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B'siyata d'shmaya - With the help of Heaven

The Four Sephardi Synagogues

By Shelomo Alfassa

June 10, 2005 for the Sephardic Jewish Voice

In the Old City of Jerusalem are four synagogues which many people seem to pass right by, never realizing their historical significance. They remain interconnected, as they have been for centuries. As the Sephardic community found they needed larger places to pray, they would build a new building and attached it to the one already standing.

The first we will mention is the Kahal Istanbul (Istanbuli Synagogue). This synagogue was the latest of the four synagogues to be built, established in 5524 (1764) by immigrants from Istanbul, Turkey, from where it derives its name. Of the multiple buildings, this was the location of the geniza (storage of torn holy texts) for the holy books which would later be carried in mass procession for burial on Mount Zion. This synagogue has a tall grand ceiling and is very large, it was built to have perfect acoustics for the hazzan.

The next and largest is Kahal Kadosh Gadol Bet ha-Keneset or Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai. This building was built at the beginning of the 17th century and today is the center of the four synagogues. The inauguration ceremony of the "Hahambashi," was performed here starting in the year 5653 (1893). The Hahambashi stood as the head of the community and was recognized by the Sultan as the representative of the Jews from Constantinople through Ottoman Palestine down to Gaza. Meetings, assemblies and other important general events took place in the synagogue, including the reception given to the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, in 1870. This synagogue is the location where today the "Rishon LeSion," or Chief Sephardic Rabbi is given his official robe and title. The location of this synagogue is said to be on the hill where according to legend, Yohanan ben Zakkai once lived.

The "Middle" Synagogue or Kahal Zion, is where the Hahambashi was installed and in which he officiated on holy days. It is also known as the Emtzai because it is in the midst of the other synagogues. This synagogue was established in the middle of the eighteenth century, the area probably having been previously used as the courtyard and women's section of the Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai synagogue. This synagogue is small and narrow, but has a high ceiling. It is adorned with oriental rugs, red, purple and gold.

The Kahal Kadosh Talmud Torah Congregation or commonly just called the Eliahu Hanavi, is a probably the oldest of the four synagogues. Its name is connected with an ancient tradition that speaks of the of the Jewish community in Jerusalem as having been so small that they could not even gather together a minyan for prayer. An old man with a white beard appeared on Yom Kippur and was the tenth man for the minyan. At the end of Yom Kippur, he seemingly disappeared. He had entered a small room with a low ceiling that led to nowhere. The Jews went looking for him and realized, that Eliahu Hanavi had been revealed to them. In commemoration of the miracle, they named the synagogue after him. Today a chair sits in this room where young Sephardim from across the world come to sit in it, in the hopes of being married. For the tradition says, if you sit there, you will meet your future spouse.

A flask of oil and a shofar sit perched high up on a window in the Yohanan Ben Zakkai synagogue, where they have for centuries, awaiting the mashiach, the messiah. It has been said that when the mashiach comes, the Sephardic community will be ready to anoint him and blow the shofar to announce his arrival. Legend has it there is a tunnel from under the Yohanan Ben Zakkai which leads directly to the Har Habayit, the Temple Mount.

These four synagogues are the remnant of the Sephardic community that existed in the Old City of Jerusalem. The synagogues have had a troubling history, starting with the fact the Arabs did not at first allow them to have roofs on their structures. During the war years, hundreds of people sought shelter from the Arabs in these synagogues. With the capture of the Old City, all four synagogues were completely destroyed and gutted down to their bare stone walls, and it wasn't until after 1967 that they were able to be restored to a fraction of their former glory.

Today the synagogues are administered by the va'ad haedah hasefaradit bi'yrusalayim, the Sephardic Community Council of Jerusalem which is the existent leadership organization of the Sephardic community in Jerusalem, it was said this organization was founded as early as 1267 with the arrival of Rav Nahman (RaMBaN) from Spain. The Istanbuli Synagogue is used monthly by the Spanish and Portuguese community in Jerusalem, and the Yohanan Ben Zakkai is used daily for morning prayers, as well as special events. All four synagogues are tourist attractions, of which you pay a small fee to enter, except for if you come for morning services.