Israel Guide: The Old City Shuls

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By Rabbi Leibel Reznick, Contributing Editor

Throughout the centuries, Jews have yearned to return to Yerushalayim and establish places of study and prayer in this holy city. Here are some of the shuls that have been established here over the years. Many of them have been destroyed by the Arabs only to be rebuilt after the Jews captured back this city in 1967.


Israel Guide: The Old City Shuls


Number 6 Ohr HaChaim Street is the Bais Medrash of Rabbi Chaim ben Moshe Ibn Attar, known as the Ohr HaChaim, after his commentary on Chumash. The Ohr HaChaim was one of the outstanding kabbalists and halachic authorities of the 1700’s.

The Ohr HaChaim was born in Morocco in 1696. However, due to oppressive conditions and famine, he moved to Yerushalayim in 1741. One of the Ohr HaChaim’s students, the Chidah- an outstanding Torah personality in his own right, recorded, “During our studies, the master would cloak himself with his tallis, and with tefillin on his arm, he would conduct himself with piety and great humility. ”

In the introduction to his Chumash commentary, the Ohr HaChaim wrote, “Hashem enlightened my mind’s eye to rise up and go to the land of the Divine Presence, the city dearly loved by the Master of the Universe. I strengthened myself and armed myself and endured great dangers traveling through deserts to arrive here. ”

Unfortunately, the Ohr HaChaim died at the age of 47, only ten months after arriving in his beloved Holy City.

Four medieval sages are called “HaKadosh,”- The Holy One: Alshich HaKadosh, Ari HaKadosh, Shaloh HaKadosh, and Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh.

Tradition says that the sainted Ari HaKadosh (Rabbi Yitzckok Luria Ashkenazi) was born on this very site in 1534. While the Ari was still an infant, his father, Shlomo Luria, died. The Ari’s mother moved the family to Cairo, Egypt where her brother lived. The Ari moved back to Eretz Yisroel when he was 36 and died two years later at the young age of 38. The Ari was one of the most outstanding kabbalists of all time and is known as a miracle worker and holy man.

A shul, located on the first floor, was named after the Ari. The Ohr HaChaim’s Bais Medrash is on the second floor. For many years afterwards, this building was called the Rabbi Chaim ben Attar Yeshiva. In 1967, the building was converted into a museum depicting Jewish life in the Old City at the turn of this century.


Rabbi Shnueur Zalman of Ladi, Russia founded a Chasidic dynasty called Chabad. Chabad is the Hebrew acronym for Chachma (Wisdom), Bina (Understanding), and Da’as (Knowledge). The movement is more commonly known as Lubavitch, after the Russian city that was its center.

Around 1850 several Chabad chassidim moved to Yerushalayim and bought a building on what was later named Chabad Street. The sign on the side of the building says Tzemach Tzedek. It was also called Bais Menachem, after the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel – the author of the halachic responsa Tzemach Tzedek. The mortgage was paid off by David Sassoon of Bombay, lndia. During the early part of this century, the Chabad chassidim shared their building with Yemenite Jews who needed a place for their minyan The Chabad shul was one of the very few shuls that was not destroyed by the Arabs during the War of Independence in 1948. It was used as an Arab knitting shop between 1948 to 1967. Immediately after the Six Day War, the Chabad chassidim renovated their building, and prayers and study were resumed.


The Ramban Shul is the oldest shul in Yerushalayim. lts architectural features pre-date the Eleventh Century. That would make the shul at least 900 years old. For the past 700 years it has been called the Ramban Shul.

Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, know as the Ramban, or Nachmanides, lived in Spain during the first half of the thirteenth century. The Christian Church compelled the Ramban to engage in a debate with an apostate Jew and a priest. The King served as the overseer of the spectacle. Much to the embarrassment of the church, the Ramban was declared the victor by the King himself. The church threatened to kill the Ramban, but the King helped to smuggle him out of Spain. In Elul of 1267, the Ramban came to Yerushalayim and in an epic letter to his son, Nachman, the Ramban described the situation he found in Yerushalayim.

