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Stories from the Bubbe Maiser Book II

Updated on September 10, 2009

Abouhav Synagogue

The Abouhav Synagogue

Rabbi Yitzchak Abouhav was a great Talmudic scholar and Kabbalist in Toledo, Spain. He lived during the thirteenth century, when he authored Menorot Hamaor ("The Lights of the Candelabra"), a seven-volume Kabbalistic and legal text, only two volumes of which still exist today. Being a Kabbalist, he wished to perform every possible Mitzvah (divine commandment), including writing a Torah scroll. Most of us never fulfill that commandment even partially, though some might pay for the cost of a scribe to write one letter in a Torah scroll.

It takes an average scribe one to two years of full-time work to write a Torah scroll. He must read every letter in a text, then painstakingly copy it, letter by letter, word by word, using a quill pen dipped in a specially made ink. He writes these letters very precisely in ancient Hebrew script on specially prepared animal parchment.

Rabbi Abouhav decided to write a scroll, but it took him fifteen years of full-time work to write what a scribe today normally writes in a year or two. What took him so long?

The holy rabbi Abouhav went into a ritual bath (mikvah) seven times before he wrote any of the Almighty's Names. In other words, he went from where he was writing the scroll to the room in his house where he had a mikvah. He undressed and immersed himself twenty-six times in the mikvah. He then dressed and meditated on God's Name. He then undressed again, and immersed himself, then got dressed again. He completed this cycle seven times before he wrote the divine Name each time in his Torah scroll. God's Name is written thousands of times in a Torah scroll.

Having spent so many years writing this holy Torah, he wanted it to be housed in a special synagogue, built according to Kabbalistic design. The original synagogue built for that purpose was in Toledo.

The Inquisition

In 1391 some people in the Church instigated major riots against the Jews all over Spain, and forcibly baptized many Jews. After the riots the Pope "forgave the Jews" and allowed them to return to their way of life. Local priests though kept records of these "backsiders". A small number of Jews saw the writing on the wall and escaped from Spain to the land of Israel. Some of these Jews arrived in Tzfat and area.

In 1480, the Church initiated the Inquisition in Spain. Their goal was to root out heretics from true believers. Since many Jews had been forcibly baptized ninety years earlier, the local Church considered them, and all of their descendants, as Christians. Therefore, any such Jews who practiced any rituals of Judaism were considered heretics by the Church, and needed "remediation"—with the help of applied torture or death.

Queen Isabella insisted that she would only marry Ferdinand if he would expel all infidels (non-Christians) from their Kingdom. When Grenada fell in 1492, it was time for Ferdinand to fulfill his promises. In March, 1492, he issued the decree that anyone in Spain after a certain date in August (which turned out to be the annual day of national mourning for Jews--the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av) would be considered Christian. If such people practiced any Jewish rituals, they would be considered heretics and thereby fall to the inquisition. This cruel edict spelled the end of hundreds of years of Jewish habitation in Spain, known as the Golden Age of Spain. By that time, Jews were involved in all aspects of Spanish society. The royal treasurer and assistant to the king was even a famous rabbi, Don Isaac Abarbanel.

Spain had already been the center of Kabbalistic study for several hundred years. A major part of their study was how to bring the Messianic age sooner. One theory stated that when matters would become terrible for the Jews, the Almighty in his great mercy would bring the Messiah. Many believed that the horrific events of the Inquisition, when hundreds of thousands of Jews were tortured or killed, and when the remaining Jews were expelled, must portend the advent of the Messiah.

Rabbi Abouhav's Grandson

Rabbi Abouhav had a son, then a grandson. Each of them became the head rabbi of Toledo, Spain. The grandson, also named Rabbi Yitzchak Abouhav, was a student of Perez Colombo—a great scholar and Kabbalist. In 1480, Colombo saw the evil clouds gathering portenting bad days ahead for the Jews of Spain. He picked up and moved to Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) and then to the Holy City of Tzfat. The Jews who stayed behind managed to fool themselves and deny that terrible scenarios would await them, until 1492, when the expulsion began. At that time, Rabbi Abouhav's grandson decided to lead his community to the land of Israel. They forfeited almost all of their money, property, and worldly possessions, leaving with barely the clothes on their backs. Yet, they willingly left it all behind to save their lives and maintain their Jewishness. They arrived in Oporto, Portugal in 1493, and immediately tried to charter a boat to get to Israel. In the midst of the negotiations to hire vessels, Rabbi Abouhav II fell chronically ill. He called his students to his deathbed and insisted that his disciples swear to take the plans of the Toledo Synagogue with them to Tzfat, along with the special Torah that his grandfather had written. He instructed them to build a new synagogue in Tzfat that replicated the one in Spain, and put the Torah scroll there. He then passed away.

