Walking Tour: Synagogue worship

Not surprisingly, the oldest active shul in the city is in the Jewish Quarter.

Tiferet Yisrael Synagogue 311 (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Tiferet Yisrael Synagogue 311
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
After it was erected in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter 33 years ago, the naked arch standing above a pile of rubble quickly became a Jerusalem landmark. Considered by many to be a symbol of wanton destruction – and to others the promise of future redemption – the arch disappeared when construction was begun on a magnificent replacement. The structure, a phoenix risen from the ashes, was completed a few months ago: the complete and exquisite restoration of the Hurva/Beit Ya’acov Synagogue, which stood on this site before its destruction by the Jordanian Legion in 1948.
The Hurva is closed to the general public except for worship (men downstairs, women in the gallery).  Your other option is to take a riveting guided tour (details below) that includes 2,000-year-old archeological finds, a wonderful view of the Old City and its environs, lots of history, a look at the synagogue’s interior and tales of its golden days.
Three hundred years ago, there was another synagogue on this site. It was built in 1705 by followers of Rabbi Yehuda Hehassid, who brought his disciples from Eastern Europe to Jerusalem to hasten the coming of the Messiah. Although he died soon after immigrating to the Holy Land, his followers were desperate for a synagogue. Since money was scarce, they were forced to borrow heavily from the local Muslim populace to complete its construction. A few decades later, when the Jews were unable to pay back the loans, Muslim rioters demolished the synagogue and expelled the Ashkenazi community from Jerusalem.
In 1836 a small place of Ashkenazi worship called Menahem Zion was built at the site; a house of study, Sha’arei Zion was added in 1856. But the very large center for Ashkenazi Jews that would stand here eventually was completed in 1864, with the help of the prosperous and philanthropic Rothschild family. Called Beit Ya’acov, after the Baron James (Ya’acov in Hebrew) de Rothschild, it was better known as the Hurva (“ruin”) of Rabbi Yehuda Hehassid.
Beit Ya’acov was a grand edifice with lovely interior wall decorations and a stunning holy ark from Russia. The synagogue became the center of Jewish life in Jerusalem, so important that during the War of Independence defenders of the Jewish Quarter kept the fighting away from the site.
On May 27, 1948, when the Jewish Quarter was under siege and its buildings devastated, Jordanian Legion commander Abdullah Tal decided to completely destroy Jewish morale and thus to purge the city of Jews once and for all. He gave an order, and the Hurva was blown to bits. The next day, the brave defenders of the Jewish Quarter surrendered. Yet here it is again – in all its glory.
The Ramban Synagogue, located below street level, is adjacent to the Hurva. Established in 1267, the era in which Diaspora Jews began resettling the Holy City, it was founded by Spanish biblical commentator Rabbi Moses ben Nahman (the Ramban, or Nahmanides).
Nahmanides immigrated to the Land of Israel after participating in a debate on religion with the royalty of Spain. Having won the debate, he was then forced to leave the country.
Spain’s loss was Israel’s gain. The rabbi wasted no time building a synagogue, utilizing marble pillars and a lovely dome from an abandoned edifice in its construction. Since the synagogue was a religious center for all the Jewish groups in the city, the Jewish Quarter developed around it.
In 1586, the Turkish governor of Jerusalem kicked the Jews out of their synagogue, and Muslims began using the building as a storeroom for a neighboring mosque. Completely restored, it is open to visitors and for worship.
NOW PASS Jewish Quarter Square and head for Rehov Hakaraim. On your right are remains of the oncesplendid Tiferet Yisrael Synagogue, built in 1872. A full three stories high, it was one of the tallest structures in the Old City before it was demolished by Jordanian sappers in 1948.
Across the street from the Tiferet Yisrael ruins you will see the entrance to the Karaite Complex, featuring the oldest synagogue in Jerusalem. Built by Karaite Jews nearly 1,300 years ago, it is also the oldest active synagogue in the city.
