THE HURVA SYNAGOGUE 1700-2010

by | in History

Translated and Adapted from the Hebrew by Yocheved Lavon
Ruins of the Hurva Synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem, 1967.

Photo: Moshe Milner/Israel Government Press Office

Built in 1864 on the ruins of a shul destroyed in 1720, only to be destroyed again during Israel’s War of Independence, the Hurva Synagogue is a symbol of Jewish return from exile. It was dedicated anew in March of this year.

“Hurvat Rabbi Yehudah Chassid,” or simply “the Hurva,” refers to the courtyard in the center of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City and Beit Yaakov, the synagogue that was dedicated there in 1864. The name “Hurva,” which means “ruin,” dates back to 1720 when marauding Arabs attacked Jerusalem’s Ashkenazic community, twenty years after Rabbi Yehudah Chassid of Shedlitz and a group of olim (immigrants) arrived from Europe.

The community’s original beit knesset and the forty Torah scrolls housed in it were burned in a pogrom, and the courtyard was buried under a heap of rubble. Since the destruction was linked to the figure of Rabbi Yehudah Chassid, his name is associated with the site to this day. The community had purchased the old synagogue building in 1425. This is known from legal documents issued in attempts to close the synagogue on the grounds that it violated the Muslim “Covenant of Omar,” which forbade the establishment of “new” batei knesset. “New” referred to any synagogue built after the Muslim conquest in 1517. A further problem for the community was a mosque built right next to the shul, which remains there today. Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura wrote in 1488 that the mosque had once been the home of a Jew who had quarreled with the kehillah and converted to Islam. The apostate’s mother, seeking vengeance, had later turned the houseinto a mosque. This left an opening for Muslims to claim that the Jews had unlawfully seized other buildings in the courtyard. In 1588 the synagogue was finally closed on the pretext that it was not only “new,” but the rightful property of the mosque next door.

The Shelah HaKadosh, Rabbi Yeshayah Horowitz of Prague, wrote just before setting out for his new home in Jerusalem in 1621, that the Jewish community in Jerusalem was burgeoning, that it abounded with great Torah scholars, and that the city, although not yet rebuilt, was the joy of Eretz Yisrael. Peace and tranquility reigned there; good food and the choicest of wines were to be had; and the Jews were erecting great buildings. His description sounds almost messianic, and he called upon his fellow Jews in Europe to come and join the Jerusalem community.

In 1625, Muhammad Ibn Farrukh bought the position of prefect of Jerusalem. During his two years in power he oppressed the Jews ruthlessly. On September 3, 1625, a Shabbat, his men entered the Sephardic and Ashkenazic synagogues and arrested fifteen prominent Jews, among them the Shelah. Ibn Farrukh threatened to execute the prisoners, and demanded the enormous sum of 1,000 grush for their release. The kehillah raised more than half the ransom by taking loans from Arabs, and most of the prisoners were freed. In January 1626, Ashkenazic community leaders, including the Shelah, fled to Safed and then to Tiberius.

Precarious Existence

By the end of the seventeenth century the Ashkenazic minority in Jerusalem had its own rav, beit din and synagogue, a large courtyard containing about forty housing units, mikvaot, cisterns, and a beit midrash with an extensive library. The kehillah also had its own burial section on Har HaZeitim. When it came to dealing with the government, however—particularly in matters of taxes—which included a head tax and taxes on shechitah, the Ashkenazim were represented by the Sephardim.

A vicious cycle of oppression by Muslim rulers and unpayable debts on the part of the Ashkenazic community forms a motif that runs through Jerusalem’s history in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Steep taxes left the kehillah in debt, forcing it to borrow from Arabs to avoid harsh reprisals.

Again and again, the kehillah pleaded for more time and an easier payment schedule to settle its debts. Compromises were sometimes reached and funds were raised to cover large portions of the debt, yet the interest on the loans, sometimes as high as 40 percent, repeatedly caused the unpaid balance to inflate to unmanageable proportions. Monies raised through rescue efforts abroad were insufficient to support the the kehillah and also pay its debts; therefore the community continued taking loans, and the futile, vicious cycle continued.

