June 2022
29 30 31 1 2 3 4
5 6 7 8 9 10 11
12 13 14 15 16 17 18
19 20 21 22 23 24 25
26 27 28 29 30 1 2


A. Haim: Four Ancient Synagogues – The Beating Heart of the Sephardi Community in Jerusalem

Address to a conference on
"Jerusalem and the Holy Sites: A Call for Peace at a Time of Crisis"
Jerusalem, January 11-13, 2015

The aim of this short article is to present a Jewish holy site in the Jewish quarter of the old city of Jerusalem. This holy site does not need any definition of the status quo. Moreover, along its history, this place was not under any conflict (except during very few occasions) with the government authorities. I refer to the Four Sephardi Synagogues, situated in the Jewish quarter, which belong to the Council of the Sephardi Community since its foundation some centuries ago to date – the only Jewish community that obtained an official recognition by government authorities and the non-Jewish population of the city.

These four synagogues were considered the heart, the center of life of the Sephardi community.

As is mentioned above, the synagogue is not a single prayer hall, but a complex of four synagogues constructed over the years as the needs of the community grew. It served as the spiritual center of the community. Most communal institutions were related to the synagogue. Festivals were celebrated there and the community gathered in the synagogue in times of mourning. The Yohanan Ben Zakai synagogue stood out among the many synagogues of Jerusalem and became increasingly important, not only to the Jerusalem community, but to all the Sephardi communities throughout the country, acquiring a stature far beyond that of a local synagogue.

It was in 1267 that Rabbi Moshe Ben-Nakhman (known as Nakhmanides or, by his initials, 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 allegiance 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 no 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 said, in the time of the Second Temple had stood the study house of no less than Rabban Yokhanan ben 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 with a marked growth in the number 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 prohibitions decreed by Islam, no “infidel” prayer house could stand higher than a neighboring Moslem holy place. Jews got around the difficulty by starting their synagogues’ ground floors three meters below street level, explaining 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 then 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 layout of the area 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 begun asserting their interests by opening foreign consulates in Jerusalem), Istanbul made Jerusalem an independent sanjaq (district), answering directly to Istanbul and 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-houses) now made up the center of the Jerusalem Sephardi community’s spiritual and cultural life, a community that 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 synagogues, to the extent that the whole compound was 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, symmetrically placed against the eastern wall. The high stone-built prayer dais (bimah) 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 Hakham 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 Austro-Hungary, took place.

Until the destruction that took place in 1948, the congregation cherished an old shofar (ram’s horn trumpet) and an 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 study house) was the first of the four to be 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 northwest comer is a large alcove, from which steps lead down into “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 in 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 up their minyan. Then, with the day’s closing prayer, he vanished. Only then did the nine realize that the prophet Elijah himself, no less, had made himself one of them. To commemorate the miracle they added the name of the prophet to the name of their synagogue.

The Istambuli Synagogue

This synagogue is both the largest and the last to be built, having being constructed in the 1760s by immigrants from Istanbul; hence its name. Its windows are very distinctive, being 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 with arabesques. Like the other four synagogues it had a high prayer dais. The Istambuli 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 passageway once connected the synagogue to the gravesite of the kings of the House of David. Like the Rabban Yokhanan ben Zakai synagogue, it has an elongated interior and a vaulted ceiling.

During Israel’s War of independence (1947-8), all four synagogues provided shelter to the inhabitants of the Old City’s Jewish Quarter and, with the fall of the Old City, it was from them that the Quarters’ 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 the 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 had been removed and the basic structure of walls and roof repaired and rebuilt, that we could set about restoring 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 layout and reconstruct each synagogue’s outstanding former characteristics and features. Before the destruction, the splendor of the buildings had been their interior furnishing, especially the prayer dais and the 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, all four synagogues were re-inaugurated and rededicated in a solemn and moving ceremony, attended by the State’s leaders and highest officials.

To confirm the conclusion mentioned at the beginning of this article, I would like to elaborate two examples:

A. A legal ruling (fatwa) from the second half of the 18th century, issued by the mufti of Jeruslaem, Najm al-Din Khairi, of the Moslem Hanafi rite, the official one of the Ottoman Empire in response to a question submitted to him. The fatwa seems to permit the rebuilding of the Elijah the Prophet synagogue (also known as Kahal Kadosh Talmud Torah) in the city’s Jewish quarter. The mufti bases his ruling on Islamic religious legal precedents which, in an area governed by Islam, forbad harming a standing synagogue or church and permitted a damaged one to be rebuilt, so long as no addition or alteration was made to the original structure.

B. A Torah scroll is nothing less than a brand snatched from the burning. With the fall of the Jewish quarter in 1948, the Arabs set to looting the Rabban Yohanan ben Zakai synagogue, even putting the scrolls to the torch. One scroll was rescued by Christians, who kept it safe over the years, until Jerusalem was reunited (1967), when they restored it to possession of the Sephardi Community Council.

To conclude, the Four Sephardi Synagogues described above are considered a Jewish holy site, which during more than five hundred years were respected and protected by official authorities and the non-Jewish communities living in other quarters of the old city of Jerusalem. They were absolutely excluded from any dispute and controversy and manifested a reality and daily life of interreligious coexistence and peace.


Dr. Abraham Haim, President, Council of the Sephardic Community of Jerusalem, Israel                                                                                                                              Dr. Abraham Haim is a historian and a researcher on the modern history of the Middle East, the Spanish Jewry and the Sephardi world. He is Former Director General of the Sephardi Heritage in the Ministry of Education and Culture of Israel. Since June 2013, he serves as the Chairperson of the Council of the Sephardi Community in Jerusalem, as well as a member of the Royal Academy of Doctors in Spain. Dr. Haim is an active participant in interreligious fora, and in coordinating bridges between Israel and Spain. In March 2014, Dr. Haim had an audience with King Juan Carlos of Spain.