The Gothic Synagogues of the Old City of Jerusalem

Tradition claims that the synagogue complex is on the site of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai's original academy in Jerusalem.

Jacob Solomon

Each synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem has its ghosts. The Hurva served the pre-1948 non-hasidic circle, the Tiferet Yisrael (mostly destroyed in 1948) had a more hassidic clientele - and the Ben Zakkai’s regulars largely originated from the Sephardi communities that were expelled from Spain in 1492.

Founded in the early 17th century, the Ben Zakkai Synagogue was built in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, a short walk southeast from Jaffa Gate. It is actually a complex of four interconnected synagogues, sharing one roof.

Extensively damaged in the 1948 War of Independence (see picture gallery), these vaulted architectural gems, featuring gothic arches and Moorish décor, were restored to,and perhaps beyond, their original splendor by the Jerusalem Foundation in 1972. They have also been greatly enriched with imported furnishings and ritual objects, chiefly ornate Torah arks from Italian Jewish communities decimated by the Holocaust.

Still mostly in regular use, the Yohanan Ben Zakkai Synagogue, the most ornate of the four, follows the Jerusalem Sephardi rite. Nestled with it, through a fairly low arch, is the Eliyahu HaNavi (Elijah the Prophet) Synagogue, whose layout is adapted for Ashkenazi use. Wags claim that the Sephardi benches form a rectangle for congregants to watch over one other, but the Ashkenazis are put in rows for freedom to nod off.

In view of the synagogues’ illustrious history, Shabbat services seem to attract fewer worshippers than the tourist might expect. Indeed, the other two synagogues, the larger Istanbuli and the smaller Emtzai (middle), with its photographic exhibition, hold services less frequently. It isn't for lack of local religious feeling: the relatively small Jewish population of the Old City, numbering some 3,000 souls, is well-served by the Western Wall, and the Hurva and Ramban synagogues. Too many shuls, too few regulars.

Screenshot from Google Maps

Tradition claims that the synagogue complex is on the site of the original academy of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, which he re-established at Yavneh as spiritual leader of the exiled Jews after the destruction of the Second Temple in the Year 70. It was developed as a house of worship after the closure of the nearby Ramban Synagogue in 1589 by the Ottoman authorities, ostensibly because the Jews had put up a grandiose place of worship without written confirmation of antiquity and legality, as under the laws of Caliph Omar II (717-720).

This may explain why the four synagogues were built below street level; the main entrance is down a flight of stairs.

The watchful eye on the Muslim authorities is also indicated in the eastern wall containing not the usual one ark for the Torah scrolls, but two. As in the Ramban synagogue, the Muslims decreed that the Koran was to be placed next to the Sifrei Torah.

Guided tours emphasize the synagogues’ rich litany of stories. As a foretaste, the Eliyahu HaNavi shul got its name from a strange and unknown elderly visitor who completed the minyan (quorum of ten men) just in time for the opening of the Kol Nidrei services on Yom Kippur. Joining in with congregation’s all-day Yom Kippur proceedings, the congregants felt a spiritual aura that made them pray with an extraordinary deep level of devotion. Invited to break the fast, he politely declined. During the night, he revealed himself as Elijah the Prophet and assured them that God had heard their prayers. The chair he sat on (or rather its replica, the original being looted in 1948 War of Independence) is in an alcove; sitting on it was believed to have a healing effect on women unable to conceive.

The association the Prophet Elijah continues in the Ben Zakkai synagogue. High above the southern wall, the upper window bay has a very thin shofar, and a supply of oil. These are reserved for his exclusive use to herald and anoint the Messiah.

Sabbath services at Ben Zakkai and Elyihu Hanavi happen at sundown on the eves of Sabbaths and Festivals. Sabbath morning services are at 7:00 at Ben Zakkai and 8:00 at Eliyahu Hanavi. Weekday services at Ben Zakkai are timed to coincide with sunrise. Outside service times, visits are by Sunday-Friday guided tours (fee NIS 7, open 9:00-4:00; 1:00 on Fridays). Phone in advance: 02-628 0592. 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, via Jaffa Gate. The entire synagogue complex is in Misherot HaKekunah Street – a minute’s walk to the south of the main square of the Jewish Quarter.