The creditors did not confine themselves to judicial channels. Ashkenazic Jews were physically assaulted, their parnasim were jailed, and threats about vandalizing their cemetery and turning their beit knesset into a mosque were made.

Their troubles worsened in 1692 when their ancient synagogue collapsed. Despite the prohibition against building new houses of worship for Jews, their leader, Rabbi Moshe HaKohen, began working to obtain a firman, a royal edict, authorizing the building’s immediate renovation. He found a shtadlan (a lobbyist) in the royal court at Istanbul; he borrowed 10,000 grush to finance the shtadlan’s efforts and the renovation itself; in an unusual move, he sent fundraisers to the Sephardic communities of North Africa to cover the deficit.

His efforts bore fruit. In 1694 (evidently in exchange for a heavy bribe), the firman was obtained. In 1699 the local kadi finally allowed the work to proceed, after a delegation of Muslim dignitaries visited the site and took careful measurements to ensure that the renovated building would not exceed its original dimensions.

But according to Rabbi Gedalyah of Siemiatycz, one of Rabbi Yehudah Chassid’s followers, the renovated building was, in fact, larger than its original size. “Local custom” had been followed once again, and the authorities had been well rewarded for turning a blind eye to the building’s new measurements. Rabbi Gedalyah’s testimony, along with the dates on two documents from the Muslim court, lends support to the argument that the rebuilt synagogue cannot be attributed to Rabbi Yehudah Chassid, who arrived in Jerusalem only in October of 1700. Nevertheless, it remains possible that Rabbi Yehudah Chassid established his connection to the synagogue by pledging a major donation while still in Europe, or that he brought with him funds that had been allocated for the Jerusalem kehillah by European philanthropists.

Rabbi Yehudah Chassid and His Followers

On Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, 5461 (1700), several hundred olim led by Rabbi Yehudah Chassid arrived in Eretz Yisrael. This event was widely thought to mark a dramatic turning point in the history of the Jewish yishuv. But their aliyahwas ill-fated. Rabbi Yehudah Chassid passed away five days after his arrival in the Holy Land; expectations of a swift Redemption, closely connected to the figure of Rabbi Yehudah himself, did not materialize. The newcomers were struck by epidemics. Deprived of a leader, they faced increasing difficulty in securing such basic necessities as housing and food. As a result, this group, too, resorted to borrowing at steep interest from local Arabs, whose appetites were whetted by the sight of a group of fresh arrivals from Europe. The olim soon became victims of extortion, abuse, trumped-up charges, imprisonment, and threats to confiscate their beit knesset and turn it into a mosque.

For twenty years unsuccessful attempts were made to arrange a steady flow of support for the community from its European brethren and to settle its debts. In 1710, the Jewish communities of Frankfurt am Main, Vienna and Metz initiated an appeal on behalf of the Jews of Eretz Yisrael, calling for a supreme effort to raise enough funds to defray the debts. Rabbi David Oppenheimer, the rav of Prague, enlisted the aid of his wealthy relative, the banker Shimshon Wertheimer, who served as Austria’s minister of the treasury and “court Jew.” With this high-ranking personage behind the appeal, money began flowing in from Jewish communities throughout Europe. Meanwhile, the rabbi and the banker were conducting negotiations through Jews close to the Sultan’s court in an attempt to prevail upon the creditors in Jerusalem to waive the interest on their loans and accept repayment in fixed annual sums.

Ruins of the Hurva Synagogue, 1978.
Photo: Moshe Milner/Israel Government Press Office

Although Shimshon Wertheimer had raised 25,000 guilders, the negotiations did not go well. In response to the request for a compromise, on 8 Cheshvan 5481 (1720), the Arab creditors descended upon the Ashkenazi courtyard, setting fire to the synagogue and imprisoning the heads of the community. Most of the Ashkenazim fled the city, and the remaining few blended into the Sephardic kehillah.

Before his aliyah, Rabbi Yehudah Chassid toured European Jewish communities, recruiting olim and soliciting funds. His campaign was not based on Sabbatean beliefs, buton the burning desire to hasten the Redemption. Extreme Sabbatean elements who believed in the “divinity” of Shabbtai Tzvi, led by Chaim Malach, were a minority among the olim. After Rabbi Yehudah Chassid’s sudden passing these arrant Sabbateans left Eretz Yisrael—or were made to leave by the established Ashkenazic community. The Sabbatean elements broke away, and a considerable portion of the olim remained in Jerusalem. Just as their predecessors had done, they borrowed from Arabs to cover the cost of their basic living expenses and sent fundraisers out to the Diaspora in an effort to settle the old debts, secure support for the current Ashkenazic community, and save the beit knesset from its impending destruction.

