all the city’s Jews, whatever community they owed allegiances to. Until that is, in 1586 the Turkish city governor (known as Abu Seifin) ordered it closed, on the pretext that a hundred years before the building had been sanctified as a mosque. Jerusalem’s Jews had not choice but to manage again as separate communities. The Sephardim built their new center to the south of the Ramban synagogue, at a spot where tradition say, in the time of the Second Temple, had stood the study house of no less then Rabban Yokhanan be-Zakai himself, the renowned tanna (scholar-judge) who took over leadership of the people after the Temple’s destruction and the uprooting of the Sanhedrin from Jerusalem to Yavneh.
The need to build new synagogues coincided wth a marked with a marked growth in the numbers of Jews in the city, for the rulers of the Ottoman empire allowed Jews who had settled in their territory after the expulsion from Spain (1492) to move freely within the empire and when the Ottomans captured Jerusalem in December, 1516, a steady influx of their Jews into the city had begun. However, under the prohibitions decreed by Islam, no “infidel” prayer house could stand higher than a neighboring Muslim holy place. Jews got round the difficulty by starting their synagogues’ ground floors 3 meters below street level, adorning the necessity by quoting Psalm 130, “Out of the depths, O Lord, I call you.”
By the beginning of the 19th Century the four synagogues were derelict and tottering, with the rain dripping through holes and cracks. At last, in 1835, the Sephardi community’s notables succeeded in obtaining from the Governor of the Holy Land, Ibrahim Pasha (son of Muhammad Ali, the famous governor of Egypt who had conquered the land in 1831) a permit for the synagogues’ renovation and repair. The lay-out of the areas containing the four synagogues was at the same time reshaped to make it a single compound, which now encompassed- because of the different periods of synagogue construction – a uniquely rich variety of architectural styles and features.
This period of physical reconstruction also marked a turning point in the status of the Jewish community in Palestine-Eretz Yisrael. In 1840 the Ottoman authorities restored their direct rule over the land. In consequence of this and of other changes that had taken place (for instance, the great European powers had began asserting their interests by opening foreign consulates in Jerusalem), Istanbul made Jerusalem an independent Sanjaq (district), answering directly to Istanbul an not, as before, to the governor of Damascus, and as a result, the standing of the community and its notables underwent a very positive change. Jerusalem’s Chief Rabbi, a Sephardi, who had hitherto borne the traditional Jewish title of “First in Zion” (Rishon LeTzion) was now officially designated Hakham Bashi, that is, head of the Jerusalem Jewish community and all its rabbis, and as such enjoyed official status under the Ottoman system of government.
The four, now structurally linked, synagogues, together with their study houses and charitable institutions (Bet HaRashal, the Sephardi Talmud Torah (study house), the Tifferet Yerushalayim yeshiva, the widows’ alms-house) now made up the center of the Jerusalem Sephardi community’s spiritual and cultural life, a community which until the 1870s was by far the largest Jewish community in the city and the only one to enjoy official recognition by the authorities and the non-Jewish population throughout the whole period of Ottoman rule.
The Qahal Qadosh Gadol (Great Congregation) Rabban Yokhanan ben Zakai This synagogue, built in the late 16th – early 17th Centuries, held pride of place among the four synagogue, to the extent that the whole compoundwas sometimes called the Rabban Yokhanan ben Zakai compound. The synagogue, oriented west-east, had an elongated interior leading up to not one but two Holy Arks, both with Gothic-style fronts and symmetrically placed against the eastern wall. The high stone-built prayer dais (bima) in the center was also elongated, with a decorative wrought-iron railing on all four sides. It was in this synagogue that, from 1893 on, the Rishon LeTzion and Kakham Bashi, was ceremonially “enthroned” and where public meetings and assemblies were held and where important communal events such as the official ceremony in 1870 to welcome Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary, took place.
