The pathways of the Jewish Quarter

Although the Ramban Synagogue, located in the Jewish Quarter, is identified with the one built by Ramban, it is a misnomer.

The Menahem Zion Synagogue is said to have been built on the ruins of the Ashkenazi synagogue of Rabbi Yehuda Hehassid and the Shelah (photo credit: ELAD ZAGMAN)
The Menahem Zion Synagogue is said to have been built on the ruins of the Ashkenazi synagogue of Rabbi Yehuda Hehassid and the Shelah
(photo credit: ELAD ZAGMAN)
Compact in size, the Jewish Quarter is steeped in history. Ramban (Nahmanides), a leading medieval Spanish Jewish scholar, biblical commentator and kabbalist, practiced what he preached. In 1267, at the age of 73, he made aliya. He arrived in Jerusalem and encountered a desolate city, a faint echo of its glorious past.
During his short stay in Jerusalem, he built a synagogue. Although the Ramban Synagogue, located in the Jewish Quarter, is identified with the one built by Ramban, it is a misnomer. Historians claim that there is no documentation verifying that this structure was connected to Ramban. The earliest documentation on this structure dates to the 14th or 15th century. Historical sources point out that the Jewish neighborhood at the time of Ramban’s aliya was in the area of Mount Zion.
In any case, the importance of the Ramban Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in Jerusalem which is active today, is its being the core of a Jewish neighborhood during the Mameluke period (13th to 16th centuries), which evolved into the Jewish Quarter.
The Ramban Synagogue is but one of hundreds of places presented in a new book in Hebrew, Harova Hayehudi Vekol Netivotav “Pathways in the Jewish Quarter”: 13 in-depth tours tracing Jewish life in Jerusalem between the walls, by Dr. Eyal Davidson, published by Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi and the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem in honor of the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem.
Davidson, a historian whose research focuses on the history of Jerusalem and the Land of Israel, is a lecturer of Eretz Israel studies at the Orot Israel College of Education and Herzog College.
His experience of about 20 years as a tour guide is evident in the planning of the tour itineraries. They cover 750 years of Jewish settlement in the Jewish Quarter, from the times of the Mamelukes, through Ottoman rule, the Old Yishuv (Jewish community prior to the beginning of Zionist aliya), the British Mandate, the last struggle for the Jewish Quarter in 1948, and the reunification of the city.
The texts offer insights on the spiritual and cultural lives of the Jews, the mosaic of communities, portrayal of individuals, some well known (with streets and institutions named for them in other Jerusalem neighborhoods) – within the historical milieu. The many historical photos, illustrations, maps and quotes help one visualize life in the past and appreciate the process of rebuilding the Jewish Quarter.
The tours are according to topic. A time scale keeps track of the years, since some tours cover a few hundred years! Among the tours are: the Sephardi quarter, the Ashkenazi courtyard, hassidic courts, kabbalists in Jerusalem, Old Yishuv women during the late Ottoman period, doctors and the practice of medicine, schools and the challenge of modern progressive influence, the price of independence, and the Jewish Quarter’s development after the Six Day War.
The Sephardi community was the dominant one in Jerusalem until the mid-19th century, due to the influx of Spanish Jews seeking a home after the Spanish Expulsion in 1492. Seeking a non-Christian location, Jerusalem under Ottoman rule (since 1517) initially seemed promising. As an organized community, the Sephardi Jews wielded political and religious authority, represented by the Haham Bashi, or the Rishon Lezion (Sephardi chief rabbi).
The coronation ceremony of the Rishon Lezion takes place in the Rabban Yohanan ben Zakai Synagogue, part of the Four Sephardi Synagogues complex, as described in the book’s first tour.
The complex, adjacent to the Jewish Quarter’s parking area, developed over a period of more than 150 years, starting with the Rabban Yohanan ben Zakai Synagogue. Probably in the early 1600s, this synagogue became the Sephardi community’s central place of worship, following a void created by the destruction of the Ramban Synagogue due to a century-long dispute with a nearby mosque.
The next synagogue, Eliyahu Hanavi, was initially a school, and became a place of worship for the growing community. According to legend, on Yom Kippur a 10th man was needed for the minyan (quorum). A man unexpectedly completed the minyan but disappeared after the fast, leading to the belief that he was Elijah the Prophet.
The small Emtza’i Synagogue refers to its location in the middle – it was built in a hallway. The large, airy Istanbuli Synagogue was founded in 1753. Its congregants were Turkish Jews who were supported by the Kushta Committee.
