Yerushalayim used to be a Sephardic town. Following the ravages of the Crusades, Sephardim led the way in restoring the Holy Land’s Jewish character. In the wake of the Spanish Expulsion many Sephardim traveled east to the Ottoman empire, and from there into Ottoman controlled Israel. These Sephardim ultimately established communities in Safed, Hebron, Tiberius and Jerusalem – often called the ‘Four Holy Cities,’ or the ‘Old Yishuv.’ (Read more about them here and here)
In 1517 Suleiman the Great captured the holy city of Yerushalayim and rebuilt its city walls, and Jerusalem soon became home again to a vibrant Jewish community. Then, in the later 1800s, some of the first Jewish communities outside of Jerusalem’s old city walls were also established by Sephardim. More on that in a future post! Intermittent Ashkenazi communities were also established in Jerusalem during this period (at the Hurva Synagogue), however even when one existed it was always smaller than the Sephardic community. Overall, until the mid 1800s, Israel’s Jews were mostly Sephardic.
Today, this ‘Sephardic’ period is unfortunately largely invisible. Few buildings or sites remain, and amongst the incredible history of ancient Israel and modern Israel the story of Sephardic Israel is obscured. Thankfully, an attempt to combat this amnesia is made at Jerusalem’s Old Yishuv Court museum in the Old City. The museum contains a series of rooms, each of which depict Jewish life from different moments of pre-State Jerusalem. The museum, however, would benefit from a major overhaul. Whilst the museum’s arrangements and artefacts can be evocative, its static displays fail to tell the rich story of Early Modern Sephardic Jerusalem.
Several episodes from that Sephardic time stand out in my mind. They depict the politics, economics, and religious developments of Jerusalem’s Sephardim.
In Israel during the 1500s and 1600s Jerusalem’s Jewish community was only outnumbered by Safed’s by around 5000 to 1500. However, the Jews of Israel’s ancient capital never relinquished their independence or their sense of importance. In fact, in 1538 the Safed rabbinate attempted to reestablish the Sanhendrin, the ancient Jewish high court. However, Jerusalem’s rabbinate protested. They insisted that without Jerusalem’s acquiescence Safed did not have sufficient authority, and ultimately Safed’s efforts failed.
As with the other ‘Old Yishuv’ communities, Jerusalem sent out emissaries to raise funds to support its impoverished, yet devout, population (read more about these efforts here) . Ottoman authorities severely taxed these communities, whilst also limiting their economic prospects. Indeed, Jerusalem’s Ashkenazi community’s emissary, R Nathan Shapira, even solicited funds from European Protestants in the 1650s. The permissibility of his efforts was afterwards posed to Jerusalem’s Sephardic Rabbi Jacob Hagiz (1620-1674). He ruled that even notwithstanding any other arguments in its favour, the dire political and economic circumstances surely permitted it (Shu”t Halakhot Ketanot 2:92).
Jerusalem’s most famous emissary, however, was Shabbetai Zevi (1626-1676). He was sent to Egypt in the 1660s by way of Gaza to raise funds. Rabbi Jacob Hagiz is reported to have quipped, ‘He went a shaliah (emissary), but returned a mashiah (messiah).” Indeed, the Jerusalem rabbinate never accepted Zevi’s messianic claims and he was expelled from the city. Unfortunately, other rabbinates did not follow suit and calamity ultimately ensued.
Perhaps the most significant development of Sephardic Jerusalem was the recognition of the Western Wall as a holy site. Whilst Jews had always considered the Temple Mount their holiest site, it was during this time that Jews began to gather at the Temple Mount’s western supporting wall (the mount itself being considered too holy to enter). This may have come about in 1546 after an earthquake felled several homes, exposing a portion of the western wall – fortuitously the closest spot beyond the mount to where the holy Temple once stood. Over time, various customs and beliefs developed concerning the wall. You can hear more about them in a video I made about these developments during my recent visit to the kotel.
During my visit I also made the point to visit the one significant remaining Jewish structure from Early Modern Sephardic Jerusalem – the four synagogues complex in the Old City. Four Sephardic synagogues essentially shared the same courtyard complex, each with their own prayer hall. The four synagogues are Rabban Yohanan ben Zakai (the main), Eliyahu Hanavi (the oldest), Istanbuli (the largest), and Emtza’i (in the middle).
Tragically, after the State of Israel was established in 1948, and after hundreds of years of Jewish residence, all of the Old City’s Jews were forced to leave the city. The synagogue interiors were then ravaged by local Arabs. Thankfully, the synagogue shells remained, and the four synagogues were restored after 1967 following Israel’s return to the Jewish Quarter.
Today, the Istanbuli Synagogue is home to Jerusalem’s Shaare Razon S&P congregation, which I will write more about in an upcoming post. Indeed, Sephardic Jerusalem is still alive in today’s multi ethnic Israel. Woven into the very fabric of Jerusalem are the stories, lives, and contributions of the early Sephardim. Recalling this, it was personally so moving for me to walk her streets and to pray in her historic halls, imagining when Jerusalem was Sephardic.