Until the destruction of 1948, the congregation cherished an old sofar (ram’s horn trumpet) and oil jug in a niche in one of the synagogue walls. Tradition whispered from generation to generation that with this very shofar the prophet Elijah would announce the coming of the Messiah and with oil poured from this ancient juglet the Messiah would be anointed.
The Eliahu HaNavi Talmud Torah Congregation Expert opinion is that this synagogue (it also served as a study house) was the first of the four built. The ceiling of the main prayer hall was domed in the Turkish style and its large stone prayer dais was railed and furnished in wood. In the north-west corner is a large alcove, from which steps lead down to “Elijah’s Cave”. There people came to place lighted oil lamps , each flame imploring the Prophet to make a special wish come true.
How did the synagogue come to be named after the great Elijah? Well, the time-honored story goes that the community of Jews in the city was once so small they could not even make up a minyan (the 10 men required for holding public prayer). This was very distressing to the 9 available men, and even more so when the holiest day of the year, the Day of Atonement, arrived There they were and the time had come to say the Kol Nidrei prayer that opens the Day, when an old man joined them and , wonderfully, made himself one of them. To commemorate the miracle they added the name of the Prophet to the name of the synagogue.
The Istanbuli Synagogue This synagogue is both the largest and last to be built, having been constructed in the 1760s by immigrants from Istanbul; hence its name. Its windows are very distinctive, they are large and deeply recessed in the thick walls, each one made up of three long vertical panes surmounted by a single, wide horizontal one. Flanking the Holy Ark stood two Corinthian columns carved around the arabesques. Like the other four synagogues, it had a high prayer dais. The Istanbuli also had a geniza, a space or chamber where books of scripture, too worn or damaged for use but too holy to be thrown out or destroyed, were stored. Every so often the geniza was emptied and the old books and scrolls carried in public procession to be reverently buried in a cave in the ancient Sambuski Sephardi cemetery at the foot of Mount Zion.
The Emtza’I (Middle) Synagogue Zion Congregation This is the smallest of the four synagogues called the “middle” one for the simple reason that it was built on a plot of land between the other three, a plot which apparently had, till then, been an outside courtyard of the Rabban Yokhanan ben Zakai synagogue, accommodating its women’s enclosure. The origin of the synagogue’s official name, Zion Congregation, goes back to a tradition that an underground passage once connected the synagogue to the grave-site of the kings of the House of David. Like the Rabban Yokhanan ben Zakai synagogue, it has an elongated interior and a groin-vaulted ceiling.
During Israel’s War of Independence (1947-48), all four synagogues provided shelter to the inhabitants of the Old City, it was from them that the Quarter’s defenders filed out to captivity in Jordan. All four were then devastated: they were plundered, burnt and the skeletal remains used as stalls for horses, goats and sheep.
On the liberation of the Old City in 1967 Six Day War, the four synagogues were found in the ruinous state described earlier, and piled high with rubble and manure. But to our great fortune at least the outer walls stood intact. The Council of Sephardi Communities and the Jerusalem Fund, with assistance from the Israeli government, the Yad Avei HaYishuv organization and donations from other funds and individuals in Israel and around the world, took on the task of restoration. It was not until the Hundreds of tons of accumulated refuse has been removed and the basic structure of walls and roof repaired and rebuilt, that it was possible to restore the structures to their former, beauty and glory.
The National Parks Authority had charge of the work, with practical direction in the hands of the architect, Dan Tannai, whose first concern at all times was to restore the original lay-out and reconstruct each synagogue’s outstanding former characteristics and features. Before the destruction, the splendor of the buildings had been their interior furnishings, especially the prayer dais and Holy Arks. Antique dais, arks and lamps were now brought from Spain and Italy and their dimensions precisely altered to fit the new settings. Item by item, the atmosphere and appearance of the synagogues of that past age was recreated.
Finally, in the intermediate days of Succot, 1972, al four synagogues were reinaugurated and rededicated in a solemn and moving ceremony, attended by the State’s leaders and high officials.
- Text: Dania Haim