The Old City of Jerusalem, the place where G-d’s Presence has never left, was blessed in the past with synagogues and study halls headed by the generation’s greatest sages and kabbalists. Although it seemed that in recent years, the Old City and the Jewish Quarter were gradually turning into a tourism site, and some of those illustrious yeshivahs and synagogues were closed during the week and the sound of Torah and prayer had faded, it turns out that a real spiritual revolution has taken place in the past year. About a thousand Torah scholars are diligently studying Talmud and filling the halls of yeshivas, synagogues and houses of study inside the Old City.
We toured the streets and alleyways of the Jewish Quarter, and we saw with our own eyes how the place has again come to life. The sound of Torah study is again rebounding inside of yeshivas, and study halls have regained their former glory.
The First and Second Temple Era: the City of G-d
During the era of the two Jewish Temples, ancient Jerusalem was blessed with glorious luminaries who added to its dignity and sanctity and brought splendor and grace to the streets of Old Jerusalem. During this period, most of these were priests, high priests and Levites.
A few centuries ago, the great figures of the city were famous kabbalists, such as the holy Ohr Hachaim, Rabbi Gedaliah Chiyun, the Rashash and others who founded yeshivas and studied the esoteric parts of the Torah day and night. These individuals were so lofty and spiritual that they didn’t seem to belong on earth, and were more appropriate to dwelling in heaven. When they passed through the streets dressed in their white robes and crowned with shiny white turbans, people froze in their places and were awed at the angels appearing before them. They were the last kabbalists from the “Beit El” study hall. A casual encounter with one of these holy kabbalists was enough to engrave their picture in people's hearts.
Yeshivat Porat Yosef: A fount of Sephardi Torah
In 1922, 93 years ago, with the establishment of the Porat Yosef yeshiva between the walls of the Old City to preserve the Torah knowledge of Sephardic Jewry, Jerusalem merited to host tremendous righteous individuals who studied Torah inside the holy yeshiva day and night. In those days, sages of the highest caliber studied and taught in Yeshivat Porat Yosef: The one who established and led this premier place of Torah study in the glorious Sephardi community, the chief of all rabbis, was the great Rabbi Ezra Attia of blessed memory. The other yeshiva rabbis included the distinguished: Rabbi Eliyahu Lopez, Rabbi Yosef Shalosh, Rabbi Moshe Ades, Rabbi Yaakov Ades, Rabbi Yehuda Tzadka, all of blessed memory, and this is just a partial list.
Alongside the holy yeshiva, in one of its study rooms, the great Kabbalists of the Oz V’hadar kabbalistic yeshiva studied, led by the great Rabbi Ephraim Cohen o.b.m. This holy group included world famous kabbalists such as Rabbi Yitzchak Kadoori, Rabbi Salman Eliyahu, Rabbi Ben Tzion Chazan, Rabbi Yehoshua Sharbani, Rabbi Avraham Harari Raful all of blessed memory, and many more.
As mentioned above, the greatest Sephardic Torah scholars of the previous time studied at Porat Yosef yeshiva between the walls. The most famous among them was Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Rabbi Ben Tzion Abba Shaul, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, Rabbi Shabtai Atun, Rabbi Baruch ben Chaim, Rabbi Yosef Ades, Rabbi Zion Levy, Rabbi Yehuda Mualem, all of blessed memory, and many more.
The yeshiva building
Among the younger generation of scholars was Rabbi Hacham Shalom Cohen, the president of the Council of Torah Sages and head of the Porat Yosef Yeshiva in the Old City, and a long list of top students, some of whom became famous over the years as Torah sages, yeshiva heads, rabbinical judges and municipal rabbis.
