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Sephardi Synagogues

September 23, 2019

The main Sephardic house of prayer in the Jewish Quarter preceding the War of Independence was in fact a complex of four adjoining synagogues:  the Yochanan Ben Zakai Synagogue, the Istanbuli Synagogue, the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue, and the Emtsai Synagogue. When you arrive at the square of the 4 Sephardic synagogues in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, you will be surprised to see that in order to visit them you need to go down a short flight of stairs. Well, you may think, obviously they must really ancient, and under several levels of buildings on top. But no. They are indeed ancient – dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries – but not ancient enough to have been built upon. The reason for their being under road level is the result of the prevailing Ottoman law of the time, which forbade religions other than Muslim to build places of worship that are more prominent than mosques. For that same reason, the bell tower of the Dormition Abbey is built on the side and not in a spire, as in traditional churches.

When the Jewish Quarter fell under Jordanian rule, the four synagogues were burnt and then used as horse stabled. Following the 6 Days War they were restored to their former glory and continue to serve residents of the Jewish Quarter and visitors. They are also used as venues for Bar Mitzvahs, weddings, lectures and other events.

The Yochanan Ben Zakai Synagogue dates back to early 17th-century with Gothic-Spanish style architecture. It is named after a founder of the Yavne Sanhedrin, formed following the destruction of the second temple. Under Ottoman and British rule, it was home of the Chief Sephardic rabbi.

The Eliahu Hanavi Synagogue is the oldest of the synagogues, dating back to the 16th century as a school for studying Jewish law and was only used for prayer during holidays. Its name is derived from a story whereby a person was missing to complete the 10 man quorum required for holding prayers, when miraculously in walked a mysterious stranger, allowing prayers to take place. Since then there is always an empty chair to commemorate the incident. Although originally Sephardic, it has been an Ashkenazi synagogue since the 18th century.

The Emtsai synagogue is the smallest of the four, and is believed to have been formerly the women’s section of the adjacent Yochanan Ben Zakai Synagogue.

The Istanbuli Synagogue is the largest of the four and was built in the 1760s to accommodate the city’s growing community of Turkish Jews.

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