The first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Jewish quarter in Jerusalem is the Western Wall, but there are many sites to visit in the Jewish quarter.
They tell the story of Jerusalem from the time of the Second Temple right up to the present.
Tour of the Jewish quarter in Jerusalem – main sites
- The Western Wall Tunnels
- The Burnt House
- The Hurva Synagogue (see video)
- The Karaite Synagogue (see video)
- The Davidson Center
- The Cardo
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The Jewish quarter tour (taken from my Jerusalem app)
Jewish tour – The Western Wall Tunnels
Today we can only see one seventh of the Western Wall. Most of it actually lies beneath the Muslim quarter.
On the tour you get to see the foundation stones of the Western Wall and understand just how massive the Temple Mount building project really was.
To join the tours you need to register in advance. If you take the classic tour, you will finish in the Muslim quarter, not far from where the Via Dolorosa starts.
The bridge tour finish where this tour starts, at the Western Wall plaza.
Register for a tour here.
The Burnt House
The Jewish quarter looks very new.
The reason for this is that the Jordanians destroyed the Jewish quarter after conquering it in the War of Independence (1948).
In 1967, in the Six-Day War, Israel liberated the Old City and Israeli archaeologists excavated the quarter before rebuilding work began.
One of their findings was the Burnt House, also known as Katros House, which was formerly the home of a wealthy priestly family.
This makes sense as back then, 2,000 years ago, the area we now call the Jewish quarter was called the Upper City, and was the neighborhood of the rich.
The Jews rebelled twice against the Romans. The first time was during the Great Revolt, also known as the first Jewish-Roman War (67-74 CE).
During this revolt the Second Temple was destroyed. 60 years later, in the year 135 CE, the Jews rebelled again – this was the Bar Kokhba Revolt.
This time the Romans decided they had had enough of the Jews and Jewish life in Judea was entirely wiped out. To sever the connection between the Jews and Judea and Jerusalem, the Romans changed the name of Judea to Palestina and the name of Jerusalem to Aelia Capitolina.
Jerusalem was built as a Roman city. All Roman cities would have a cardo, the main street in the city, and this is what we see here.
The street is 21 meters wide. It is interesting to think that although the city has been destroyed and rebuilt many times, and the street level today is a few meters higher than it was back then, the width of the three contemporary markets is… 21 meters.
The Ramban Synagogue
The Ramban, also known as Nachmanides, was a leading Sephardic rabbi. He is not to be confused with HaRambam, also known as Maimonides.
The Ramban came to the land of Israel in 1267; he actually immigrated to Israel because of the Disputation of Barcelona.
The Disputation of Barcelona was a debate initiated by the king of Aragon, Spain, that pitched Christianity against Judaism. The main questions were:
* whether the Messiah had appeared or not
* whether, according to Scripture, the Messiah was a divine or a human being
* and who held the true faith: Jews or Christians?
The Ramban represented the Jews while a Jew who had converted to Christianity represented the Christians.
The Ramban said that the prophets had never claimed that the Messiah had a divine nature and that the Messiah hadn’t yet appeared as he would not come until there was no more injustice in the world.
The fact that there was still so much injustice was a sign that the Messiah had not arrived yet.
The king was very impressed by the Ramban and said that he had never before heard “an unjust cause so nobly defended”.
He gave the Ramban 30 gold coins and visited the biggest synagogue in Barcelona.
This was a very unusual step for a medieval king.
The Dominicans, the Christians, claimed that they had won the debate and so the Ramban wrote a book about the case and about his private discussions with the king. The Dominicans argued that the Ramban had written against Jesus and demanded that he leave Spain.
The king was against it but the Pope was on their side so the Ramban had to leave.
He traveled to Jerusalem. Here he found only a handful of Jews and wrote that Jerusalem was very neglected.
Most historians think that the synagogue the Ramban established was on Mount Zion, 400 meters from here, but tradition dictates that it was here.
Ha Hurva Synagogue
Ha Hurva means the ruined synagogue. Why was it given this name?
