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Descriptive Geography and Brief Historical Sketch of Palestine

By Rabbi Joseph Schwarz, 1850

The Inhabitants of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem contains more than 32,000 inhabitants, to wit, 7,500 Jews (6,000 Sephardim and 1,500 Ashkenazim; under the first are understood all the natives, and the immigrants from Turkey, Asia Minor, Persia, Arabia, and Barbary in Africa; and under the latter the immigrants from Germany, Holland, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Galicia, or other European countries), 15,000 Mahomedans, i.e. Arabs and Turks, and 10,000 Christians, i.e. Greeks, Armenians, Latins (Spaniards and Italians), Russians and Germans.

Some Account of the Synagogues and Schools,
ישיבות and בתי מדרשים.

There are five large Synagogues in Jerusalem, which have existed already for several centuries. Four belong to the Sephardim congregation, and one to the Ashkenazim, or rather to the Germans, since, when it was founded, the name of the Polish, Russian, or Galician Jews was not known. I shall, however, speak more in detail of the last mentioned in the sequel.

Among the first four is the so-called Zion Synagogue. It is the oldest and largest; and if a common tradition is to be believed, for which, however, I know of no proof, it was the former college (Midrash) of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai. See, concerning this, Echa Rabbethi, which said that the בית הגדול of 2 Kings 25:9, "the great house," or "the house of the great," is (i.e. on this spot stood at a later period, and was again burnt) the College of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai. The other three were built at a much later period.

All these four Synagogues form, properly speaking, but a very large, single building, since they stand near one another, so that one can walk from one into the other, and the centre one, the smallest of all, has no entrance from the street, and you have to reach it through either of the three others. On my arrival, in the year 5593 (1833), I found them in a most miserable and lamentable condition, since they were at the time greatly out of repair, and almost threatened to tumble in, and were useless in rainy weather, inasmuch as they were roofed in with nothing but old and rotten boards, and our brothers could not obtain the permission from "the pious faithful" to drive as much as a single nail to fasten anything in the building without being first authorized by the most worthy persons in authority, and such a favour, not to mention to permit the making of repairs, and much less to rebuild the Synagogues, could not be granted in order not to commit a terrible sin against Allah and his Nebbi (prophet); independently of which, the silver to procure the consent was not entirely obtainable in Jerusalem.

But in the year 5595, Abraim Pacha of Egypt, who understood and was able to instruct and convince his people "that even the Nebbi had grown more tolerant in modern times," gave the permission to rebuild anew from the foundation all these four Synagogues, and they are accordingly at present four fine buildings. Their situation is opposite to the south-southwest corner of the temple mount, on the declivity of the former Tyropœon.

Besides the above five Synagogues, there are a great many smaller and private ones, which have been founded quite recently, and public and private schools ישיבות and colleges מדרשים, by which are understood public libraries, large collections of nearly all the accessible Hebrew books of modern and (more especially) of more ancient times, and manuscripts likewise, where every one is permitted to enter and make use of the literary treasures.

For the most part there meet, in each Yeshibah or Beth Hammidrash, societies who study and discuss together a particular subject, for instance, a מסכתא or Treatise of the Talmud; and they have usually one person, and this the most capable and learned, as teacher or chief, called ראש הישיבה Rashe Hayeshibah.

These Yeshiboth are foundations instituted by our worthy brothers in Babel, Asia Minor, Turkey, Italy, Barbary, Holland, Germany, England, and Poland; (and why should not America follow the example? [Kolel America-Rabbi Meir Baal Haness was established in 1896-Webmaster.]) They devoted a sufficient capital, the proceeds of which will be enough to support a Yeshibah, together with the society meeting therein.

It is but lately that I obtained from the respectable firm of Messrs. Landauer, of Hürben near Augsburg in Bavaria, a permanent capital, which will always procure me the rent for my own residence and Yeshibah.

Several Yeshiboth have at the same time a Synagogue, which is also the case with mine.

