BARCELONA – Known for its cosmopolitan restaurants, modernist architecture and
pleasant Mediterranean climate, Barcelona – the second largest city in Spain
(after Madrid), and capital of the province of Catalonia – also has a rich
Jewish history that deserves to be explored by all interested
Long before the tumultuous expulsion of the Jews in 1492,
Jewish culture thrived throughout the Iberian Peninsula. Indeed, during an era
justifiably known as the Golden Age, Spain’s large, influential, and prolific
Jewish community produced many luminaries. Through their great works of poetic,
biblical and kabbalistic writings, these poets and rabbinic scholars exercised a
profound influence on the development of Jewish philosophical thought, and
halachic and liturgical practice. Their insights later spread throughout the
Sephardi and Ashkenazi worlds. Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Judah Halevi, Abraham Ibn
Ezra, Maimonides, and Nachmanides are just a few eminent names. In one way or
another, each remains inextricably – and simultaneously – linked with the
heritage of Spanish Jewry and the practice of contemporary Judaism.
Barcelona was never the largest Jewish center in Spain, it figured prominently
in Spanish Jewish history. In 1263, Barcelona was the site of a famous
disputation presided over by King James I of Aragon. Nachmanides, whose familial
link to Barcelona, Catalonia’s largest city, traced back to his grandfather,
Isaac ben Reuben, was called to defend Judaism against Pablo Christiani, an
apostate, who had worked vigorously to force the Jews to convert to
Christianity. Although the Spanish monarch declared him the victor of the
debate, the negative reaction of the Christian authorities ultimately led
Nachmanides, the leading rabbi of Catalonia, to leave Spain for Jerusalem during
the height of the Crusades.
This medieval Jewish legacy is not lost in
contemporary Barcelona. Montjuïc (Catalan for “mountain of the Jews”) remains a
towering presence over the city. It is home to the 1992 Olympic stadium and the
National Museum of Art of Catalonia, among other important Spanish cultural
sites. However, in the high middle ages, Montjuïc was the site of a Jewish
cemetery, after which the mountain was named.
tombstones are now stored in the Provincial Archeological
Montjuïc overlooks Barcelona’s harbor where, standing prominently
at the center of the Plaça de la Porta de Pau (Square of the Gate of Peace), a
tall monumental column is topped with a statue of Christopher Columbus.. The
monument marks the spot where Columbus returned after his first voyage to the
Americas. Whether this statue can be deemed a Jewish site depends on whether one
accepts the popular and compelling legend that Columbus, who set sail on August
3, 1492, just days after the expulsion began, was a converso, whose ancestors
were among the Spanish Jews forced to convert to Christianity to save their
lives, but who secretly maintained traditional Jewish practices.
fateful year not only marks Columbus’s arrival to the Americas but also the
tragic expulsion from Spain of perhaps as many as 200,000 Jews.
absence lasted for centuries, until a modest number began returning in the
SOME 4,000 Jews who reside in Barcelona today are
served by several synagogues, including Chabad, Comunidad Israelita de Barcelona
(Orthodox) and Comunitat Jueva Atid de Catalunya (Reform). A site of unique
importance to any Jewish tourist, only opened to the public in 2002, is not only
the oldest synagogue in Spain but is considered – alongside the synagogue of
Rome’s ancient port of Ostia – to be the oldest in Europe.
In the heart
of Barcelona’s medieval Gothic area, not far from the popular pedestrian
promenade of La Rambla, is the ancient Jewish quarter known as the Call (likely
from kahal or kehilla, Hebrew for community).
The main street of the Call
was Carrer de Sant Domènec, where kosher butchers worked and leading members of
the community resided. It was also the location of the historic Sinagoga Mayor
de Barcelona, the city’s former great synagogue, believed to date back to Roman
times. Surviving documents from the synagogue include a record from 1267, when
King James I authorized the raising of the building’s height.
records indicate that four synagogues existed in Barcelona in the 14th century.
Of these, only the Sinagoga Mayor has been found, reclaimed, and restored. For
years, the building served many functions, except that of a synagogue. In the
late 17th century, apartments were built on top of the structure.
late 20th century, a study on the Call area led to the rediscovery of the
synagogue, its subsequent purchase, its management by the Call Association of
Barcelona (founded in 1997 to support the synagogue recovery project) and its
Excavations during this time revealed a foundation
and Roman wall structure dating back to the reign of Emperor Caracalla, who, in
212 had granted full Roman citizenship to the Jews of the empire.
early ruins are now visible to visitors through a glass floor.
following Nachmanides’ distinguished participation at the Barcelona disputation,
King James I reputedly visited this synagogue. Indeed, one of Barcelona’s – and
the synagogue’s – longest-serving leaders was Rabbi Shlomo ben Adret (the
Rashba), a former student of Nachmanides whom he succeeded as rabbinical
authority over the Jews of Catalonia.
Among the most prolific writers of
Jewish legal opinions, the Rashba, born in Barcelona in 1235, earned a
reputation as one of the greatest Torah scholars of the Middle Ages. He served
as rabbi of Sinagoga Mayor de Barcelona for more than 50 years.
recounting the synagogue’s history indicate that it functioned until 1391. That
ominous year, the unofficial start of the Spanish Inquisition, which became
official in 1481, saw fierce anti-Jewish riots throughout Spain. On August 5,
1391, many Jews of Barcelona were massacred, leaving those who survived no
recourse but to flee, convert and practice their faith in secret. The tragic
events of 1391 also meant the effective, centuries-long end of public Jewish
life in Barcelona. Although most Jewish buildings remained standing the
community’s surviving Jews had dispersed. Today, however, Barcelona‚s
modest-sized Jewish community thrives, and the Sinagoga Mayor is again open to
the public as the Shlomo Ben Adret Synagogue.
Guided tours of the
synagogue are available in English and Hebrew. Two rooms are open to tourists.
To visit this remarkable synagogue – at Carrer de Marlet 5, just off Carrer de
Sant Domènec – descend down six feet of stairs (the street-level of Roman
times), and enter through the small door. On the right side is the foyer of the
synagogue, designed according to the building style of ancient Rome upon which
the medieval walls were constructed.
The room to the left is the heart of
the medieval synagogue. There, one can see two large windows aimed in an
easterly direction towards Jerusalem.
The holy ark, in which the Torah
scrolls were kept, has now been placed between the windows to show where the
original once stood. A large, iron menora now stands toward the south of the
room. It was donated by artist Ferrá Aguiló in memory of his Spanish Jewish
The historic synagogue is also available for bar/bat mitzvas
and other special occasions. On August 10, 2003, a Montreal couple became the
first to celebrate their wedding there after more than six centuries (just five
days after the 612th anniversary of the 1391 massacre).The writer is a
freelancer in Vancouver. This article first appeared in the