The Hurva Synagogue also known as Hurvat Rabbi Yehudah he-Hasid is a historic synagogue located in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. It was originally founded in the early 18th century by followers of Judah HeHasid on the ruins of a 15th-century synagogue and adjacent to the 14th century Sidna Omar mosque. But was destroyed a few years later in 1721 by Ottoman authorities, for the failure of its proprietors to pay back a debt to local Muslims.
The plot became known as “The Ruin”, or Hurva, where it lay desolate for 116 years until it was resettled in 1837 by members of the Ashkenazi Jewish community, known as the Perushim. In 1864, the Perushim rebuilt the synagogue, and although officially named the Beit Yaakov Synagogue, it retained its name as the Hurva. It became Jerusalem’s main Ashkenazi synagogue until it too was destroyed by the Arab Legion during the fighting in the 1948 Arab–Israeli War.
After Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967, a number of plans were submitted for the design of a new building. After years of deliberation and indecision, a commemorative arch was erected instead at the site in 1977, itself becoming a prominent landmark of the Jewish Quarter. The plan to rebuild the synagogue in its 19th-century style received approval by the Israeli Government in 2000, and the newly rebuilt synagogue was dedicated on March 15, 2010.
The Hurva Synagogue Early History
The Hurva Synagogue today stands off a plaza in the center of Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter, adjacent to the 14th century Sidna Omar mosque. Excavations carried out at the site revealed evidence from four main settlement periods: First Temple (800–600 BCE); Second Temple (100 CE); Byzantine and Ottoman. Three bedrock-hewn mikvehs (Jewish ritual baths) were uncovered there dating from the 1st century.
In the winter of 1700, a group of around 500 Ashkenazim led by Judah HeHasid arrived from Poland. They were mystics who were intent on advancing the arrival of the Messianic Era by settling in Jerusalem and leading ascetic lives. A few days after their arrival in the city, heHasid died, and without a leader, their messianic hopes dissipated and the community began to disintegrate.
Those who remained managed to build forty dwellings and a small synagogue in the Ashkenazic Compound. Soon after, they endeavored to construct a larger synagogue, but the task proved expensive. They found themselves having to bribe the Ottoman authorities in order to enable them to proceed with their building project.
Unexpected costs relating to the construction, financial hardships, and the burden of various other taxes drained their funds. They became impoverished and were forced to take loans from local Arabs, eventually falling into severe debt. Pressure and threats from the creditors led to a rabbinical emissary being sent abroad to solicit funds for repayment of the loans.
In late 1720, with the debts still outstanding, the Arab lenders lost patience and set the synagogue and its contents alight. The leaders of the community were imprisoned and shortly after, not only this group but all other Ashkenazim were banished from the city, and interdiction that remained until the statute of limitations on the synagogue loans expired roughly a century later. Over the course of time, shops were built in the courtyard and the synagogue was left desolate, in a pile of rubble. It thus became known as the “Ruin (Hurva) of Rabbi Judah heHasid”.
Hurva Synagogue: The Perushim: 1812–1837
By the winter of 1700, the followers of Rabbi Judah he-Hasid had purchased the courtyard of the ruined synagogue, Hurva, which again lay in ruins in 1721. Between 1808 and 1812 another group of ascetic Jews, known as Perushim, immigrated to Palestine from Lithuania.
They were disciples of the Vilna Gaon and had settled in the city of Safed to the north. Some had wished to settle in Jerusalem and reclaim the Ashkenazic Compound. They were worried, however, that descendants of the Arab creditors still held the old promissory notes relating to the century-old debts incurred by he-Hasid’s followers and that a new group of Ashkenazic immigrants would possibly inherit responsibility for repayment.
The descendants of a group of Hasidim who made aliyah in 1777 also presented a problem. They apparently objected to any effort by the Perushim to take control of the synagogue ruin, claiming it had never belonged to the Perushim or their ancestors. The Hasidim claimed they had closer ties with the original owners and that their rights to the parcel of land were greater.
Nevertheless, in late 1815, the leader of the Safed Perushim, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov, arrived in Jerusalem with a group of followers. They directed their main efforts to rebuild he-Hasid’s synagogue, which had symbolized the expulsion of the Ashkenazim from Jerusalem.
By this, they intended to demonstrate the re-establishment of Ashkenazic presence in the city. Rebuilding one of Jerusalem’s ruins would also have symbolic kabbalistic significance. The “repairing” of earlier destruction would represent the first step of rebuilding the entire city, a prerequisite for the arrival of the Messiah.
In 1819, their efforts were realized and the century-old debts were canceled. The group acquired a legal document delineating the entire site acquired by he-Hasid in 1700. The area now included dilapidated dwellings and shops built by the creditors’ heirs on part of the site. Next, they had to secure another firman that would permit construction at the site, including the building of a large synagogue. Two successive missions in 1820 and 1821 to obtain the firman from the sultan’s court failed.
Egypt Gives Ambiguous Consent
With the annexation of Jerusalem by Egypt in 1831, a new opportunity arose for the Perushim. They petitioned Muhammad Ali regarding the rebuilding of the synagogue, but concerns about deviating from longstanding Muslim tradition and the Pact of Umar (which restricted the repair or construction of non-Muslim houses of worship) meant permission was not forthcoming.
