The Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem: Twice Destroyed, Thrice Built

The second time, it took a huge bribe to get permits to build higher than local mosques.

The Old City of Jerusalem is sacred to three faiths. But in contrast to the Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Muslim mosques Al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock, throughout the first 62 years of the State of Israel, the Jews had no sky-puncturing iconic place of prayer. On May 27, 1948, Jordanian soldiers forced entry into the side of the 84-year old Hurva synagogue by detonating a 200-liter barrel of explosives. They came back and blew up the entire synagogue two days later.

“Hurva” means "destroyed to ruins," and, ironically, that was the unfortunate destiny of the Ashkenazi place of worship on this site – not once but twice.

The first time was in 1720. Rabbi Judah HeHasid and his 1,500 followers spent three years trekking from Poland to Jerusalem, in the conviction that their move would hasten the coming of the Messiah. Only 300 survived the journey and their spiritual leader succumbed to water-poisoning within a week of arrival.

Underfinanced yet undeterred, his followers set about building the then-only Ashkenazi place of worship in Jerusalem, by borrowing at exorbitant rates of interest from the local Arabs.

When, 20 years later, it became obvious that the group could not keep up with the payments, the Arabs burned down the synagogue and expelled the whole Ashkenazi community from Jerusalem.

Belief and bribery

The second wave of Ashkenazi immigrants to build on the site were the better-financed disciples of the Gaon of Vilna. They constructed the same Turkish-style domed structure as the present Hurva synagogue, largely with the financial backing of the Rothschilds and Sir Moses Montefiore.

Under the Ottomans, it was not easy to circumvent the stern prohibition of building taller than any Muslim place of worship. It took a considerable bribe to persuade the authorities to look the other way as the Hurva synagogue towered over the adjacent mosque.

Fully inaugurated in 1864, this was the largest Jewish place of worship in Jerusalem since the Second Temple, and its décor and architectural style was meant to represent the best possible in the current socioreligious circumstances. There were no stained-glass windows, but the dome’s interior artwork was based on explicit and implied nostalgic and longing themes of Psalm 137: “By the waters of Babylon”.

Its strict Ashkenazi rites rigorously followed the rulings of the Gaon of Vilna, including the priests’ ascent to the ark to intone the biblical blessing at all morning services, and the cantillation of the weekly prophetic readings and all Five Megillot from sacred scrolls rather than printed texts.

The third version arises

Destroyed as described in the 1948 War of Independence, various reconstruction plans were shelved until the new millennium. Finally, followed the ruling of leading Halachist rabbi Shalom Elyashiv (1910-2012), it was rebuilt to its former design and magnificence.

Indeed, the keen observer should be able to trace where the original masonry is lovingly incorporated into the synagogue’s eastern wall.

Today's services are decorous and conventional. Acoustics are excellent, and the ladies’ gallery is airy and spacious.

The visitor is strongly urged to get the most out of the synagogue by joining one of the excellent hour-long English guided tours; best to phone ahead and book in advance.

The participant will not only be regaled with insider stories of the synagogue and its neighborhood – but descend to the ancient ritual baths under the synagogue, which date from the Second Temple period. They were discovered under the post-1967 statutory privilege given to archaeologists in the Jewish Quarter, which is that they have the right to investigate the site before building plans may go ahead.

The tour finishes with a climb to arguably the best 360-degree view of the Old City from the walkway surround of the synagogue dome.

Main Sabbath services at the Hurva Synagogue begin at around sundown and at 8:15 am in the morning; weekdays at 7:45 am and before sundown. Minibus 38 to the Jewish Quarter from the city center of Jerusalem; or light railway to the Jerusalem Municipality and then a 20-minute walk. Outside service times, visits are by Sunday-Friday guided tours only as the synagogue includes Yeshiva functions throughout the day. Phone in advance to ensure 02-626 5922.

The tour costs 25 shekels, and is well worth it in the opinion of the writer.