In the principal Yeshibah there is also the seat of the high court בית דין הגדול, which has to decide on the gravest and most important proceedings.

The following are the principal Yeshiboth and Bathe Hammidrash in Jerusalem; besides which there are several unnamed smaller ones. The name given to them, bears generally an allusion to that of the founders; and as female names are also met with, it proves that worthy ladies were likewise founders of these institutions.

1, בית אל Beth-El; 2,  בית יעקב  Beth Jaacob; 3, חסד לאברהם Chesed Le'abraham; 4,  נוה שלום  Neveh Shalom; 5, ברית אברהם Berith Abraham; 6, כסא אליהו Kissay Eliyahu; 7, כנסת ישראל Knesseth Yisrael; 8, קדושת יום טוב Kedushath Yome Tobe; 9, אורח חיים Orach Chayim; 10, דמשק אליעזר Damesek Eleazer; 11, רוח אליהו Ruach Eliyahu; 12,  בני יצחק Bne Yitzchak; 13, תולדות יצחק Toledoth Yitzchak; 14,  בני משה  B'ne Mosheh; 15, אהלי צדיקים Ahole Zadikim; 16, חיים וחסד  Chayim Vachesed; 17, כנור נעים  Kinnor Naim; 18, פרחי כהונה Pirche Kehunnah; 19, כהונת עולם  Kehunnath 'Olam; 20, אמת ליעקב Emeth Leyaakob; 21, מגן דוד Magen David; 22, בית אהרן Beth Aharon; 23, דת יהודית Dath Yehudith; 24, אהל רחל ובית יהודה Ohel Rachel Ubeth Yehudah; 25, סוכת שלום Sukkath Shalom; 26, עדות ביהוסף Eduth Bihoseph (my own); and 27, אור החיים Or Hachayim.

These colleges and schools are all in Jerusalem; but there are several, although as might be expected in less numbers, in Hebron, Zafed, and Tiberias.

Among those mentioned above, are several which have been in existence many hundred years, and of their founders we may say in the words of the Psalmist (112:6): לזכר עולם יחיה צדיק "The memory of the righteous shall remain forever."

I deem it worth while to speak more circumstantially concerning this structure, since it will lead us upon much that is historically interesting. By the term Synagogue is not meant a single building, but an entire large court, which forms as it were a whole street, which contains within its circuit many houses and buildings, and is constructed after the style of a monastery. Through perusal of documents and investigations made on the spot, I came upon the result, that this old building is the same Synagogue which was built in the year 5027 (1267), at the time of the celebrated Nachmanides (Ramban רמב״ן); since he says, in his letter to his son in Spain, as I shall mention hereafter in the historical part: "We found a very handsome ruinous building with marble columns and a pretty cupola, and we made collections in order to restore the same to serve as a Synagogue, and commenced to build on it." This building, with a handsome cupola and marble columns, is still existing close by the present Synagogue; it was taken away from the Synagogue, as I shall tell hereafter, and is called at present Al Maraga, and is used as a raisin mill, in which raisins are crushed and ground in order to boil them into a syrup. At the time of the founding of this Synagogue it was limited to this single building; but at a later period, when the number of Jews increased, all the houses contiguous to it were incorporated with it, and all denominated the Synagogue of the Ashkenazim. It was for a long time the only Synagogue in Jerusalem where divine worship was held. It would appear that the old Sephardim Synagogue, that of Zion, was in ruins, since neither Nachmanides, nor other describers of the country, mention the least about it. As late as about 5346 (1586), both congregations, the Sephardim and Ashkenazim united, worshipped there together; and only at the time when it was taken by violence from the congregation, and they were compelled to choose themselves another place in the court as a Synagogue, which has been preserved up to the latest period, the Sephardim separated from the Ashkenazim, the former probably restoring their ancient and former Zion Synagogue, since which time the other remained with the Ashkenazim, whence its name to the present day.