“What can I tell you about the land but that it is deserted. The holier the place, the more desolate it is. Judea is more wasted than the Galilee, but Yerushalayim is most wasted of all. In spite of its desolation, the city is good and has close to 3,000 inhabitants. Three hundred are Christians who were spared from the Sultan’s sword. But, there are no Jews here. They fled or were killed by the Tartars (in 1244). Only two Jewish brothers remain, dyers by trade, and they manage to assemble a minyan in their home on Shabbos. We have found a house in ruins, built on marble columns and with a beautiful dome, and we have made it into a shul. The city is empty. Whoever wishes to possess any of the ruins may do so. We have undertaken to repair the house and have already commenced with the work. We have sent word to Nablus to bring back the Torah scrolls which were formerly from Yerushalayim. ”

ln 1486 Rabbi Ovadiah Bartenura, the renown commentator on the Mishna, described the Moslem minaret that still stands next to the Ramban Shul and how it got to be there. “The house next to the shul belonged to a Jewish family. The son had a conflict with his neighboring Jews and the son converted to Islam. The mother, seeing her son’s anger at the Jews, vowed to take revenge against her neighbors. She pledged her house to be a mosque, which she knew to be an abomination to the Jews. There was much conflict between the Moslems in the mosque and the neighboring Jews. The shul was vacated and fell into ruins. By the grace of G-d, the sultan ordered that the shul be rebuilt even larger than it previously was. This was against the will of the officials in the city.”

The rebuilt shul was described as having more than 60 Torah scrolls, but lacking windows. The interior was illuminated by candlelight. In 1522, a rabbi who visited the shul reported that three hundred families worshipped there. Fifteen of them were Ashkenazi.

Throughout the ages, Moslem officials threatened to take the shul away because it was adjacent to the mosque. Often bribes had to be offered. Sometimes the shul was confiscated. In fact, during the British Mandate ( l 9 l 8- l 948), the British allowed the Moslems to seize the shul. The Moslems used this holy site as a goat pen. Today, through the grace of G-d, the shul is once again a place of daily prayer and the sound of Torah learning echoes through its halls.


Israel Guide: The Old City Shulsln 1700, a Polish mystic, Rabbi Yehudah HaChassid, led a group of 200 Ashkenzi disciples to the Holy City. They were the first Chassidim to live in Yerushalayim. They had sent money ahead so their shul and living quarters would be ready when they arrived. Three days after their arrival, Rabbi Yehudah died. Without their leader, the community floundered. To support the shul, they had to borrow large sums of money and over the years the Chassidic community incurred great debts. In 1721, a group of angry creditors burned down the shul. The ruins were called Churvas Rabbi Yehudah HaChasid, the ruins of Rabbi Yehudah, or more simply the Churvah, the Ruins.

In 1812, a new group of immigrants came to Yerushalayim. This new sect was called the Perushim or Separatists and were the disciples of the Vilna Gaon. They sought to rebuild the Churvah and use it for themselves, but the local Moslem authorities refused to grant permission.

In l 836, one of the members of the Perushim community, Rabbi Avraham Shlomo Zalman Zorref, went to Egypt to seek permission. It was granted. The local authorities resented Rabbi Zorrif’s circumvention and, years later, avenged their indignity by murdering the rabbi. Meanwhile, a modest building had been constructed.

Due to hardships in the city of Tzfas, many other Perushim moved to Yerushalayim and a larger shul was needed. Not until 1857 did Sir Moses Montefiore get a firman (Arabic term meaning ‘a decree granting a right”) from the Turkish Sultan. Jews from around the world contributed to the building of the planned magnificent structure. The Rothschilds in France, the Sassoons in India, rich and poor, Sephardic (Middle Eastern Jews) and Ashkenazi (East European Jews), Orthodox and Reform, all played a part in its construction. This was to be the synagogue of all the Jewish people.

The work was completed in 1864. It was officially called Bais Yaakov, after Baron Jacob (Yaakov) Rothschild, but the local Jews continued to call it The Churvah. It was the center of Ashkenazi Jewish life. The Ashkenazi chief Rabbi was installed in the Churvah.

Israel Guide: The Old City ShulsThe constructed synagogue had 42 foot high arches containing windows. A domed ceiling topped the arches. The dome was 82 feet above the floor. It was the tallest structure in the Holy City. The Ark was two stories high and held over 100 Torah scrolls. The reconstructed arch that stands today is one of the 42 foot high window arches. The height of the original building, including the dome, was twice as high.

During the War of Independence, the Churvah was once again reduced to ruins. It has not been rebuilt.


Tzur Devash Yeshiva 15 Plugat HaKotel Street.

During the early l 800’s there was an influx of North African Jews. They joined the Sephardic Ben Zakkai Shul (to be visited later). As their numbers increased, they formed their own synagogue. It was called the Moghrabi, which means “westerner” in Arabic. (North Africa is west of the Holy Land.) The premises are still standing and serve as a yeshiva for North African Jews.