On display in the Emtza’i Synagogue are photographs of the Ben Zakai Synagogue before its destruction by the Arab Legion during the War of Independence in 1948. Photographs also show the ruins of the other synagogues, as found after 1967.
During the War of Independence, until the end of May 1948, the Arab Legion fought and occupied parts of the Jewish Quarter, which shrank to the compound of the Four Synagogues and nearby Batei Mahaseh. The Jews found refuge in the synagogues, gathering there before the fall of the Jewish Quarter. After its surrender they marched to Zion Gate and were evacuated. The synagogues were destroyed and their contents plundered.
The Sephardi Committee reconstructed and dedicated the synagogues in 1972. Today, it holds services and hosts educational activities.
The tour of the Ashkenazi community centers around the Ashkenazi Courtyard, where property was owned through the hekdesh, a legal-religious term indicating the use of an existing building for a specific purpose.
Rabbi Yehuda Hehassid brought a few hundred followers from Poland and Germany to Jerusalem in 1700, and died within days of his arrival. His followers founded a synagogue, which was destroyed by Muslims in 1720. The courtyard was then called the Hurva (ruins).
According to local tradition, the Menahem Zion (Consoler of Zion) Synagogue is built on the ruins of the Ashkenazi Synagogue of Yehuda Hehassid and the Shelah (Rabbi Yeshayahu Halevi Horowitz). It was dedicated in 1837.
The Hurva was rebuilt near the Menahem Zion Synagogue by disciples of the Vilna Gaon, a leading talmudist and kabbalist, whose followers, the Perushim, came to Jerusalem and Safed in waves beginning in 1772. A descendant of disciple Rabbi Hillel Rivlin is President Reuven Rivlin.
The Perushim rebuilt the Hurva, naming it the Beit Ya’acov Synagogue, for Baron James (Jakob) Rothschild. It was destroyed by the Arab Legion in 1948. Decades later it was restored to its glory and dedicated in 2010 – yet the Hurva remains the name of this impressive structure.
The Refua Shlema tour covers the transformation of healthcare from traditional folk medicine to the seeds of modern hospitals and healthcare systems benefiting Israelis to this very day.
Traditional medicine was based on tinctures and amulets. The colorful Shuk Habsamim (Suk al-Atarin, scent market) dates to the Mameluke period. At the beginning of the Ottoman period, Jews would sell spices and concoct medicines. A 17th-century visitor described honey to relieve chest pains and reduce fever, turmeric for women during childbirth, and certain nuts for respiratory ailments.
In the 19th century, British missionaries sent physicians to a clinic near David’s Citadel to heal the Jews and convert them. The mission’s center in the Church of the Redeemer has Jewish motifs and Hebrew engravings in its interior.
In 1844 the Jewish Hospital of the Anglican Mission was founded, providing free medicines, clothes and kosher food. Another hospital, the German Hospital (Lutheran), was founded in 1851. Tensions mounted between these hospitals and the Old Yishuv residents, who feared for their souls. Rabbis wielded their authority, threatening people with herem (excommunication) and preventing the burying of Jews in Jewish cemeteries if they died in such hospitals.
Due to poor sanitation conditions in the 19th century, infant mortality reached 80%. The tour covers landmarks and pioneering healthcare professionals addressing this and other health challenges: the well-baby clinic system Tipat Halav, and Henrietta Szold, who founded Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, to provide healthcare in Ottoman-ruled Jerusalem.
The following hospitals originated in the Jewish Quarter: Bikur Cholim (Dr. Aharon Meir Mazia), Shaare Zedek (Dr. Moshe Wallach) and Misgav Ladach (Drs. Karalmo and Nikifuri Mazraki). The Rothschild Hospital, founded in 1854 by Dr. Albert Cohen, eventually relocated to Hanevi’im Street, and became Hadassah Hospital.
A book launch will take place on July 17 from 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. At 4:30, five tours based on the book will leave from Hurva Square; the tours are from 5 to 7. For information and advance registration for tours (NIS 30/person): Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi: (02) 539-8855, or
At the Jerusalem Archeological Park – Davidson Center, near the Dung Gate: At 7 p.m., discounted book sale and cocktails with Teperberg Winery and Berman Bakery (both founded in the 1870s in the Old City). At 7:30, Dr. Eyal Davidson speaks on “Looking Back and Facing the Future.” At 8, TEDstyle talks on the “Family Story” with descendants of founders and developers of the Jewish Quarter. All events are in Hebrew.