The Hurva’s symbolism

Twice destroyed and twice rebuilt, the Hurva synagogue is a symbol of the Jewish people’s tenacious insistence on returning to its rightful land against all odds.

March 14, 2010 21:13
3 minute read.
The Hurva Synagogue (Gil Zohar).

hurva synagogue 311. (photo credit: Gil Zohar)


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A dedication ceremony will be held today, the eve of the first day of Nissan, for the Hurva (literally “ruin”) Synagogue, located in the middle of the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.

More than just a house of prayer, the Hurva was a venue for key historical events – Herzl’s visit to Jerusalem, a recruitment ceremony for Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Jewish Legion, the honoring of pro-Zionist British High Commissioner Sir Herbert Samuel – leading to the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty.

It symbolizes, perhaps more than any other site, the Jewish people’s yearnings to return to its homeland. It is concrete proof that Judaism cannot be reduced solely to an abstract religious faith devoid of national aspirations, as some – most notably German Jews of the the 19th century and contemporary Jewish anti-Zionists – attempted to claim.

While the Western Wall has been the focal point of prayers for redemption, the Hurva has been at the center of Jewish activism to maintain a presence in the Land of Israel.

Already in the Second Century CE, less than a hundred years after the destruction of the Second Temple and the end of Jewish sovereignty, a synagogue existed on the Hurva site. During the Byzantine era it was here that a road leading to the Jewish Quarter and to the Temple Mount broke off from the main market plaza known as the Cardo. In the 13th century it was called the Ashkenazi compound by European Jews who had “returned” to their homeland.

But Jews faced constant opposition. In Jerusalem, which was known to have a special religious meaning for Jews, a Muslim decree was strictly enforced. According to historian Arie Morgenstern, Muslims wanted “to prevent, heaven forbid, the realization of Jewish hopes regarding the prophecies that foresaw the return to Zion and the rebuilding of Jerusalem.”

Nevertheless, at the end of the 17th century, the Muslim political leadership gave Jews permission to build after the existing Ashkenazi synagogue collapsed. Just before 1700, driven by belief in an imminent messianic redemption, Rabbi Judah the Pious gathered about 1,500 followers from Moravia and Germany and left for Jerusalem to erect a house of prayer.

But after the rabbi’s sudden death’ his demoralized followers were unable to defray their many debts. In 1720, frustrated Muslim creditors set fire to the synagogue, expelled the Ashkenazi community and forbid them to return.

Still, Jewish aspirations could not be extinguished. A century later, a new religio-nationalist revival was born – under the leadership of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov, one of the most outstanding students of the Vilna Gaon. He saw the rebuilding of the Hurva as having kabbalistic significance – a tikkun that would lead to the rebuilding of the entire city, a precursor to the arrival of the Messiah.

Thanks to British and Austrian diplomatic assistance, various geopolitical upheavals and funds from Sir Moses Montefiore, the Rothschilds and communities as far-flung as St. Petersburg, Baghdad, Cairo and India, building began in 1855. The Ottoman sultan’s own architect, Assad Effendi, conceived an audacious project that dominated the skyline at a time when non-Muslim houses of prayer were to show deference to Mosques.

From the time it was finished in 1864 until it was blown up by the Jordanian Legion during the 1948 War of Independence, the Hurva was undoubtedly the most impressive synagogue in the land of Israel. A harbinger of Jewish sovereignty, construction coincided with a renewed influx of Jews (in 1860 there was a Jewish majority in Jerusalem),  and its destruction marked the establishment of a Jewish state.

FOR 19 years, until the Six Day War, the Hurva lay desolate. And even after Israel gained control over Jerusalem and ensured freedom of worship for all faiths, fear of disrupting the delicate religious equilibrium paralyzed efforts to rebuild the ruins – until agreement was reached that Effendi’s edifice would be restored, thus maintaining the status quo.

Twice destroyed and twice rebuilt, the Hurva is a symbol of the Jewish people’s tenacious insistence on returning to its rightful land against all odds. To name something that is built a “ruin” reveals a stubborn unwillingness to accept the present reality as unassailable.

This refusal to be deterred by setbacks, this unfailing hope for redemption – whether physical or spiritual – is the secret of the miracle that is the Jewish state.

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