The Tiferes Yisroel- Nissin Bak Shul was a monument to the triumph of perseverance and determination over bigotry and prejudice. In 1843, the European chassidim did not have a shul of their own. Nissin Bak, a chassidic resident of Yerushalayim, was given a sum of money by the Grand Rabbi of Rhizin, Rabbi Yisroel Friedman. Nissan Bak bought a plot of land, but the Moslems refused to grant him permission to dig the foundation. Bak, who was from Austria, had not renounced his Austrian citizenship. He asked the Austrian Emperor to intercede on behalf of human decency and inter-religious tolerance. The emperor intervened and permission was eventually granted for the foundation.

When the foundation was being excavated, a Moslem sheik’s tomb was found. Bak wished to move the tomb to the Moslem cemetery outside the city walls. One of the Arab neighbors agitated his friends and brought them to the Moslem mayor. The neighbor claimed to have had a dream in which the sheik appeared to him and pleaded that no one move his grave. The gullible friends threatened to riot if the grave was moved.

The next Friday, at noon time, when all the Moslems were assembled in the mosque on the Temple Mount, the mayor claimed that he too had a dream. In his dream the sheik appeared and said that Abraham called to him to stop this fighting amongst his children. Abraham said it was far better to have the grave moved in order to maintain peace than to keep the grave in its place and have discord. After the mayor revealed his “dream,” the Arabs agreed to move the tomb.

After the foundation was dug, a building permit was needed from the officials in Turkey. The Turks were not anxious to grant the request. The Rhiziner Rebbe convinced the emperor to intercede, and in 1858, the firman was granted.

The Chassidic community in Jerusalem was poor. Fourteen years were spent raising funds and the building was slowly built. The Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph, was en route to the inauguration of the Suez Canal. He decided to visit “his” shul in Jerusalem. The emperor saw that the uncompleted shul had no roof. The emperor asked Nissin Bak where the dome of the shul was. Bak responded that the shul had taken off its hat in honor of the emperor. Franz Joseph smiled and contributed 1000 francs to complete the holy work.

The shul was dedicated in 1872, 29 years after the land had been purchased. It was named Tiferes Yisroel, after the Rhiziner Rebbe, but the people called it the Nissin Bak shul after the man whose unyielding determination made the dream a reality.

The building served as one of the last Jewish defenses during the War of Independence in 1948. The Jordanians subsequently bombed the once famous landmark. lt has remained in ruins.


The Karaites are a Jewish sect founded in the later part of the Eighth Century by Anan ben David. Their philosophy is that the written Torah is open to the interpretation of the individual. The ancient term for the Torah is Mikra or Karah. They opposed the Talmud which is based on rabbinical interpretation and authority. Many scholars consider the Karaites a continuation of the earlier Tzedokim,the anti-Talmudists of the Second Temple Era.

In Jewish Orthodox halacha, Karaite marriages and divorces are highly questionable, as well as the legitimacy of their offspring. It was questioned if a Karaite is accepted into the Jewish community even if he renounced his Karaite affiliations. A Torah scroll written by a Karaite may not be used, but must be buried with other holy books. The oldest place of Jewish worship in Jerusalem is this Karaite Shul. The few remaining members of the sect trace the founding of the shul back to the late 800’s. They claim it was founded by Anan ben David. The shul was the center of a small Karaite community which had it own protective wall. The shul was built into a cave, whose floor was 16 feet below the street level.

In 1700, the Turkish authorities levied heavy taxes against the Jerusalem community. An emergency meeting was convened among the Jewish leaders. The meeting was held in the Karaite Shul. The Chief Sephardic Rabbi tripped and fell while descending the steep staircase. It was discovered that the Rambams’ code of law was hidden under the steps. The Karaites did not accept the Rambams’ rabbinical compendium as law. To secretly show their disapproval and disrespect, they placed his code of law under the steps so that all those descending into the shul would trample upon it. When the perfidy of the Karaites was discovered, they were cursed and since that time their numbers in the Holy City dwindled to less than ten. However, there are about 20,000 surviving members living in Eretz Yisroel, mainly in the city of Ramalah.


Israel Guide: The Old City ShulsThe Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai Shul is actually a complex of four Sephardic shuls: The Eliyahu HaNavi Shul, Yochanan ben Zakkai Shul, The Middle Shul, and The lstanbul Shul. First founded in the 1500’s, these shuls were remodeled and expanded throughout the centuries. The present stone structure dates back to 1835. During the War of Independence, in 1948, over a thousand Jews sought shelter in this complex.

