A Guide to Israel
and its Holy sites
By Rabbi Leibel Reznick, Contributing Editor
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.
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 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 HaChaims
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 minds 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
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 Aris 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 HaChaims 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.
THE TZEMACH TZEDEK SHUL
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,
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
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
"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 Sultans 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
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 sons 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.
ln 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 Zorrifs 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
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.
The 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.
THE MOGHRABI (MOROCCAN) SHUL
Tzur Devash Yeshiva 15 Plugat HaKotel Street.
During the early l 800s 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
The Tiferes Yisroel- Nissin Bak Shul was a monument to the triumph of
perseverance and determination over bigotry and prejudice. In 1843, the European
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.
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 sheiks 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
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 KARAlTE SHUL
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
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
800s. 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.
THE FOUR SHUL COMPLEX
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
lstanbul Shul. First founded in the 1500s, 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 1500s. 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
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
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
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
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 1,500s, 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
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
The chair that Eliyahu had sat upon was moved to a recess in the
north-western wall. Whenever there was a bris, the childs 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
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
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 rabbis
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
towns 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
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
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.
For 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 1700s, 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
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
to pray that his misdeed be forgiven. Upon entering the shul everyone arose for
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
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.