Although the suffering Ashkenazic community of Jerusalem persevered in its efforts to come to terms with the creditors, the issue remained unresolved. It was the pogrom of 1720 that finally caused the kehillah to flee the city. For approximately the next hundred years, the Ashkenazic community of Jerusalem ceased to exist. Their flight had nothing to do with the unsound Sabbatean beliefs of a few prominent members of Rabbi Yehudah Chassid’s group. Recently discovered documents indicate that many of those who fled did not leave Eretz Yisrael but moved to Safed. They viewed the rebuilding of the Galilean town as a sign of imminent Redemption, for tradition says the Geulah will begin from the Galil and will precede the rebuilding of Jerusalem.

But the influx of olim did not stop after Jerusalem’s Ashkenazic community disbanded. There was a new wave of aliyah from all parts of the Ottoman Empire after the founding, in 1726, of the Vaad Pekidei Yerushalayim beKushta, an organization that provided assistance to the Jews of Eretz Yisrael. The immigration drew momentum from the messianic fervor that took hold of the Jewish people as the year 5500 (1740) approached. Its vanguard included some of the greatest rabbis and kabbalists of the period: Rabbi Chaim ben Attar, Rabbi Chaim De La Rosa, Rabbi Immanuel Chai Riki, Rabbi Chaim Abulafia, Rabbi Shalom Sharabi, Rabbi Yisrael Yaakov Elgazi, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, and Rabbi Gershon of Kotov, brother-inlaw of the Ba’al Shem Tov.

Disciples of the Gra Rebuild the Hurva

In 1816, a minyan of followers of the Vilna Gaon moved from Safed to Jerusalem, hiding their Ashkenazi origins by adopting Sephardic-style dress. The leader of the group was Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov, who was troubled that Jerusalem had been abandoned in favor of Safed. A plague had decimated the Jewish community of Safed in 1813, and Rabbi Menachem Mendel viewed this as a heavenly sign that they must step up their efforts to reach Jerusalem.

Their integration into Jerusalem came with much hardship. it took decades of sending envoys to the Sultan’s court whenever a political opportunity appeared (they knew that Turkish power was weakening due to the penetration of European powers into the region). And, of course, it required that the Ashkenazic Jews pay a major portion of their accumulated debts (besides a number of payments “under the table” to Muslim figures in Jerusalem and Istanbul) before Rabbi Yehudah Chassid’s Hurva courtyard became a recognized Jewish neighborhood.

In addition to the debt, they had to deal with the edict against the establishment of new synagogues. A turning point came when Eretz Yisrael was conquered by the Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali at the end of 1831. In order to stabilize his power in the newly conquered territories, he needed legitimacy in the eyes of the Christian powers. To this end, he adopted a pro-Western policy and granted civil rights to his Christian subjects. But he was reluctant to authorize the building of batei knesset in Jerusalem, as that contravened the long-standing tradition of the “Covenant of Omar.”

Following an earthquake that struck Jerusalem in 1834, Muhammad Ali permitted the Christian communities to rebuild their damaged churches and monasteries. That same year, he issued a firman to the Jews, granting permission to repair the four Sephardic synagogues in Jerusalem, particularly the stone facing on the roof shared by all four batei knesset. Following suit, the Ashkenazim petitioned Ibrahim Pasha, Muhammad Ali’s son who was acting as governor of Eretz Yisrael, to permit them to rebuild the Hurva courtyard and its synagogue. Their request was denied on the grounds that unlike the Sephardic batei knesset, which were in active use even in their present dilapidated state, no prayer services were held in the Hurva Synagogue. Early in 1836 the Gra’s followers, known as the Perushim, appealed to Anton Laurin, the Austrian consul in Alexandria, while he was visiting Jerusalem, asking for his help in persuading the Pasha to grant the permit. It was decided that Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Tzoref, who was skilled in the art of negotiation, would travel to Egypt and, under the auspices of the Austrian consul, present a tempting offer to Muhammad Ali: huge investments in building and development in Egypt, to be financed by the Rothschild family. In return for the enormous profits expected to flow into Muhammad Ali’s regime through these investments, just one small favor was being asked—a firman authorizing the Perushim to rebuild the Hurva courtyard. Within a month, the coveted firman was in their hands. The family of Baron Salomon Mayer von Rothschild, by the way, was never let in on the secret.

