Worshipping Yemenite Style in Jerusalem: The Nachum Synagogue in Mea She'arim

Don't blink or you might miss it: Its modest exterior is a remnant of Yemenite rules that forbade a synagogue to raise its head above the smallest mosque in the area.

Jacob Solomon
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The exterior of the extremely modest Nachum synagogue in Mea She'arim: the place of worship is on the upper floor.
The exterior of the extremely modest Nachum synagogue in Mea She'arim: the place of worship is on the upper floor.Credit: Jacob Solomon
Jacob Solomon

You are extremely unlikely to find yourself in a Yemenite Jewish place of worship by happenstance.

Yemenite synagogues are traditionally small and plain, both outside and inside. This is for reason. In Yemen, the Jews were not allowed to worship in a building that raised its head above the smallest mosque in the area.

That law could be so constraining that Yemenites often preferred to adapt rooms in a private homes for prayer rather than build a formal synagogue – however diminutive. Even where purpose-built synagogues existed, the Jews took precautions to keep them plain, to avoid jealousy by local Muslims.

Their renowned artistic skills with silver and other precious metals were not applied to the décor of their places of worship, but to the ritual objects in their synagogues and in their homes.

With the opening of the Suez Canal and the general easing of travel from Yemen under Ottoman rule, early pioneers made their way to the Old City of Jerusalem around the turn of the 19th century. Unlike the agriculturally-oriented first Aliyah from Eastern Europe at the same time, they were decidedly urban. They eked a living by continuing in the few crafts that the Moslems permitted for Jews over the centuries in Yemen: shoemaking, carpentry, and crafts using precious metals.

Their exodus from the Old City following the 1948 Israeli War of Independence caused the Yemenite community to be spread more widely over Jerusalem - including the increasingly ultra-Orthodox Mea She'arim.

16th century kabbala

This synagogue, named after its spiritual leader, is a scion of that first wave of Yemenite immigrants, rather than the mass immigration the Israeli government organized in 1949-1950 (Operation Magic Carpet) from which the bulk of Israel today’s 350,000-strong Yemenite community stems.

This synagogue follows the Baladi-Yemenite liturgical rite, which may be seen as the middle-of-the road version of prayer and outlook found amongst many traditional Yemenite Jews. The Baladi strive to keep the spiritual heritage of the Yemenite community essentially intact, whilst subtly incorporating elements of the 16th-century kabbala of Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed (1534–1572), which had infiltrated Yemen.

That does not mean that a Yemenite service is Sephardi, or Ashkenazi. The Yemenite rulers tended to isolate their country from the rest of the world; thus on the whole their Jewish population had little contact with Jewish communities in other countries.

Space for prostration

Traditionally, there had been no chairs in Yemenite synagogues. Amongst the reasons suggested are that the floor gives the necessary space for full prostration in worship; indeed this is still practiced by some Yemenites, though in private prayer only.

This arrangement has long given way to seating, which in the Nachum synagogue is perfectly comfortable.

Nothing distinguishes a Yemenite synagogue more that the Torah reading. Fundamental to time-honored early childhood Jewish education is the rote-learnt drill of the scriptural texts. An emphasis is placed on punctilious accuracy according to the Yemenite pronunciation, which they and many others believe to be the most authentic Hebrew in use today.

Cognoscenti will spot the use of “th” “w” and “j” sounds distinguishing the presence or absence of the dagesh (single dot within the letter); these sounds are absent in both Ashkenazi and Sephardi Hebrew pronunciations.

The Yemenite norm is that the person called up for Torah reads the portion himself, without the services of a baal koreh (cantillator). The tunes used for the reading of the sacred scrolls are exclusively Yemenite, distinguished by their characteristic sharpness from both Ashekenazi and Sephardi liturgical elements and rhythms.

This part of the service takes longer as each verse is read by a meturgaman, who translates each verse into Aramaic. This practice is recorded in the Talmud, and has endured to the present day only in Yemenite and certain Kurdish communities.

For the best experience, go by yourself on Shabbat morning. Slip in quietly, and let yourself go with the flow. The atmosphere is pleasant, without being overbearing. Ladies will find the accommodation rather restricting. The Nachum Synagogue is certainly off the beaten track, but is worth the effort for aficionados and connoisseurs of places of worship.

Sabbath services at the Nachum Synagogue begin at around sundown in the evening and at 7:30 am in the morning. It is a four-minute walk from Sabbath Square, in the center of Mea She'arim. Enter Mea She'arim Street to the east, and walk some 200 meters. Turn left into Habbakuk Street, and then continue as it becomes the narrow sidestreet of Shaarei Pina. The Nachum Synagogue is on the second floor.

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