It is said in a work חרבות ירושלים, "The Ruins of Jerusalem" (see father in the historical part, under the year 5386), "that forty years previously, i.e. 5346, the Muphti of Jerusalem, a very great enemy of the Jews, caused the Synagogue to be closed, and had it changed into Al Maraga; and to this day we have not been able to obtain possession of it again; and this holy place is unfortunately transformed into one of a degraded and profane use. At the present time (in the year 5386, 1628), the Cadi, a terrible extortioner, was prepared to cause several shops to be constructed out of the hall and front of the Synagogue, in order to rent them out to Mahomedans, and to make a mill out of the closed Synagogue, Al Maraga. When the officers of the congregation were informed of this, they presented a petition to the Cadi, that he might not so desecrate the holy place, the more especially as it was their lawful property, obtained by purchase, and exhibited to him at the same time the legally signed documents in their hands; but he did not desist from his intention till he had made them give him 1000 grosh=250 ducats=500 dollars. Thereupon he himself gave them another legal testimonial that this Synagogue had been already, for more than one hundred years, perfectly legalized property of the Jews, by whom it was built up for a Synagogue, wherefore no one is empowered to contest it with them, or to disturb them in their possession of it."

There is nevertheless no doubt but that, notwithstanding the 1000 grosh and the title deed of the Cadi, this proposition was nevertheless carried into effect at a later period; since the formerly closed Synagogue, Al Maraga, was turned into a mill, as it is even now; and in the outer hall, all along the front side, were erected a number of shops, although they happen to be at present the property of the Jews.

The whole court, therefore, with the exception of Al Maraga, has ever since remained uninterruptedly the property of the Ashkenazim, and used by them as their Synagogue. [Can someone verify if this site still exists, and who has control of it today? Webmaster.]

In the year 5450 (1690), there arrived in the Holy City a very pious man called Rabbi Yehudah Hachasid (i.e. the righteous), a native of Poland, but who had resided a long time in the neighbourhood of Frankfort-on-the Maine, accompanied by many distinguished and pious Rabbis from Germany. He was chosen as the chief of the Jerusalem Ashkenazim, and commenced to enlarge, adorn, and improve the Synagogue buildings, whence they were called the Synagogue of Rabbi Yehudah Hachasid. But this precious chief was, alas! soon carried off by death, and the congregation was plunged, through the plague, want, poverty, and distress, into the most melancholy and terrible condition, which compelled them to borrow money on these buildings from the Mahomedans at an enormous rate of interest. Their distress became constantly greater and greater; the capital grew apace, through the unheard-of rate of interest, to an enormous amount; wherefore their chief, the venerable Rabbi Mosheh Hakkohen, undertook himself, about the year 5465 (1705), a missionary journey into Germany, to represent the terrible condition of the pilgrims to their brothers abroad, in order to institute for them a collection on a large scale. Rabbi Mosheh actually met with such sympathy among the German Israelites, that, through the honourable collectors at Frankfort-on-the-Maine, there was raised, in various collections, altogether the sum of 25,600 ducats. But even this large amount was no longer sufficient to free the Jerusalem congregation from debt, since the enormous rate of interest never allowed them to extinguish the capital; and these poor people were continually tormented in the most terrible manner by their insatiable creditors, although, in point of fact, the debt had been paid off severalfold already.

Things were in this state when the Mahomedans suddenly assailed the Synagogue on Sabbath, the 8th of Marcheshvan, 5481 (about 1st of November, 1721), set it on fire, and burnt up whatever was combustible, together with all the books and the rolls of the law (ספרי תורות), of which there were forty in the buildings, which latter also would surely have fallen likewise a prey to the fearful conflagration, had they not been constructed out of large and heavy stones. They also seized the officers and the most respectable members of the congregation, and threw them into prison; they then took possession of all the buildings, driving the Ashkenazim away out of them. These unfortunate people, driven to despair, fled precipitately, in all directions, some to Hebron, some to Zafed, and others beyond the limits of Palestine. Thenceforth no Ashkenazi durst to show himself in Jerusalem. The Mahomedans, the creditors of the congregation, took possession of everything: they made use of the outer court of the Synagogue as a dung and rubbish heap, so that there arose here by degrees a natural dung and rubbish hill. All the cellars and other subterranean structures, likewise, were filled up completely with dung and rubbish.