Yochanan ben Zakkai Shul

This shul was founded in the 1500’s. It was named after the Talmudic sage Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who convinced the conquering Roman emperor, Vespasian, to spare the family of Rabban Gamliel and the Academy in Yavneh, thus insuring the continuance of Torah tradition.

Since Moslem law did not permit a shul to be higher than a mosque, the Jews made the floor of the shul 10 feet below street level so that it would have an impressive height inside.

This was the main Sephardic shul in the Holy City. More than forty Sephardic chief Rabbis were elected and conferred into office here. The shul has two aronei kodesh. The reason is obscure. Some say the shul was patterned after the Ramban Shul which also had a double aron, but no one is quite certain why the Ramban shul had two aronim. Some say that there was an ancient Moslem law which decreed that every shul had to have a Koran placed up front in an aron. In order to avoid placing the sifrei Torah in the same aron as the Koran, two aronim were built.

High up on the southern wall is a window. On its ledge are a shofar and a flask of oil. Throughout the centuries, legend told that these were saved from the burning Bais HaMikdash. The shofar was to be used to announce the coming of Moshiach and the oil was for anointing him. When the Jordanians captured this building in 1948, the shofar and flask were taken and more modern replacements now rest upon the ledge.

Many iron rings are attached to the ceiling. These rings held suspended oil lamps.

Legend tells that there is a secret tunnel which leads from this shul to the Har HaBayis.

The Eliyahu HaNavi Shul

By the middle of the 1,500’s, Yerushalayim had two groups of Jews living there. One group was comprised of new Sephardic immigrants from Europe, mainly Spain and Italy. They were victims of the expulsion from Spain and persecution in Italy. They were looking for a place to settle. They considered themselves to be cultured and cosmopolitan. The other group were Sefardim who had been there from years past. They were called Mouskos, or Arab-Jews. Their demeanor and culture was Middle Eastern. The European Sefardim considered them to be unsophisticated and perhaps somewhat uncivilized. The Arab Jews prayed in the Ramban Shul and the European Sefardim prayed in the Yochanan ben Zakkai Shul. In 1588, the Moslems took away the Ramban Shul from its congregants, claiming that the land belonged to the mosque adjacent to it The Arab-Jews built a new house of prayer next to the Yochanan ben Zakkai Shul and it became known as The Eliyahu HaNavi Shul.

There is an interesting story how the shul got its name. One Yom Kippur night there were only nine men in the shul . An aged stranger appeared and completed the minyan. After the prayers were completed, the stranger disappeared. Word soon spread that it was Eliyahu HaNavi himself who was the tenth man. Obviously, Eliyahu considered himself to be unsophisticated and uncivilized. Otherwise, he would have prayed in the Ben Zakkai Shul.

The chair that Eliyahu had sat upon was moved to a recess in the north-western wall. Whenever there was a bris, the child’s father would sit on that chair and hold his infant son. A choir would chant throughout the ceremony and the sexton would pass around sweet smelling herbs while the men would recite the blessing for pleasant fragrances. The chair had remained there for centuries until 1948. It was plundered by the Arabs with the other synagogue furniture. After the Six Day War, a different chair was installed, but nothing can really take the place of Eliyahu’s chair.

Centuries ago, the Rabbi of the shul was Rabbi Kolonimus. During the prayer services, some Moslems brought in a murdered Arab child. They claimed that the Jews killed the boy to use his blood for the baking of matzos. Rabbi Kolonimus prayed that the dead child speak and reveal the truth. A miracle occurred and the child spoke, identifying one of the Arabs as the murderer. I have been told that above one of the doorways is a round projecting stone, about the size of a child’s head, commemorating the miracle.

This shul was also the site of the Talmud Torah Yeshiva and the shul was also called the Holy Congregation of the Talmud Torah.

ln the mid-Eighteenth Century, the roof of the shul fell in. The Pasha would not allow it to be repaired. Fortunately, the dome over the aron kodesh remained and protected the Torah scrolls from the rain.

To the left of the Ark is a bench. It is the only piece of furniture remaining from the original site.

