Four Sephardic Synagogues in Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter

This complex of four old houses of worships is overlooked - but shouldn't be.

Mike Rogoff
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Mike Rogoff

This overlooked gem of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem lies a one-minute walk south of Hurva Square, through a short tunnel in the direction of the quarter’s main parking lot. At a bend in the cobblestone street, and one level below it, is a courtyard and the door of the synagogue complex. High on the wall above the entrance, a large sign in English reassures you that you have arrived.

“Sephardic” Jews, or “Sephardim,” are the descendents of the quarter-million-strong Jewish community of Spain (“Sepharad” in Hebrew), expelled by royal edict in 1492. The community dispersed, finding refuge in Muslim North Africa, the Netherlands, and the Ottoman Turkish domains of Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey. When the Turks conquered most of the Middle East – Jerusalem fell in 1516 – they allowed, perhaps even encouraged, Sephardic Jews to return to their ancestral land. Some did, and among them some followed an age-old longing to settle in the Holy City of Jerusalem.

When you enter the complex (men need to cover their heads; skullcaps are available), continue directly from the ticket desk ahead into the oldest of the synagogues, named for Eliyahu Hanavi, the biblical prophet Elijah. The Sephardic newcomers, 500 years ago, initially joined an existing community in the quarter, but when that synagogue was seized by the local authorities and its members evicted in the late 1500s, the Sephardim moved a few hundred meters down the street and built the one in which you now stand.

The Elijah legend associated with this place relates that on the eve of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), a minuscule group of nine men were anxiously waiting for a tenth to make up the minyan, the prayer quorum required for many important parts of the liturgy. At the last moment, an old man arrived, joined the jubilant little congregation, and spent the day with them in prayer and fasting. But when they turned to the stranger after the service to invite him to “break the fast” with them, he had mysteriously disappeared. He must have been Elijah the Prophet, they all nodded in agreement, he who brings timely succor to those in distress.

At the front of the synagogue stands a four-century-old, dark-varnished wooden “ark,” a cupboard-like piece of furniture that houses Torah scrolls. This one was salvaged from Italy after World War II.

The ticket desk is at the back of the largest of the synagogues, named for the 1st-century CE rabbinic sage, Yohanan ben-Zakkai. During the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans, he was able to persuade the general Vespasian (soon to be emperor) to let him and his disciples leave the doomed city. As the great Temple burned to the ground (70 CE), these men were keeping the flame of Jewish law and learning alight in the town of Yavneh, on the coastal plain.

Additional synagogues were added to the complex as the community grew. The tiny “Emtza’i” ("Middle") synagogue, the last one to be built, occupies what was once a small courtyard that was later roofed. The innermost synagogue is the “Istambuli,” frequented by émigrés from Constantinople, as its name suggests. Today it serves as the “overflow” facility on important religious holidays. The gilded “ark” and the “bimah” were also salvaged from post-War Italy.

In 1948, the War of Independence divided Jerusalem. The Old City was captured by the Jordanian Arab Legion, and the Jewish Quarter became inaccessible to its evacuated residents for a generation. When access was restored immediately after the Six-Day War of 1967, the returnees found that the synagogue complex had been looted and gutted in their absence. (Photographs in the Emtza’i synagogue document the scene.) All four synagogues have been completely restored and refurbished, preserving much of the original stonework.

The old Sephardic community dispersed after the 1948 evacuation, settling in the New City and elsewhere in the country. Relatively few chose to return to the Jewish Quarter. Since the two large synagogues of the Ashkenazi community (Jews of European background) had been destroyed back in 1948, their Sephardic brethren offered them the use of the Elijah synagogue, an arrangement that holds to this day. (It is worth noting that both communities are strictly Orthodox – look for the screened women’s gallery close to the ceiling – with only minor cultural differences between them.)

Note two items of distinction between the two groups. The seating in the Ashkenazi “Elijah” synagogue is in rows of pews, perhaps an influence of Christian Europe, while the benches of the Sephardic “Ben-Zakkai” synagogue face each other, a common “eastern” arrangement. The “bimah,” the podium or table on which the Torah scroll is read, is a giveaway: In Ashkenazi synagogues, the scroll is attached to two heavy rollers that are unrolled on a sloping table for better stability and convenience of reading. The Sephardic scroll, while identical in its text, is mounted within a canister and read in an upright position – hence the flat table on the “bimah.”

A one-room museum of old artifacts completes the site.

Address: 2 Mishmerot Hakehuna St.

Hours: Sunday–Thursday, 9:30 A.M.-3:30 P.M.

Entrance fee: NIS 10 (for adults)

Restrooms on site (up a staircase)

Tel.: 02-628-0592 (keep trying)

Yohanan Ben Zakkai synagogue in Jerusalem, pictured in 2006Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Visitors at the Emtza'i synagogueCredit: Wikimedia Commons

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