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The Ben-Zakai is the most significant of four Sephardic synagogues in the Old City. It is named after the Second Temple sage, who reportedly studied at this spot in his House of Learning. The other three are Rabbi Istanbuli, Eliyahu Hanavi, and Middle synagogues. These houses of worship were originally built in the early 16th century, and were reconstructed after 1967 Six-Day War.

 





















 

Ramban Synagogue

Shake the dust from yourself; arise and sit, O Jerusalem. ISAIAH (52:2)

The Ramban Synagogue is one of the oldest and well known synagogues in Jerusalem. It was named after its founder, Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman, who is also as know by his two other names Nahmanides and Ramban. He was born in Gerona, Spain in 1195 where he lived and practiced as a prominent physician until the age of 72. He was even more famous for his knowledge of the Talmud and Kabala. His biblical commentaries are widely used to this day by the rabbis and religious students.

It was Ramban's religious works and his popularity within the Jewish community that attracted an unwanted attention of Spanish authorities during the period when anti-Jewish sentiment was forcing many Jews to convert to Christianity. He was summoned by King James of Aragon to participate in a public disputation (religious debate) against the Christian priest regarding the validity of Judaism and the definition of the Messiah.

Nachmanides won the debate and was given a prize of 300 gold coins by the King, who remarked, "I've never seen a man defend a wrong cause so well." Despite the King's assurance that no harm will come to him, the Church ordered an elderly rabbi to be tried for blasphemy.

He has elected to leave Spain for Palestine and arrived at the port of Acco in 1267. Soon thereafter he found his way to Jerusalem.

Jerusalem at the time of Ramban's arrival was a desolate city in ruins. Since Salladin defeated the Crusaders in 1187, over the next 50 years the holy city changed hands several more times, from the Tatars to Mongols and to Mamelukes. The invaders for the most part only looted the city without adding anything to its revival.

Ramban Synagogue, Jerusalem

    Ramban Synagogue, Jerusalem by Ido Winter. Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication  

Once vibrant Jewish community was degraded to a just handful of inhabitants who could not even master a ten man minyan mandatory for the Jewish prayers. Ramban almost immediately embarked on the ambitious plan to revive the Jewish presence in the holy city. The fact that he was looking at the total devastation gave him a great hope for the future which Ramban expressed in the following commentery.

"Whatever is more holy is more ruined" Nachmanides noted. He also was convinced that that since all invaders were not able to stick around for a duration, they were "rejected" like a foreign body, it was a sign from God that the land was waiting for the return of it's rightful owners, the Jews.

"For since the time we left it (the holy land), it has not accepted any nation or people, and they all try to settle it, but to no avail".

Ramban had to deal with Mamluke authorities in order to get started with the rebuilding process. Mamelukes were the slave soldiers who in 1250 overthrew the Ayyubid dynasty and established the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt which ruled over Jerusalem until 1517.

They did not appreciate the full significance of Jerusalem and did not even bother to rebuild the city fortifications destroyed by previous invaders. For the most part Mamluks treated Jerusalem as a stepchild and a place where the demoted dignitaries had a misfortune to serve.

For Ramban the first priority was to build a synagogue, a necessity for creating a healthy Jewish community. A synagogue offers a place for prayer and communal gatherings, but most importantly creates a sense of belonging.

Nachmanides found a house on the Mount Zion that still had remnants of the pillars and marble arches. The synagogue was build in the record time and ancient Torah scrolls, hidden from the Mongols in the city of Shechem, were brought back to Jerusalem. Soon thereafter Ramban led the First Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) services in the new synagogue.

Ramban also established a new yeshiva which immediately attracted many students eager to learn from renowned teacher and Talmudist. As Jewish life under Ramban's leadership gradually improved it reflected in the increased number of Jews making aliyah (immigration of Jews from the diaspora to the Eretz Israel).

He had expressed a strong conviction that the Holy Temple should be venerated as it was never destroyed: "Although the Temple is today in ruins because of our transgressions, a person is obligated to regard it with awe, even as he would have when it was standing."

Nachmanides proved to be a great recruiter as well. Whenever possible he preached that aliyah to the holy land and to Jerusalem in particular was an obligation of every Jew of every generation so they can revive the Zion before the arrival of Messiah. One could say that he was way ahead of his time as a first religious Zionist.

With great sadness he often decried the separation from his beloved wive and children, which he expressed in the following comments: "I left my family, I forsook my home my sons and daughters. I left my soul with the sweet and dear children whom i've brought up on my knee. But the loss of all else is compensated for by the joy of a day in thy courts, o Jerusalem. I wept bitterly, but I found a joy in my tears." Jerusalem and it's Jewish community have become his new family.

According to the historical accounts Raman passed away around the year of 1270. The site of his burial is a subject to speculation. Some believe that he was buried in Acre where he supposedly spend the last couple of years of his life. Others speculate that his tomb is ether in the Israeli city of Haifa or even Jerusalem.

 At the end of the day it's the legacy Ramban left behind that counts. Over his lifetime he produced over fifty works with commentaries regarding Talmud, Halakha and the Torah. His writings are relevant to this day while the importance of his actions in laying the foundation for the continuity of the Jewish presence in Jerusalem was critical. The symbol of one synagogue in the rundown city gave the Jews presence and relevance for the next 700 years.

In 1474 the portion of the synagogue has collapsed after a severe rainstorm . Muslims tried to claim the site, but Jews took their right of possession case all the way to Cairo, where Mamluk Sultan Qaitbay ruled in their favor and allowed the synagogue to be rebuilt. Angered by this ruling the Muslim mob disobeyed the Sultan's ruling and one night invaded the synagogue and completely demolished it. A year later, armed with proper paperwork Jews began the renovation work.

The synagogue continued to function for the next 115 years, but not without problems. During 1530s and 1540s the officials of the neighboring al-Umari mosque made several attempts to shut the Ramban synagogue down. The constant pressure finally prompted the city's Ottoman governor Abu Safrin to give in to anti-Jewish sentiment. In 1589 he ordered the synagogue closed and turned it into a warehouse soon after.

The financially strapped Jews did not have the means to fight the eviction or bribe the city officials. The only consolation was that they were permitted to keep their Sefer Torahs (scrolls) and pray in their own homes.

In 1835, the leaders of the Jewish community obtained a permission from the Ottoman authorities to open a synagogue in the neighboring to Ramban building. Eventually the new synagogue and Rumban synagogue were unified into a single unit and provided religious services to the local community until the early twentieth century, when it was again taken over by Muslims to be used as a storage facility.  

During the War of Indephendemce of 1948 Israeli forces were overwhelmed by oncoming Arab Legion army and withdrew from the East Jerusalem. All Jewish residents of the Old City were forced to leave and most of the ancient synagogues and historical sites with any relevance to the Jewish presence were either blown up buldosed.

On June 7, 1967 as a result of the Six-Day War, Israeli paratropers liberated East Jerusalem. For the first time in 19 years, the Old City was open to believers of all faiths and Jews could access their holy sites. Unfortunately most holy sites left behind by Arabs lay in ruins. It was not unlike what Nachmanidies encountered when he first stepped his foot in Jerusalem 700 years earlier.

During the years that followed the Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter was restored, Jewish communities were revived and many of the historic synagogues were rebuild from the scratch according to the old specifications. The Ramban synagogue today serves an Ashkenazy community of the Old City and is one it's main attractions.