The title of this magnificent edifice says it all. Its façade is based on the sanctuary of the Second Temple, which was destroyed at the order of the Roman emperor Titus in the year 70CE. And the plush, marble-floored luxurious interior would impress even King Herod, arguably the most ambitious builder in the ancient world.
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Since the Second Temple's destruction, Jewish places of worship in Jerusalem have on the whole been rather small and local. The idea of going upscale only developed during the 20th century, with the opening of the now-adjoining Heichal Shlomo synagogue in 1958.
That shul flourished, outgrew itself and finally the synagogue’s board of management obtained the sponsorship of British philanthropist Sir Isaac Wolfson to construct the Great Synagogue, which opened its doors on Tu B’Av 1982.
The synagogue’s purpose is literally set in stone by the main entrance. The statue is dedicated to those unable to attend: “the six million Jewish victims of the European Holocaust and all those Jewish men and women who sacrificed their lives for and in defense of the State of Israel”.
It is also dedicated to those who can attend, as a “house of prayer for the Jews of the World… so that we the Jewish People may live.” This invitation is qualified outside the sanctuary: “We ask you to observe the strictest decorum and refrain from conversation…”
A wide repertoire of hazanut
To get the best out of the synagogue, attend a Sabbath morning service: indeed many first-time visitors to Jerusalem precede it with Friday night at the Kotel. An excellent combination, provided that it is a Shabbat when cantor and choir officiate; check up beforehand.
Under cantor Chaim Adler, choirmaster Eli Jaffe, and musical arranger Raymond Goldstein, the Jerusalem Great Synagogue purveys a wide repertoire of hazanut (cantorial art) and traditional Ashkenazi liturgical choral music. This where many a young hazan gets his break.
On a regular Shabbat, the mainstay of the synagogue is a core of local residents, and tourists staying at nearby hotels. But if it is a Shabbat billed for a visiting celebrity hazan – the service morphs into a concert, and the congregation is outnumbered by Haredim from Geula and beyond. Word travels with the lightening speed on their bush telegraph. The men’s section of the synagogue is packed to capacity.
When the hazan and choir are about to perform a piece de resistance, they leave their seats and crowd towards the choral stage in front of the ark. Totally unnecessary; the synagogue’s acoustics are perfect.
The only problem I felt with the all-male choir was the absence of soprano voices, at least when I attended. But then it must be frustrating to train young boys whose voices suddenly break.
With 1,400 cushioned seats including the ladies’ gallery, light filters through the stained glass windows’ encapsulation of the Jewish experience, and Jewish ideals and aspirations. It plays its own symphony as the sun passes over, and that is powerful. As Moses covered his face at the burning bush, so will you on viewing the upper part of the widow above the marble ark during the Saturday morning service.
The Great Synagogue runs a wide range of shiurim (lessons) and cultural events open to all; it's worth checking the website. If you have time, look at the permanent exhibition of mezuzot that flank the entrance hall. Find the one whose Hebrew letters are in Braille. And see if you can spot the plain wooden mezuza made out of the 200-year-old elaborate chair of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav. The dismantled seat was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and reassembled and closely guarded in Meah Shearim. But some bits did not quite fit; thus were the residual chips recycled.
If unable to attend on Shabbat, try first Selichot before Rosh Hashanah. If you’re single and looking for a partner, go on Simchat Torah when it seems to be the unwritten tradition. And if you can’t make it when it’s in action, join in a free half-hour tour Sunday–Thursday morning. Please check in advance.
Sabbath services at The Jerusalem Great Synagogue begin at around sundown in the evening and at 7:55 am in the morning; weekdays at or just before 8:00 am, at midday, and before sundown in the evenings. Phone 02-623 0628, website jerusalemgreatsynagogue.com. Free tours (check in advance) weekdays Sunday-Thursdays, check in advance. Bear in mind that donations are welcome, as its running costs are around $1m per year, and The Great Synagogue receives no public funding.