Four Sephardi Synagogues

June 5th 2011

Of all of the famous prayer sites to visit on your Israel tour, a stop in Sephardi land is essential, specifically within the Jewish Quarter of the Old City at the four adjacent locations of what is known to those in the know as the “four Sephardi synagogues of Jerusalem”.

Yochanan ben Zakai Synagogue
Don’t go a-searching for the famous location of the “Yochanan ben Zakai Synagogue ” because it is now sub- street level, New York City style. Yochanan Ben Zakai, the man credited for continuing on the study of Torah through smuggling himself out of Jerusalem and establishing a institute for learning in the city of Yavneh, is believed to have constructed his beit midrash, or place of Torah Study, here. This synagogue was built in the 17th century, and the reason for its being underground is attirubted to the need of the Jews to hide their religious worshipping activities from the ruling Muslims.

The Istanbuli Synagogue
The 1700s saw a major influx in Jewish immigrants coming from Turkey, and the synagogue they established was named appropriately the “Istanbuli synagogue”. Deciding against the temptation to be exclusive, it opened up its doors to the later influx of immigrants from Kurdistan and Western and Northern Africa.
The Istanbuli Synagogue, being the largest of the four, is also home to a pretty spectacular event: the inauguration of the Chief Sephardi Rabbi of Israel. Now that’s something to write home about!

Eliyahu Ha’navi Synagogue
You don’t have to wait for the night of Passover in order to wait in anticipation for the mysterious visitation by the Prophet Eliyahu haNavi. This synagogue is the oldest of the four, constructed in the 16th century. Mostly used as a place of Torah Study, its function as a place of worship was limited to the festivals. And according to Sephardic tradition, on one Yom Kippur night, a curious thing occurred; while waiting for a tenth man to fill the minyan quota, an unfamiliar face walked through the door, only to disappear after the final service on that Day of Atonement. The person, according to the bewildered congregants, was none other than Eliyahu haNavi.

The Emtsai Synagogue
Considered more of a middleman than a separate synagogue, this place was believed to be originally a courtyard that served as well as the woman’s section of the Yochanan ben Zakaii synagogue. In addition, it was versatile in its functionality, converted into a sukkah during the festival of Sukkot.