The story of this synagogue starts in 1690 in Poland. A very charismatic, messianic rabbi called Yehuda Hachsid said that in order to summon the Messiah, Jews ought to come up to Israel and rebuild the land.
He gathered a group of 1500 believers and they started to make their way to the land of Israel.
Many died along the way, many quit, many new followers joined.
They arrived in Jerusalem, they bought the plot on which to build a synagogue from local Muslims and a few days after they arrived the rabbi died. His followers didn’t have the money to pay the Muslims what they owed and in 1721 the Muslims destroyed the place and didn’t allow Ashkenazi Jews to enter the city.
What did the Ashkenazi Jews do? They started to dress like the Mizrachi Jews so they could enter the city.
Anyway, in the 1860s the Jews paid off their debt and the second synagogue was built here. 80 years later it was destroyed in the War of Independence. Just 10 years ago it was rebuilt for the third time. From the time the synagogue was first built in 1700 until today it has stood for about 130 years and been a ruin for 290 years.
So the name fits.
The Karaite Synagogue, which is the oldest synagogue in the Old City is, in my opinion, the most interesting one for travelers.
I think that tour guides have a tendency to talk a lot about history and archaeology, but travelers often ask about what they see, about the people. Like, why do Jews rock while praying? Why do the women wear wigs? Why do Jews put stones on graves? And so on.
And very often the answer is tradition. It is not written in the Bible.
And by the way, that doesn’t only go for Jewish traditions; it’s the same with Christian practices. Why do Christians go to church on Sundays? Jesus didn’t move the holy day from Saturday to Sunday. Jesus never said that he was starting a new religion.
In Judaism, as in Christianity and all other religions, things evolve with time. I am talking about it now because here stands the synagogue of the Karaites.
Today it is a very small group in the Jewish world but it used to be much bigger.
They claim that they used to make up 40% of the Jewish people.
They argue that most Jews follow the rabbis much more than the Bible itself, calling us Rabbinic Jews and calling themselves Karaites from the word “Mikra”, which is another word for the written Jewish Bible.
And this is where it gets interesting.
What is the Bible?
In the narrowest definition, it is a library of books. There are books like Genesis which are found in all bibles but there are also books that you will find in some Christian bibles and not in the Jewish bible, like the Book of the Maccabees.
Within the Jews today there is only one written bible but there is also the oral bible.
The oral bible contains many books, the most well-known being the Mishna, which was compiled in the 3rd century, and the Talmud, which was compiled in the 5th century.
The Karaite movement doesn’t recognize the oral bible as part of the bible. This is not only a theological debate, it affects every aspect of Jewish life and, in my personal opinion, shows how far Rabbinic Judaism has departed from the written bible.
Take, for example, the Jewish new year. In the bible it was celebrated in the springtime, whereas Rabbinic Judaism, which is the mainstream Judaism, celebrated it in the fall.
The Karaites don’t celebrate Hanukkah, as it is not mentioned in the bible. Moreover, they say that it shouldn’t be celebrated because the temple was destroyed.
How many women are Jews allowed to marry according to the bible? Many kings had more than one wife, and some even more than 10… it wasn’t until the 11th century that Rabainu Gershom ruled against polygamy.
Because Judaism is a religion based on religious laws, there are hundreds of examples of disputes between the Karaite Jews and the Rabbinic Jews.
I find it fascinating that once you come to Jerusalem, it doesn’t matter if you are Jewish or Christian. You get to see and hear about other ideas from different denominations.
Tour of the Old City of Jerusalem
Most of the information in this post is taken from my app – Jerusalem with Oren.
In my app you will find 4 tours: the Old City, the City of David, the ramparts tour and the Yad VaShem and Mount Herzl tour.
As you follow the tour, you can see where you are on the map, where the next stop is, and you can watch a video in which I explain the significance of what you can see.
On top of that, I have added all my recommendations for restaurants, special shops, places to change money and other tips that will make your Jerusalem experience even better.