Sefardic synagogues keep tradition alive in Jerusalem's Old City
Text and photos by Daniel Santacruz

The Old City of Jerusalem is home to four Sefardic synagogues that have been operating for more than three centuries.

They are housed in a complex called Four Sephardi Synagogues, on 1 Mismarot Ha Kehuna Street, a few blocks from the Western Wall, and their existence is wrapped in mystery, legend and glory.  They were each built as free-standing buildings, but now they are joined by doors. Unlike most synagogues, they were built below street level for reasons that are still debated. 

They vary in size and ambience. For example, the second-largest in size, Yochanan ben Zakai, is bathed in sunlight most of the day, whereas natural light is scarce in the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue, the farthest from the entrance.

They were damaged after the fall of the Jewish Quarter to Jordan in 1948 and turned into stables, but restored following the Six-Day War in 1967. A small museum in the back of the building displays religious artifacts, among them a Torah scroll saved from the Jordanian destruction, and documents related to the Sefardic communities of Jerusalem.

An information sheet in Spanish, English or French, issued by the Council of the Sephardi and Oriental Communities of Jerusalem that talks about the synagogues, is given to the visitor at the entrance. Unfortunately, it doesn't provide specific information about them, so the visitor is left to wander on his own. It's recommend to read about them before visiting. There is a small fee (15 shekels for non-seniors, 10 for seniors).

The complex, unlike other places in the Old City, is never crowded with tourists and it's an oasis of peace. If you expect to pray there on a weekday, you'll be disappointed as services are held only on Shabat and holidays. 

Here’s a description of each of the four.

Yochanan ben Zakai synagogue

This synagogue is the closest the entrance of the complex. Its five large window provide plenty of natural light

Legend has that it occupies the site of the former Bet Midrash of Rabi Yochanan ben Zakai, who lived in the period of the Second Temple. Impressive and large, the synagogue can seat some 100 worshippers. It was built at the beginning of the 1600s and chosen as the place where Sefardic rabbis were consecrated as Rishon L’Zion.

Its main features are the double Holy Ark, or aron hakodesh, (possibly the only synagogue in the world with that feature) and a blue and white wall above it that resembles the sky, adorned with biblical quotes. Like most Sefardi synagogues in the world, its bimah sits in the center of the room.

Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue

The oldest and the darkest of the four, it is located to the left of the Ben Zakai synagogue. It's also known as Kahal Kadosh Talmud Torah. 

It was built in the 16th century and the origin of its name is wrapped in mystery. One Yom Kipur eve, the legend goes, a tenth man was needed to make the quorum to hold religious 

services. Out of nowhere a man, unfamiliar to the worshippers, showed up and thservice could be held. 

After the end of the holiday, the man disappeared as mysteriously as he arrived. The worshippers speculated that he was Eliyahu the Prophet, whose name was given to the synagogue. The chair he sat on that day was kept in a room for several years.  

It’s the only one of the four synagogues that follows the Ashkenazi rite. An impressive collection of more than 200 rare books can be seen in a bookcase in the back of the room.

Emtsai Synagogue or Middle Synagogue

Sandwiched between the Istanbuli Synagogue and the Ben Zakai Synagogue, it was possibly a courtyard or the women’s section of the Ben Zakai synagogue, located to its right.

Its walls display pictures of the damage suffered by the four synagoguesShaped as a rectangle, it sits fewer than 30 people. Its bimah is also in the center.

Istanbuli Synagogue

Founded by Sefardic immigrants from Istanbul in the mid-1700s, the then-capital of the Ottoman Empire, it is connected to the Emtsai Synagogue and it is the largest of the four. 

Its imposing Holy Ark, almost three meters tall, came from Italy, where it was built in the 1600s. 

The ceremony for the inauguration of the Sefardic Chief Rabbi of Israel takes place there. Congregation Sha’are Ratzon, the only Spanish and Portuguese in Israel, calls the synagogue home, where it conducts services. It follows the London rite.

© Daniel Santacruz 

August 2015 

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