When the yeshiva was founded, a writer of that period wrote: “Near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, is a spacious lot. They relate that on these rocks, David, the king of Israel, used to pass on his way to the House of G-d after his wondrous violin woke him up at midnight …
“When you come to the place, the open windows opposite you lets out a ruffled singsong. This song was perhaps created far away in the mists of history — in Nehardea, Pumbedita, and Cordoba. According to an ancient tradition, the Two Tablets of the Ten Commandments are hidden away around here. And you feel that when this great House of Torah was established, is was as if the Tablets were pulled from the abyss and returned to Israel … “
Beth-El: the Kabbalist yeshiva and the ancient shofar
The Sephardic synagogues in the Jewish Quarter are among the oldest in the Jewish Quarter. One compound contains four Sephardic synagogues named after Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai.
The most famous one is called the “Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai synagogue.” Tradition has it that in this place stood Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s house of study. It is well known that in this synagogue, the coronation of all the rabbis who were bore the title “Rishon Lezion” [the Sephardic chief rabbi] was held, except during the nineteen years from the War of Independence in 1948 until 1967, when the Old City of Jerusalem was held by Jordan.
If we look at the top center window, which is on the right (southern) wall, we will see a glass shelf on which are laying a shofar and a jug of oil. There is a tradition handed down from generation to generation by the Sephardi elders, that a shofar and oil jug remained here from the time of the Second Temple almost 2,000 years ago, and G-d forbid whoever will move them or touch them will die within a year … According to that tradition, they will anoint Moshiach with this oil, and will announce his coming with the shofar …
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai Synagogue
Unfortunately, the original shofar and jug of oil were looted by the Arabs after the War of Independence, so today a different shofar and jug of oil are in their place.
This synagogue once had many worshipers, and it was filled with Torah study.
The synagogue next to the Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai synagogue is called the “Prophet Elijah synagogue.” The Spanish refugees who settled in Jerusalem within the walls, saw that the local community did not have a synagogue, and that the Jews of Jerusalem would pray in private homes. Do not be surprised at their shabby situation then, it was the same when the Ramban arrived in Jerusalem eight hundred years ago. He testified that the Old City of Jerusalem appeared neglected, and that he found only two Jewish dyers living there, and the other Jews lived near Mount Zion.
The Spanish refugees founded and established this synagogue which they called “Elijah the Prophet”. Tradition has it that it acquired its name because of a miracle. One year on Yom Kippur, the community could not put together a minyan, and in their distress, they started looking all over for a tenth man to make the quorum. Suddenly, a dignified looking man who they did not know suddenly appeared and prayed all the Yom Kippur prayers with them. At the end of the day, everyone wanted to invite him to their homes to break the fast, but he suddenly disappeared. Everyone realized it was Elijah, so the synagogue was called “Elijah the Prophet” after him.
Alongside these synagogues is another synagogue called the “Istanbuli” synagogue which was founded in 1793 by immigrants from Istanbul. In the space between them another synagogue was built, which was called the “middle synagogue.’ It is today closed.
During our tour of Jerusalem between the walls, we came across the famous Beth-El synagogue and yeshiva founded by the kabbalist Rabbi Gedaliah Chiyun. The leadership of the yeshiva afterwards passed on to the holy Rashash. This synagogue was founded in 1737, and the kabbalists prayed with kavanot and yichudim and studied esoteric kabbalah there. At midnight, they weepingly recited Tikkun Chatzot over the grief of the Divine Presence in exile, and afterwards spent the day meditating upon the Torah’s mystical teachings.
To this day Torah is being studied and prayers are being recited with special kavanot in the Beit El yeshiva. The sanctity at the place is palpable.
The Holy “Ohr Hachaim”: Eleven Months of Prayer
Another yeshiva which existed in Jerusalem between the walls was the Knesset Israel yeshiva founded by the holy Ohr Hachaim — Rabbi Chaim ben Attar, in 1742. Rabbi Ben Attar unfortunately did not get to spend much time in his yeshiva, and after eleven months, on 15 Tammuz 1743, he returned his soul to his Creator, and was buried on the Mount of Olives. In his yeshiva, his students studied both the revealed and mystical aspects of the Torah, as the holy Ohr Hachaim had instructed them. He believed that studying Torah opposite the site of the Temple would hasten the redemption.
