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May 27, 1977 - Image 39

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1977-05-27

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.




Friday, May 27, 1977 39

THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

History of a Treasure: The Ramban Synagogue

JERUSALEM
In
1263 a leading member of
the Spanish Jewish com-
munity, Rabbi Moshe ben
Nahman, was forced' to
participate in a public re-
ligious debate with the
chief priests of the domin-
ical Christian Order.
The disputation lasted
four days and was at-
tended by the King and
Queen of Aragon and
their retinue, and mem-
bers of the public.
The rabbi, the philos-
opher and commentator
on the Torah, more com-
monly .known as the
amban, successfully de-
nded Jewish law and
stoms and answered
questions of dogma, par-
ticularly regarding the
coming of the Messiah.
He spoke politely, re--
spectfully, but firmly,
without mincing his words
or compromising his opin-
ions. His chief antagonist
(and apparently the in-
stigator of the whole de-
bate) was a converted Jew,
well-versed in Jewish
sources.
As he began to lose face
before the logic and
sharpness of a greater
mind, he grew angrier
and more frustrated. He
attacked the Ramban
personally and tried to
make the rabbi lose his
temper too.
Finally the King inter-
rupted the disputation,
fearing a riot, for the
crowd was becoming very
restless and unruly.
The intellectuals in the
audience, even the Chris-
tians, respected the
Ramban and the King
even bestowed honors on
him.
But as so often hap-
• pened in such cases," the
end result was not to the
Jews' advantage.
The . enraged and
humiliated Dominican
priests accused Rabbi
Moshe of heresy and dis-
honoring Christianity:
They applied pressure
on the government and,
at the age of 72, the sage
was forced to leave his
family and flee Spain.
After a hazardous trip, he

arrived in Jerusalem in
1267.
All this we know from
the Ramban's own writ-
ings. In a letter to his son,
Nahman, shortly after
his arrival, he also wrote
his impressions of the
Jerusalem he found dur-
ing the early Mameluke
-
period:
"From Jerusalem, the
Holy . City, I write this
scroll to you . . . for I was
privileged to arrive safely
on the 9th of Elul . .. And
what can I tell you about
the country, for it is very
desolate and the ruin is
great.
"The holier the place,
the greater the waste and
so Jerusalem is most neg-
lected, and Judea more
than the Galilee.
"Yet for all her ruin she
is yet a goodly place.
There are approximately
2,000 settlers of which
some 300 are Christians,
refugees from the (re-
cent) destruction.
"But there are no Jews
among them, for from the
time of the Tartar's in-
flux they all fled or were
killed.
"Only two (Jewish)
brothers remain, painters
who purchase their col-
ors from the ruler, - an
they manage to gather a
minyan for prayers in
their honie on Shabat . . ."
Despite his age, the
Ramban took the initia-
tive and began to rebuild
the Jewish community.
Politically, the times
favoured a revival, for the
Mameluke leaders were
tolerant of other religious
groups and even encour-
aged their settlement.
Within the Old City
walls, the section now
known as the Jewish
Quarter was the most
ravaged.
The Ramban took over a
building there in rela-
tively good condition
which may have served
earlier as a Christian
house of prayer, and, as he
continues the same letter
to his son:
"We found a partially
destroyed building with
Marble pillars and a fine
dome, and made it into a
synagogue. For the city is

The Refurbished Ramban Synagogue 41 the Jewish
Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem

anarchic, anyone who
wants to take a ruin can
do so.
"We repaired the build-
ing . . . and brought the
Torah scrolls which had
been sent to Shekhem
when the Tartars in-
vaded.
"And now we have set
up a synagogue where
prayers will be held, for
many come to Jerusalem
from 'Damascus, Zovah,
Egypt and all the Dias-
pora to see the Temple
and weep over it . . ."
The street on which the
Ramban's house of prayer
was established became
known as Jews' Street, and
around it a new Jewish
community soon grew up
which to this day is known
as the Jewish Quarter.
Visitors to the Holy
Land described the
synagogue in greater de-
tail and from eyewitness
reports dating from the
13th to the 16th century it
seems that there were
four marble pillars in the
long, narrow building, a
cistern from which water
was drawn, a courtyard,
and a fine dome.
But it was dark inside,
for over the generations,
as level after level was,
added to the streets, the
building stood progres-
sively lower, and light
penetrated only from the
entrance s.
Then, for many cen-
turies, nothing more was
heard of the Ramban's
synagogue.
After the Turks estab-
lished the Ottoman Em-
pire, it was apparently
abandoned, and only in the
middle of the 19th century
was it rediscovered by the
noted Jewish geographer,
Yehoseph Schwarz. The
building was then being
used as a raisin mill.
Just before the War of
Independence, the • ar-
cheologist Jacob Pinker-
feld, who explored the an-
cient holy places of the
Jewish Quarter, sus-
pected that a cheese-
maker's shop on the
Street of the Jews, next to
a mosque and the famous
Hurva Synagogue, was
actually the Ramban's
Synagogue.
He was unable to verify -
his theory, however, or to
dig out any of the iden-
tifying pillars and other
remains. At this time,
even veteran Jerusalem-
ites seem not to have
heard of the historic site.
Only in 1967, following
the Six-Day War (and
exactly 700 years after it
was founded) was the lo-
cation scientifically iden-
tified.
A team of ar-
cheologists and ar-
chitects worked hand in
hand to renovate the
building.
The four central pillars
were dug out and re-
paired. The arched roof,
although domeless now
for many years, was re-
constructed and the in-
laid double Ark of the
Law faithfully repro-
duced.
Metal grill-work, bare
stone sections and intri-
cate wall niches taste-
fully decorated the cen-
tral hall and its alcoves.
When a similar fifth pil-

lar was discovered lying
under the rubble, an
identity crisis developed.
There were theories that
this proved the building
was not the Ramban's
house of prayer.
But the original team,
under the direction of Dan
Tannai, held fast to their
opinion. A possible solu-
tion to the additional pillar
was that even in Mameluke
times it had lain prone, be-
neath the rubble that the
Ramban found.
-
Once the restoration
work was completed, the
hall became the syna-
gogue for the residents of
the newly renovated
Jewish Quarter. It was of-
ficially opened on
Jerusalem Day 5736
(1976).
Now a new difficulty
arose — a seating crisis.
The architects wanted
the carved wooden
benches to stand around
the walls, all facing the
central bima the reader's
platform — Sepha„rdi
fashion, as was no doubt
the original plan.
The worshippers com-
plained that this would
severely limit the seating
capacity of the stall.
Furthermore,
most
wanted the usual
AshkenaZi seating ar-
rangement, that is rows of
chairs or benches facing
the Ark of the Law. The
majority view of the con-
gregation prevailed.
Today, those who are
privileged to pray in the
beautifully reconstructed
synagogue feel a strange
emotion, when they look'
up at the ancient arched

!! WHY WORRY !!

roof or touch the round,
pockmarked pillars that
were buried so - long un-
derground.
Even cool, nonob-
servant sabras are af-
fected by the weight of
history and tradition
which the building pro-
jects. As Dan Tannai
wrote in an article re-
cently:
"When an Israeli ar-
chitect renovates an an-
cient synagogue, he
realizes that the chain
has not yet been broken,
and that he acts as an ad-
ditional link in that chain
connecting the genera-
tions."

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