That summer was a season of elation in Jerusalem. Letters from Amsterdam reported that people in Jerusalem were “saying the Redemption has already begun.” Confident that their vision was reality, the Perushim made some changes to the prayer services: they stopped saying Tikkun Chatzot altogether, and they removed a verse from Lecha Dodi, the one that begins, “Hitna’ari, me’afar kumi” — “Awaken, arise from the dust.” The Shechinah, they proclaimed, had already risen from the dust of exile. They believed that the permit to rebuild the ruined courtyard marked the etchalta d’Geulah, the beginning of the Redemption, and the fulfillment of the prophecies regarding the return to Zion.

The Perushim began clearing away heaps of rubble in the ruined courtyard, and before their eyes appeared the original buildings: the synagogue, the mikvah, and several threestory buildings, all of them still strong and solid. On Rosh Chodesh Shevat 5597 (1837), Beit Knesset Menachem Tzion was dedicated. The shul name was in memory of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov, and also evoked the tefillah that links the future consolation of Zion with the present building of Jerusalem, “Baruch atah Hashem, Menachem Tzion uvoneh Yerushalayim” (Nusach HaGra).

Having established Beit Knesset Menachem Tzion and Beit Midrash Shaarei Tzion, the Perushim did not rest. In keeping with the Gaon’s teachings, they considered their enterprises part of a political process that would help to advance the Redemption. The building of a large, impressive beit knesset would serve as assurance that the prophecies were being fulfilled. Turkey regained control of Eretz Yisrael in 1840, having driven out Muhammad Ali, and the Perushim were shrewd enough to take advantage of the Turkish Empire’s growing dependence on Christian powers by enlisting the aid of Christian ambassadors in the region. The Crimean War between Turkey and Russia afforded another opportunity to exert pressure on the Sultan, who needed help from the British against the Russians.

In 1855, during the Crimean War, Turkey decided, as a gesture of friendship to Britain for its assistance in fighting Russia, to grant authorization for building the synagogue through the Jewish-British philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore. The Sultan went further and gave Montefiore an additional firman, the first of its kind, granting him permission to purchase land on which to build a Jewish hospital in Jerusalem, although the Ottoman law did not allow foreigners to buy land. It was this purchase that led to the spilling over of the Jewish settlement beyond the walls of the Old City. The Sultan signed the permit for the Hurva Synagogue on July 1, 1855. It was entrusted to Lord Napier, who conveyed it to Montefiore, who was visiting Istanbul at the time.

The heads of the Perushim community decided to build a synagogue that would rival any other synagogue in the world for beauty and splendor, and most importantly, one that could compete with the tall houses of worship of the Christians and Muslims in Jerusalem. It would announce to the world that the Jewish people had begun to return to Zion and rebuild Jerusalem.

A Turkish architect, Assad Effendi, had been commis-sioned by the Sultan to oversee the repair of the mosques on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Seeing this as another opportunity, the Perushim decided to hire him to plan their beit knesset. It was a bold move. No doubt for a handsome fee, Effendi agreed to draw up a building plan in Neo-Byzantine style and also to supervise the construction. Apparently due to the involvement of the Sultan’s official architect, the plans were approved and the necessary building permits secured from the local authorities. Only this can explain how they prevailed over the Muslim Waqf and the municipal authorities and were allowed to erect such a tall, imposing synagogue, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the destruction of the Temple. Until then, batei knesset in Jerusalem were usually housed in cellars, or in low unassuming buildings off the beaten path. Clearly, the towering dome of the Hurva Synagogue would overshadow the minaret of the neighboring mosque and compete with the Dome of the Rock in the distance.

