The History of the Hurva Synagogue - Part I
You may or may not be surprised, but we’re about to run into the Vilna Gaon once again.
The Hurva Synagogue -Jerusalem
There is a beautiful, white-domed synagogue currently standing in the midst of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. What is now known as The Hurva (or the Ruin) synagogue has quite a history. And, in many ways, its modern history begins with that aged Talmudic scholar from Lithuania … the Vilna Gaon.
The earliest tradition regarding the site is of a synagogue existing there at the time of the second-century sage Judah the Prince. By the 13th century, the area had become a courtyard known locally as the Ashkenazi compound. In 1488, a local historian described a large courtyard containing many houses for exclusive use of the Ashkenazim, adjacent to a "synagogue built on pillars", referring to the Ramban Synagogue.
In the winter of 1700, Rabbi Judah heHasid and his fifteen hundred followers spent three years trekking from Poland to Jerusalem, in the conviction that their move would hasten the coming of the Messiah. Only three hundred survived the journey and their spiritual leader succumbed to water-poisoning within a week of arrival. Those who remained managed to build forty dwellings and a small synagogue in the compound and they soon endeavored to construct a larger synagogue.
Over twenty years, because of necessary bribes to the Ottoman authorities, unexpected costs of the construction and loans they were forced to take at exorbitant rates of interest from local Arabs, these Ashkenazim Jews found themselves impoverished. When it became obvious that the group could not keep up with the payments, in 1721 the Arabs burned down the synagogue and expelled the whole Ashkenazi community from Jerusalem. 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 of Rabbi Judah heHasid" or, simply, the Ruin.
The Hurva Synagogue - Circa 1948
More than one hundred years later, at the end of the 18th century, our old friend, the Vilna Gaon, who was the foremost leader of all Ashkenazi Jews, and an opponent of the Hasidic movement, instructed his disciples to return to Palestine and restore the synagogue.
The Vilna Gaon's disciples left Lithuania and arrived in Jerusalem in the early 19th century and first settled in Safed, north of Jerusalem. They spent many years in the effort to redeem the “Ashkenazi Courtyard” and the ruins of the half-built synagogue. Finally, after meetings with the Ottoman sultan and repaying the debt with the help of Jewish donors from around the world, in 1855 the Vilna Gaon's disciples began construction of a synagogue – a Turkish-style domed structure – in the Ashkenazi Courtyard of Jerusalem. The Ottoman sultan’s own architect, Assad Effendi, conceived an audacious project that dominated the skyline at a time when non-Muslim houses of prayer were to show deference to mosques. When it was completed in 1864, the new Hurva synagogue was the tallest of the fifty-eight synagogues in the Jewish Quarter and soon a symbol and most prominent building in the Quarter.
But it survived less than one hundred years, the blink of an eye in the ancient streets of the Jewish Quarter.