Karaite Jews, like other Hebrews, made the exodus with Moses. Together they wandered in the desert for 40 years and received the Torah at Sinai. But in the eighth century the Karaites felt unable to accept postscriptural interpretations of the Bible that they felt changed the message of God’s law. The name Kara’im stems from the Hebrew word for “Scriptures” and emphasizes the sect’s firm belief in and devotion to the written law.
Thus in Karaite doctrine, Jewish holidays are celebrated on their lunar dates as set forth in the Bible and not according to later decisions that made the timing more convenient. Jewish dietary laws are strictly observed but interpreted differently and more literally than in other Jewish sects; so are strictures concerning female impurity, which follow the biblical commands.
The customs followed by Karaite Jews – and even their synagogues – differ from those to which we have become accustomed after millennia of rabbinical interpretation. Worshipers remove their shoes (which are considered impure) before entering the synagogue. Rugs cover the floors, permitting worshipers to prostrate themselves before the Lord as commanded in the Bible. These and other Islamic-seeming customs were traditional in Jewish communities in many parts of the world, such as India, Yemen and Iran, and predate similar Muslim practices.
Karaite Jews prospered and multiplied until the Crusader era, when they made up the majority of the population of the Jerusalem. Today, however, Karaite Jews number only in the tens of thousands. Most live in Israel, and the majority of these reside in Ramle, Ashdod, Ofakim, Arad, Kiryat Gat and Beersheba. In Jerusalem there are several dozen Karaite families.
The exterior of the synagogue was damaged during the War of Independence in 1948 but was renovated by Israel’s Karaite community in 1977, and the sanctuary reopened for prayer in 1981. There are no set hours, but if you ring the bell during the day it will probably be answered by caretaker and tour guide Joshua Shuki Levy. He will take you to the Karaite Center, through which you can view the synagogue, and to a lovely little museum.
ON YOUR way out of (or into) the Jewish Quarter, you can’t miss the complex called Four Sephardi Synagogues. Located way below street level, as Muslim authorities didn’t permit Jewish houses of worship to be higher than their own, it is open daily to visitors for a small fee. It is here that the chief rabbi of the Sephardi community has been anointed since 1893.
The first synagogue you enter is located on the traditional site of renowned Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai’s house of study during the Second Temple period.
After the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70, it was he who revived the Sanhedrin, built a Talmudic academy and turned Yavne into the new Jewish spiritual center.
Look way, way up: Near the very high ceiling, there is a shelf containing a jug of oil and a shofar. These are reserved for the sole use of the prophet Elijah, who will blow the shofar to announce the coming of the Messiah and light the oil lamps of the menora in a newly rebuilt Temple.
Go through to the Elijah Synagogue via the door at the back of the sanctuary. Named for the famous biblical prophet, this innermost room is the oldest in the complex. The name dates back to the sad day when only nine Jews showed up for prayers (services can’t start without 10). Suddenly a stranger appeared and the worshipers happily began to pray. Immediately after the service, the stranger vanished. The 10th addition is believed to have been Elijah the Prophet, who is said to show up when he is needed to save the day.
Descend a few steps to a candle-lit cave and look for a large chair. This is Elijah’s chair, where in the past infants sat on their godfathers’ laps while being circumcised.
The current chair is a replica; the original was stolen around the time of the War of Independence. If you like, sit down and make a wish.
The smallest place of worship is the Middle Synagogue, or Kahal Zion. Adjacent is a lovely museum with Sephardi artifacts from Jewish communities of different parts of the world. Built by immigrant Jews from Istanbul and today used by Jews from Kurdistan as well, the fourth chamber is called the Istanbuli Synagogue. This 18th-century sanctuary boasts an extraordinary pulpit with exquisite ornamentation and a gold-plated wooden ark.
In 1948 this complex, along with the Karaite Synagogue, was a last refuge for the Jews of the Old City. Nineteen years later, when Jewish soldiers reentered the synagogue complex, they found that the Jordanians had turned the historic house of worship into a stable. Since that time, the synagogue has been completely restored.
To arrange a tour of the Hurva in English, call 626- 5922. Price is NIS 25 with seniors, students and soldiers paying NIS 15. Fee for Sephardi Synagogues is NIS 10. Open six days a week.