There were other synagogues and houses of study founded by our Ashkenazi brothers. The most famous one was the Churva synagogue which was first built in 1701 by Rabbi Yehudah Hachosid, and was restored (after it had been destroyed) five years ago in 2010. Other Ashkenazi synagogues included “Tiferet Israel”, “Ohel Yitzchak”, “HaRamban”, the Chayei Olam yeshiva and many others.
As mentioned above, when the Jordanian Arab Legion took over the Old City during the War of Independence, many of the fifty synagogues inside it were destroyed. But 19 years later, when Israel with the grace of G-d conquered the Old City in the Six Day War, the buildings where these Jewish sages had studied were restored. Unfortunately, in recent years the Old City and the Jewish Quarter gradually became a tourist site, and some of those majestic synagogues were turned into museums during the weekdays.
Awaken and shine: the Old City today
It brings joy to the heart to see the great revolution taking place in the Old City today. Synagogues and yeshivas are filled with hundreds of precious scholars, diligently studying the teachings of Abaya and Rava, and gradually most of the synagogues in the Old City between the walls have become houses of study.
The spiritual revolution which lifted aloft the voice of Torah and holiness between the walls of Jerusalem and opposite the site of the holy Sanctuary, was initiated by Rabbi Chizkiya Nevantsal, the son of Rabbi Avigdor Nevantsal, the chief rabbi of the Jewish Quarter.
He is the man who said, “How long will the city be humiliated and defiled without the voice of Torah ringing out?” He began to build the great Kingdom of Torah in Jerusalem’s Old City from the ground up, by founding a large Kollel [academy for married scholars] called Tzilo shel Heichal [“shadow of the Temple”].
It all began a few years ago, with several dozen individual scholars who studied in the Ramban synagogue. But the great transformation began a year ago when they received the blessing of rabbis and sages, headed by Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, and decided to expand the kollel to include about a thousand scholars.
They study in the bottom floor of the Porat Yosef yeshiva in the Old City which they rented from the yeshiva administration. About 700 scholars study, with another few hundred more scattered around the Jewish Quarter synagogues. Some of them are studying in the Ramban and Churva synagogues.
When we entered the gates of the Porat Yosef yeshiva, we went to the Tzilo shel Heichal kollel, and were astonished at the holy atmosphere. The 700 precious yeshiva students who come from all over Jerusalem, are studying Torah diligently.
For a moment we were reminded that 80 years ago, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef studied in this holy place. His heart ached at why this great and holy building had only about 70 students. Today his wishes and blessings have been fully realized. This building is pulsing life, Torah, holiness and piety. This is in addition to the 200 boys studying in the Porat Yosef Yeshiva, headed by Rabbi Hacham Shalom Cohen, the president of the Council of Torah Sages. In the upper floor, there is another yeshiva for youths who have come from abroad to study in the holy Jerusalem atmosphere.
What is special about the prominent Tzilo shel Heichal kollel is that the students are divided into groups. Some on them are studying typical yeshiva tractates, some of them are studying the Laws of Sacrifices [Kdoshim], some are studying Jewish law, and there is also a group who are studying blessings, Shabbat, niddah, mikvaot, etc. to prepare themselves for the rabbinate. There is a group studying Daf Yomi, and another group where each is studying whatever his heart desires. Everyone can choose the track he desires.
Rav Chaim Kanievsky visited the kollel and gave his blessing and encouragement. He said that the more that we increase holiness at this holy place to offset the defilement that exists in the Old City, the sooner G-d will hasten the redemption. Indeed, the scholars told us that the kollel’s administration is planning to increase soldiers for Torah and reach approximately two thousand scholars to fill all the synagogues and houses of study opposite the site of the Temple, and restore Jerusalem’s former glory.
We left the synagogue and study house compound of Jerusalem between the walls with a prayer in our mouth: in the merit of Jacob's voice being proudly raised in Torah study, may we merit to hear the voice of the Levites standing on their platform, the priests busy at their holy work, and all Jews coming to do their divine service. May G-d build His city of Jerusalem soon, Amen.