3 synagogues in Jerusalem's Old City tell secrets of Sefardic history
Text and photos by Daniel Santacruz
The two synagogues housed at 6 Or Ha-Haim Street, in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, Ha-Ari and Or Ha-Haim, have played a crucial role in Sefardic history.
But don’t expect to find any reference to them in books or tour guides. Very few people know they exist.
It has traditionally been believed that Rabbi Isaac Luria, also known as Ha-Ari, Ha’Ari Hakadosh orArizal, after whom the first synagogue was named, was born in 1534 in a room on the second floor of the building, which is about 500 years old. Four small chandeliers hang from the vaulted ceiling of the room. Atop the reading table on the bima, which barely has room for two people, sit three empty cylindrical Torah wood cases. In a niche diagonal to the bima, which seems to have served as an aron, sit
eight more. The only furniture that can be seen there are three wooden benches. Religious services haven’t been conducted in the room in several decades.
In 1906, the kabalistic yeshiva Sha’arei Shamayim, opened up in the room with the sole purpose of studying the mystical works of Rabbi Luria. It operated there until 1948, when the city fell to the Jordanians and relocated to another neighborhood of Jerusalem. Rabbi Luria’s father died when he was eight and his destitute mother, of Sefardic background, moved to Egypt, at the invitation of her brother, with her two sons. There he studied with well-known rabbis and supported himself by trading in spices.
At the age of 36 he returned to Israel, settling in Safed, where he died two years later. The development of modern Kabalah has been attributed to him, although his teachings were recorded by one of his students, rabbi Haim Vital. A particular style of praying, or nusach, based on the customs of Rabbi Luria, known as nusach Ari, is practiced by several Hasidic groups, and it’s a variant of nusach Sfard, which contains elements of Sefardic and Ashkenzi rituals. The second synagogue is named after one of the works of Rabbi Haim ben-Attar, "Or Ha-Haim", who was born in Sale, Morocco, in 1696. He settled in Jerusalem in 1742 and founded a yeshiva where the synagogue stands, dying a year later. He is buried on a slope on the Mount of Olives cemetery, not far from the Old City. Both synagogues functioned until the War of Independence, in 1948, and were renovated as part of the museum in 1967.
The building also houses the Old Yishuv Court Museum and the Weingarten House. The rooms of the museum have reproduced the living conditions of the families who occupied each of them, most of whom had something in common: dire poverty.
Children were the victims
Due to precarious sanitary conditions, such as lack of running water and poor medical attention, the mortality rate for children under one year of age at the beginning of the 19th century was as high as 80%.
In the second half of the century most of the residents of Jerusalem were Sefardim, descendants of Jews who left Spain after the 1492 expulsion and who had arrived through the Ottoman Empire. Others were Arabic speaking Jews, or Mustaravim, and a few Ashkenazi Jews.
Another gem of Sefardic history, four blocks from the Ha-Ari and Or Ha-Haim synagogues, is the Ramban synagogue.
Located in the lower level of the Hurva Syangogue, it’s named after Moshe ben Nachman, also known as Ramban, Nachmanides, who established it in 1267, after his arrival from Spain.
Born in Girona in 1194, he was forced into exile at age 72 by King James I of Aragon after having participated in a religious dispute with Pau Cristiá, a converted Jew and a Dominican friar, organized by the Church. He spent the last three years of his life in Jerusalem and, with the establishment of the synagogue, revived the Jewish community there.
The synagogue’s sanctuary is long and narrow, and has no windows. The light is provided by 12 ordinary-looking electric bulbs that hang from a white vaulted ceiling. Built on four marble columns, which were excavated in 1970, its main attraction is a double aron hakodesh.
Rabbi Ovadia de Bartinoro, who visited it in 1488, provided a description in a letter he wrote that year that he could have written today: “. . . it was built over columns; it was long, narrow and dark, with no light, except from the entrance and it has a water cistern.”
The second floor features two study rooms, a library of religious books, a freezer and a microwave oven.
© Daniel Santacruz