However, five months after the earthquake of May 1834, the prohibition was relaxed and the Sephardim were allowed to carry out repair works to their existing synagogues. This consent gave rise to further efforts by the Ashkenazim to receive authorization to rebuild theirs.
A Little About the Structure and Design
The Hurva Synagogue was designed and constructed under the supervision of Assad Effendi, the sultan’s official architect. Built-in Byzantine Revival style, it was supported by four massive pilasters at each corner over which soared a large dome. The construction of only one of these towers was completed. The other three were missing the upper level and the small dome that capped it.
The facade was covered in finely hewn stone and incorporated high window arches. The height of the synagogue to the bottom of its dome was around and to the top of the dome, it was. Twelve windows were placed around the base of the dome, which was surrounded by a veranda, which offered a fine view of large parts of the Old City and the area around Jerusalem. Being one of the tallest structures in the Old City, it was visible for miles.
The Hurva Synagogue Interior
The Torah ark had the capacity to house 50 Torah scrolls and was built on two levels. It was flanked by four Corinthian columns surrounded by baroque woodcuts depicting flowers and birds. The Ark, together with its ornamental gates, were taken from the Nikolayevsky Synagogue in Kherson, Russia, which had been used by Russian Jewish conscripts forced to spend twenty-five years in the Imperial Russian Army. Directly above the Ark was a triangular window with rounded points. To the right and in front of the ark was the cantor’s podium, which was designed as a miniature version of the two-level Ark.
The center of the synagogue originally contained a high wooden bimah, but this was later replaced with a flat platform covered with expensive marble plates.
Numerous crystal chandeliers hung from the dome. The dome itself was painted sky-blue and strewn with golden stars. Frescoes with religious motifs, such as stars of David, the menorah, Mount Sinai, and the Ten Commandments, adorned every wall. In the four corners were drawings of four animals in accordance with the statement in Pirkei Avot: “Be strong as the leopard and swift as the eagle, fleet as the deer and brave as the lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven.”
One of the most generous donations came from Pinchas Rosenberg, the Imperial Court tailor of Saint Petersburg. In the diary of Rabbi Chaim ha-Levy, the emissary who had been sent from Jerusalem to collect funds for the synagogue, Rosenberg set out in detail what his money was intended for.
Among the items that were bought with his money were two big bronze candelabras; a silver menorah that “arrived miraculously on the 1st Tevet  precisely in time to light the last eight Hanukah candles” and an iron door made under the holy ark for safe-keeping of the candlestick.
He also earmarked funds towards the building of an “artistically wrought iron fence around the roof under the upper windows so that there be a veranda on which may stand all our brethren who go up in pilgrimage to behold our desolate Temple, and also a partition for the womenfolk on the Feast of Tabernacles and Simchat Torah”
Hurva Synagogue: Golden Years: 1864–1948
From 1864 onwards, the Hurva Synagogue was considered the most beautiful and most important synagogue in the Land of Israel. It was described as “the glory of the Old City” and the “most striking edifice in all of Palestine”. It also housed part of the Etz Chaim Yeshiva, the largest yeshiva in Jerusalem. It was a focal point of Jewish spiritual life in the city and was the site of the installation of the Ashkenazic chief rabbis of both Palestine and Jerusalem. On his visit to Jerusalem in 1866, Moses Montefiore went to the synagogue, placing a silver breastplate on one of the Torah scrolls. When he visited again in 1875, a crowd of 3,000 Jews turned out to greet him.
Destruction During the 1948 Arab–Israeli War
On May 25, 1948, during the battle for the Old City, commander of the Jordanian Arab Legion, Major Abdullah el-Tell, wrote to Otto Lehner of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to warn that unless the Haganah abandoned its positions in the synagogue and its adjoining courtyard, he would be forced to attack it.
Moshe Russnak, commander of the Haganah in the Old City, ignored his request, knowing that if the Hurva fell, the battle for the Jewish Quarter would soon be lost. On May 26, 1948, the Jordanian Arab Legion delivered an ultimatum to the Jews to surrender within 12 hours; otherwise, the Hurva would be bombarded.
On May 27, el-Tell, after receiving no answer to his proposition, told his men to “Get the Hurva Synagogue by noon.” Fawzi el-Kutub executed the mission by placing a 200-liter barrel filled with explosives against the synagogue wall. The explosion resulted in a gaping hole and Haganah fighters spent forty-five minutes fighting in vain to prevent the Legionnaires from entering. When they finally burst through, they tried to reach the top of its dome to plant an Arab flag. Three were shot by snipers, but the fourth succeeded.
The Arab flag flying over the Old City skyline signaled the Legion’s triumph. Photographs show that the dome of the synagogue was badly damaged during the fighting. After taking the synagogue, the Arab Legion blew up what remained. A huge explosion reduced the 84-year-old synagogue, together with the Etz Chaim Yeshiva attached to it, to rubble. The Jewish defenders of the Old City surrendered the following day.