The Middle Shul

Israel Guide: The Old City ShulsThis shul was also called the Zion Shul. A legend tells how it got this name. An old Jewish woman was selling needles to the Arabs on Har Zion. She expressed her desire to visit the burial vault of Dovid HaMelech. The Arabs told her that she would be taking her life in her hands if she did so, but she was insistent. An Arab women told her to wait until Friday noon, when all the Arabs would go to the Temple Mount to pray in the mosque. She would then let the Jewish woman into Kever Dovid HaMelech. Noon Friday, the Arab woman took the elderly Jewess to the tomb and opened the door for her. As soon as the Jewish woman went inside, the Arab woman sealed the door shut. The Arab refused to open the door unless the Jewish woman agreed to convert to Islam. The Jewish woman fell upon the ground and prayed that Dovid HaMelech save her. Dovid appeared to the old woman and led her to the end of the cave to safety. People say that the end of that cave is hidden somewhere in the Zion Shul.

Istanbul Shul

Israel Guide: The Old City ShulsWhen Turkish Sephardic Jews began emigrating to Jerusalem, they constructed their own shul. This shul, completed in 1764, was the largest of all the prayer houses in Jerusalem. All the European Sefardim would congregate here on Shabbos afternoon to hear the rabbi’s sermon. It was delivered in Ladino, the language of the European Sefardim.

Every Jewish city was expected to have ten “batlonim,” ten men who spent their days solely immersed in prayer and study. They were paid from the town’s funds. The ten “batlonim” of Yerushalayim could always be found in the Istanbul Shul .

The Istanbul Shul, also called the Stambuli Shul, was founded in 1,764. This shul had a “genizah,” a storage vault for old sifrei Torah and worn siddurim and chumashim. Every few years, the contents of the “genizah” would be cleared out and placed in sacks, and a procession would march to Har Zion to bury the holy remains. The Chief Rabbi would lead the procession with his staff in hand. Turkish officials were sent to grace this austere occasion. Torches were lit, candles with the words “The candle is the mitzvah; Torah is the light” carved on them were waved and the men would sing. As the procession passed by, children would join the march, men would come out into the streets, the women would watch from the windows. Even Moslem and Christians would stand on rooftops watching in awe the reverence the Jews held for their sacred books. At the conclusion of the ceremonies, the shofar was sounded, and Psalms and prayers for rain were recited. The sacks were buried and covered with earth, and the people wept.

The winter of 1787 was extremely harsh. The weight of the accumulated snow caused the roof of the Istanbul Shul to cave in. The Moslem authorities refused to grant permission for its repair. For many years the congregants had to endure the harsh elements and pray in a shul with no roof.

From 1948 until 1967, the four shuls were in Jordanian hands. After the Six Day War they were found to be filled with garbage piled ten feet high. The interiors were desecrated and the furnishings vandalized. In 1967, the reconstruction work began to restore these ancient places of worship to their former glory.


Israel Guide: The Old City ShulsFor two hundred years, Beth El was the Kabbalistic center of Yerushalayim. It was established by Rabbi Gedaliah Chaiyon, a famous Turkish Kabbalist. In 1751, Rabbi Shalom Sharabi arrived from Yemen and was appointed the head of the Beth El Yeshiva. One of the more renown worshippers at this time was Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai, known as the Chidah, a most prolific rabbinical author.

In the 1700’s, the Chidah was traveling through North Africa. He met the Ohr HaChaim. The Ohr HaChaim, seeing the greatness of the Chidah, asked him what he did for a livelihood. The Chidah answered him that G-d had not granted him the respect of his community so he survived by the sweat of his brow. The Ohr HaChaim wrote out a letter and asked the Chidah to insert it in the Kosel when he returned to Yerushalayim.

The Chidah put the letter away, and it was forgotten. During the next two years, the Chidah had great difficulty in earning a living. Thinking it was some form of punishment, he examined his deeds and recalled the forgotten letter. He searched and found it. Quickly he ran to the Kosel and tenderly placed it into a crack. The Chidah then went to the shul to pray that his misdeed be forgiven. Upon entering the shul everyone arose for the Chidah. He asked why they suddenly showed him respect. They answered that it was revealed to them what a great man the Chidah was. The Chidah sensed that the Ohr HaChaim’s letter had something to do with his new found respect. He went to Kosel and withdrew the letter. It read, “My Sister, my Bride, I pray that you aid this dearscholar. ” Shortly thereafter, the Chidah was appointed as a teacher of Torah in Yerushalayim.

After the War of Independence the contents of the building was looted. In 1978, the building was reopened as a yeshiva dedicated to the study of the laws pertaining to Kohanim and the Temple service.