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Four Sephardic Synagogues

The Four Sephardic Synagogues are located in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.

While the Hurva Synagogue was the central Ashkenazi place of worship in the Jewish Quarter,  a one-minute walk south lies the Four Sephardic Synagogues.

The four synagogues are adjoined and consist of the Yochanan Ben Zakai Synagogue, the Istanbuli Synagogue, the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue, and the Emtsai Synagogue.

These synagogues were built after the Ottoman government closed the Ramban Synagogue. In 1586, because it shared a wall with a mosque.

The Ramban Synagogue was established in 1267 by the famed Jewish philosopher Nachmanides, after his flight from Spain, as a way to revitalize the Crusader-ravaged communal life.

Later, it became a place of warship for refugees from the 1492 expulsion from Spain.

With no other alternative, services were held in private homes for several years until the Yochanan ben Zakai Synagogue, also known as Kahal Kadosh Gadol, was completed.

The Sephardic community of the Old City continued to warship in the Four Synagogues until the 1948 war, when the Jewish Quarter was seized by the Jordanians.

The Jordanians looted and gutted the synagogues and converted into stables.

After the reunification of Jerusalem 1967, the Four Synagogues were restored and reopened as places of warship.

Visitors are welcome, although the caretaker of the Four Synagogues requires a small donation.

The Yochanan Ben Zakai Synagogue

The Yochanan Ben Zakai Synagogue was the first of the Four Synanagoues to be built after the Ottomans closed the Ramban Synagogue in 1586.

According to legend, the Yochanan ben Zakai Synagogue stands on the spot of the Beit Midrash of the tanna Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai, who established the Sanhedrin in Yavneh after the destruction of the Second Temple.

The synagogue’s hall is particularly significant to the Sephardic community. This is because it was home to the chief Sephardic rabbi during the eras of Ottoman and British rule in Israel.

It also, recently hosted the coronation of Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi.

The Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue

The Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue, also known as Kahal Talmud Torah, was built shortly before the Yochanan ben Zakai Synagogue at the end of the century as a school for studying Jewish law.

While the Eliahu Hanavi Synagogue is the oldest structure of the Four Sephardic synagogues, it was only used for prayer during holidays.

According to legend, the name of the synagogue was given after an event that took place on Yom Kippur when one man was missing to complete the minyan required for prayer.

Out of nowhere, an unknown old man appeared and the service was able to star. He spent the day with them in prayer and fasting.

However, the stranger disappeared after the prayer of Neilah and when they turned to invite him to “break the fast” with them, he was gone.

The people quickly became sure that the man was none other than Elijah the Prophet and named the synagogue after him. They also kept the chair he sat in until this very day.

While it was originally Sephardic synagogue, today it is Ashkenazi.

After the two large synagogues of the Ashkenazi community destroyed during the war of independence, their Sephardic brethren offered for them the use of the Elijah synagogue, an arrangement that holds to this day.

At the front of the synagogue stands 400-year old Italian Torah arc salvaged after World War II.

The Istanbuli Synagogue

As the Istanbuli Synagogue is the largest of the Four Sephardic Synagogues.

The synagogue was established by large group of immigrants who arrived from Istanbul, Turkey in 1764.

Over the centuries, it has attracted worshipers from other communities including Kurdistan and North Africa. However, today, it is used by a Spanish and Portuguese congregation.

The Torah ark dates from the seventeenth century and was imported from a synagogue which had been destroyed in Ancona, Italy.

The bimah, however, was constructed in the eighteenth century, came from a synagogue in Pesaro, Italy.

The Emtsai Synagogue

The Emtsai Synagogue or Middle Synagogue, also known as the Kahal Tzion Synagogue, is the smallest of the 4 synagogues.

According to tradition, the synagogue was built atop a tunnel system that connected the synagogues to the tombs of the kings.

The synagogue was built between the others in what was originally a courtyard and is believed to have been used as the women’s section of the Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakai Synagogue.

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