Belz of Jerusalem, the Largest Synagogue in the World

This magnificent sanctuary took 15 years to build, by a community that rose like a phoenix from the ashes of the Holocaust.

Jacob Solomon
The exterior of the Belz Synagogue, whose distinctive roof punctures the Jerusalem skyline on entering the city via Route #1.
The exterior of the Belz Synagogue, whose distinctive roof punctures the Jerusalem skyline on entering the city via Route #1.Credit: Jacob Solomon
Jacob Solomon

To call the Belz Synagogue by its name is to mislead. It is an understatement.

The magnificent sanctuary, with a ground floor that seats nearly 3,000 men, and six galleries (two for men, four for women) that seat 5,000 more is actually just the seventh floor of the vast Belz World Center in Jerusalem.

The main entrance for men is on the street level, which is the sixth floor of the building. The women’s portal leads to the high galleries by a series of ramps inside the building.

Even that vast expanse cannot hold all who journey to the Belz Synagogue for the High Holidays. The eight aisles are filled with additional seats, bringing the total capacity to over 10,000.

Lower floors in the Belz building are for communal facilities, including halls of celebration, study, and prayer.

An illuminated electronic panel directs weekday arrivals to the room of the next service, with one starting every few minutes.

Glorious construction in service of the Almighty

Belz Chassidim fervently seek to direct their entire lives to serve the Almighty and His Creations according the Torah, under the interpretation, inspiration, and leadership of their spiritual leader the Belzer Rebbe.

From the outset, the rebbes of Belz incorporated buildings as part of that service. The Belz tradition records that after prolonged fasting and spiritual purification, Rabbi Shalom Rokeach, the first Belzer Rebbe, encountered the Prophet Elijah who directed him with the specifications of the place of worship he was to build in Belz, today in the Ukraine.

Elijah also informed him that this structure would ultimately move from the town of Belz to the city of Jerusalem, and be one of the synagogues that would be close to the future Temple of the messianic era.

The Rebbe immediately physically set to work with his own hands and his disciples, and the synagogue of Belz, in Ukraine, with a turret-surrounded flat roof, was dedicated in 1843.

Today’s Belzer World Center (financed by the Belz community and voluntary donations, completed in the year 2,000) is a reincarnation of the original synagogue. It has the same basic design, but it is much greater size and scope.

Like its forerunner in the town of Belz, it took 15 years to build. And again like its predecessor, it was partially put up by the incumbent rebbe in person, together with his Hasidim so that its very structure would be imbued with holiness.

The construction process included mikva immersion, tzedaka (giving money to charity), and prayers to promote the appropriate elevated state of mind for so sacred a task.

The huge scale of the project was vital. Under the previous spiritual leader, and the current one, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, the community rose like a phoenix from the ashes of the Holocaust and continued to expand to its current 9,000 families: half living is Israel and half outside. Now the edifice's distinctive roof punctures the Jerusalem skyline on entering the city via Route #1.

An 18-ton ark

The sanctuary’s sole purpose is to bring worshippers close to the Almighty. Everything is designed so that the prayers of each worshipper may be of the highest level of devotion and thus be accepted on high.

The 24-carat gold leaf plating of the prayer leader’s desk in front of the ark recalls the overlay of the Temple interior. The steps leading up the ark connect ten levels of elevation, symbolizing the ten Sefirot (channels of connection between G-d and Man).

The Brazilian-walnut ark weighs 18 tons with space for 70 Torah scrolls. In Hebrew numerology, those numbers signify “life” and “Moses’ council of sages” (Numbers 11:15) respectively. The potentially-distracting Hebrew-lettered clock is confined to the synagogue ante-chamber. There are no timepieces in the sanctuary itself.

Acoustics are of legendary-high quality. The nine Czech-crystal pear-shaped chandeliers are positioned relative to the marble and wood synagogue furnishings, to maximize sound reflection and minimize sound absorption.

By itself, that is not sufficient for the ba’al tefillah (prayer leader) to be heard above the myriad’s highly vocal prayers. The Belz method of getting instant silence is the clapper. His job at the appropriate moment is to deliver a series of healthy thwacks with the wooden paddle to a stout, leather cushion. Its thunderous echoes invariably produce the desired effect.

However, those seeking to hear the emotionally profound Belz musical repertoire will not find it at the services. These niggunim (sacred tunes), some dating from the early years of the Belz, are only sung during the tisch (literally table), when the rebbe partakes of the Sabbath and Festival meal in the hall down below, and the Hasidim pack the bleachers to the overflow.

Main Sabbath services at the Belz World Center Synagogue at #2 Dover Shalom Street begin at around sundown and at 8:45 am in the morning. Weekday services are round the clock; just turn up.

Times of tisches are by word of mouth – just ask. A Belzer maybe idetified by the bow on the left side of the hat.

All events are strictly gender-segregated. Very modest dress is required. The synagogue is a 15-minute walk from the Jerusalem Central Bus Station, and is served by Bus #9. Guided tours (highly recommended) are available though they must be booked in advance; phone +972-573-196-018.



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