In the year 5572 (1812), when a fearful epidemic raged in Zafed, and in all Galilee, about twenty Ashkenazim ventured to flee to Jerusalem in disguise. They now were suffered to live in quiet and undisturbed in the Holy City, partly because they were unknown, and partly, perhaps, because the hatred and persecuting spirit of the Mahomedans against the Ashkenazim had abated, as three or four generations had passed away since the above occurrence. In the year 5576 (1816), efforts were made, through the intervention of the respectable and rich Israelites at Constantinople, to obtain a firman (decree) from the supreme government of Turkey, to permit the Ashkenazim to have a roll of the law ספר תורה in their Midrash at Jerusalem, and that the Mahomedans should not in future be allowed to make any claim against the Ashkenazim then residing in the Holy City, on account of the old indebtedness of their predecessors. This concession obtained, caused a constant increase of the number of German Jews in Jerusalem, so that they soon felt the want of a Synagogue. A mission was accordingly sent, in the year 5596 (1836), to Mahmud Ali Pasha at Alexandria, with a respectful petition, to grant them the permission to reoccupy the property of their ancestors, and to rebuild the ruined ancient Synagogue. At the same time petitions were presented to the Austrian and Russian consuls resident there, to employ their influence with the Pacha to obtain for us the desired privilege. I gave myself all possible pains to address this request to these gentlemen in a powerful and touching petition, so that nothing might be left undone to obtain our wish; and we must offer our thanks to these worthy men, who felt sincerely for this noble cause, and actually employed all their influence to induce the tolerant Pacha to be favourable to our petition. He immediately sent, in the most gracious manner, a firman to the congregation, that no creditor should be empowered to make any more demands against the property of the Ashkenazim, since the debt had become outlawed through the lapse of time, wherefore they were permitted to take possession again of their former property, and to rebuild their Synagogue.  

On Thursday, the 19th of Elul, 5596 (September, 1836), the matter was judicially decided; the Ashkenazim were permitted to enter the precincts which had hitherto been denied to them; the buildings so long closed were reopened; and they commenced at once to remove the dirt and rubbish, which required several weeks to accomplish; after which the work of building was undertaken. This was done with such zeal and industry, that already on Sabbath, New Moon of Shebat, 5597 (about February, 1837, consequently in a space of eighteen weeks), the Synagogue, being completed, was consecrated amidst the greatest solemnities.

At a later period, all the other structures, terribly ruined as they had been by the savage Arabs, were restored, and thoroughly rebuilt, and are now in good condition. Even Al Maraga would also have been taken possession of, had it not been that the government was taken away again from the tolerant Mahmud Ali Pacha, through which cause much that was good and noble remained unaccomplished.

This holy building was then closed, and no divine worship held therein for the space of one hundred and sixteen years, two months, and three weeks, which had never been omitted before since its foundation, five hundred and seventy years anterior to its reconsecration.

In clearing away the rubbish at the rebuilding of the Synagogue, &c., there was found a very handsome and deep cistern [mikvah], cut out of the solid rock. It was without water, but there were found in it a number of gold coins. I discovered, however, none among them which belonged to antiquity; they were of modern times, and were German and Polish gold coins (ducats), none of which were more than 300 to 400 years old.

Postscript to the Synagogues of the Sephardim.

In these Synagogues is also bestowed a Jewish elementary education. It is indeed very simple, still very correct and good, and considerably better than with the Ashkenazim. But the higher school, where the child obtains instruction in the Talmud, holds a higher rank among the German than the Portuguese: and we can soon distinguish whether a child has been educated in one or the other Talmudic school; since the Ashkenazim endeavour to improve the child more than the others in sharp and deep thought and wit.