The projected cost of construction was at least one million grush, or 10,000 pounds sterling—a fantastic sum in those days. How the money was collected is a story in itself. In brief, it meant sending out fundraisers, appealing to philanthropists and foundations, and coping with internal strife within the kehillah over the propriety of spending so much on a building rather than channeling the donations towards relieving the community’s poverty.

Not all the donors were Ashkenazim; Jews from Sephardic communities also contributed to the building fund. A wealthy Jerusalemite, Rabbi Yosef Amzaleg, lent large sums to the Perushim. The contribution of a donor from Baghdad was so generous that it covered half the cost of the building. In approximately 1845, Rabbi Yehudah Natkin, a talmid of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin known as Yehudah of Damascus, received a promise from the wealthy Yechezkel ben Reuven Menashe of Baghdad that he would finance the building of a great synagogue in the Hurva courtyard once the firman was issued. In 1856, the Perushim contacted the rich man’s sons, Menashe and Sasson, to inform them that construction work had begun. Hastening to fulfill their father’s will, they sent 3,400 gold florins to the building fund.

In the fall of 1864, two days before Rosh Hashanah 5625, the great synagogue in the Hurva courtyard of Rabbi Yehudah Chassid was dedicated. An issue of Hamaggid dated 26 Tishrei 5625 (1864) featured an article by Rabbi Yosef Rivlin of the Perushim community about that stirring event:

For nothing like it has stood on this holy ground since the day of the Land’s exile . . . it rises higher than all the towers . . . a person standing on one of the mountains around Jerusalem will see the dome of the synagogue . . . like a moon among stars. Its walls, inside and out, are full of splendor, made of hewn stone, the work of marvelous craftsmen.

Its formal name was “Beit Yaakov,” but everyone referred to it as “the Hurva.” For the disciples of the Gra, the dedication symbolized the realization of a vision: the building of Jerusalem as the initiation of the Redemption process. Their vision became even more tangible with a construction boom in Jerusalem; a number of new public buildings went up at that time, such as the Chassidic shul Tiferet Yisrael. The dedication was branded into the historical consciousness of that generation; the Jewish community of Jerusalem became established as the largest religious group in the city, and for the first time since the Destruction of the Second Temple, the Jews were able to build new batei knesset, not in back alleyways or cellars like the city’s four Sephardic synagogues, but imposing buildings going up right before the eyes of their Muslim rulers and neighbors, who looked on in astonishment at this startling turn of events.

The Hurva Synagogue rose to a height of twenty-four meters: its heichal measured fourteen by fifteen meters. The aron kodesh was a unique creation; it was twelve meters tall, imported from Kherson in the Ukraine. This splendid beit knesset was the center of Jewish life in Jerusalem; in its courtyard the most prominent institutions of Torah and charity were housed. Theodor Herzl and Zev Jabotinsky visited it and the chief rabbis of Eretz Yisrael were inaugurated there, most notably, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook. British Jew and High Commissioner of Palestine Sir Herbert Samuel prayed there, and on Shabbat Nachamu, following Tishah B’Av, he was called up to read the haftarah, “Console, console my People,” while the whole congregation wept. In 1942, two-hundred rabbis gathered there with the Gerrer Rebbe, Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter, to plead for heavenly mercy on behalf of the Jews of Europe.

The Hurva Synagogue stood in all its glory for eighty three years. It was destroyed by explosives during the 1948 War of Independence, when the Old City was captured by the Jordanian army, in a calculated act meant to symbolize Jordan’s victory and prevent the Jews from ever returning to the Old City. The extent of the destruction was revealed upon the liberation of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War. After lengthy deliberations, it was eventually decided that the synagogue, in ruins for six decades, should be rebuilt as a replica of the synagogue as it stood in the nineteenth century. On erev Rosh Chodesh Nisan 5770 (March 15, 2010), the Hurva Synagogue was dedicated anew, a symbol of the return of the children to their borders and the crown to its former glory.

Dr. Arie Morgenstern is a senior fellow at the Shalem Center. He received his PhD in modern Jewish history from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research specialties include messianic movements in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He is the author of many books including his most recent, Hastening Redemption: Messianism and the Resettlement of the Land of Israel (Oxford, 2006).

This article was featured in Jewish Action Fall 2010.

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