His students managed to find a boat and got to Tzfat. When they arrived late in 1493, they were thrilled to discover that there were already great Kabbalists and rabbis in the area, including Perez Colombo and Yosi Sargossi (whom some called the Tzaddik Lavan ("the White Righteous Man").  They immediately fulfilled their promise to Rabbi Abouhav and built a synagogue according to his plans. One legend states that when the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, the original synagogue miraculously flew to its present location in Tzfat.

The present synagogue, though, is not the original. The original one was almost completely destroyed in the tragic 1837 earthquake. Rabbi Yitzchak Guetta, who helped fund the rebuilding, researched the original plans and rebuilt the present structure as faithful as possible to the original.

The Kabbalistic Plans

According to Kabbalah, there are four elements--earth, air, fire and water—that make up all of existence. They are represented by the four pillars that support the central dome. Five crowns are painted on the upper part of the central dome. These allude to the four crowns mentioned in Ethics of the Fathers (4:13). It says that when the Jews received the Torah from God, they also received crowns: "There are three crowns: the crown of royalty, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of Torah. And the crown of a good name surpasses them all." The Kabbalists added a fifth crown, that of the Messiah.  The upper part of the wall supporting the dome has ten windows. The ten windows represent the Ten Commandments. The pictures and names of the Israelite tribes that appear above and between the windows represent the Jews' attachment to Divine law.

The Kabbalists were troubled by the apparent contradiction between God's infinite benevolence and the existence of evil, and man's ability to choose the latter. One way that Kabbalists resolved this was by invoking the concept of tzimtzum ("contraction"). This concept states that the Almighty contracted, as it were, part of Himself from part of the universe. It is up to man to approach God through this "space," which is divided into ten spiritual steps, also known as sefirot. Some say that the ten windows in the Abouhav synagogue represent these ten spiritual levels between man and God.

Below the windows are paintings of musical instruments played by the Levites during the Temple service. There is a picture of the Dome of the Rock on the southern wall of the dome. Why is it painted here? It is quite shocking to find a Moslem structure depicted in a synagogue! One explanation is written in Hebrew just below the picture. It states that the place where the Dome sits is the place of the holy Temple. Since we know what the Temple looked like, we would think that the painter would have depicted a faithful representation of the Temple instead of the Moslem Dome. He didn't because even though Jerusalem looks very beautiful today, people don't realize that all is not spiritually well. Despite the beautiful esthetics of Jerusalem, we still pray three times a day that the Almighty rebuild Jerusalem. When we are about to say those blessings, we should look up, see that picture, and feel as if someone is rubbing salt in our wounds. It should motivate us to pray and work harder to bring the Messiah and rebuild the spiritually devastated Jerusalem that is still in ruins.

The Courtyard

This synagogue is modeled after that of the Temple that was once in Jerusalem. Just as that Temple had an outer gate and a courtyard, in which one contemplated coming closer to the Creator as one walked toward the Holy, so does the Abouhav Synagogue.  Jewish law says that any place of prayer should always have an antechamber or courtyard before the chapel. This encourages us to focus on what we are about to do and with Whom we are about to commune.  As you enter through the gate into the courtyard, there are piles of stones and architectural pieces on the right side. In Israel, any structure that dates from before a certain time falls under the law of antiquities, and one is forbidden to alter it in any way without approval from a horde of government bureaucracies. The Abouhav Synagogue is the most active Sephardic community in the Old City of Tzfat. Not long ago, they decided that they wanted to refurbish it. Government regulators required them to re-use all of the old stones that they wanted to replace, which of course, defeated the entire purpose of improving the synagogue. A compromise was reached—the building used mostly new stones, while the old stones were organized as a little museum in the courtyard.

Three Arks

Normally, a synagogue has only one ark which contains all of its Torah scrolls. This synagogue has three arks. The ark on the left has chairs in front of it, and is currently used as a storage area for worn-out, holy Jewish writings and books (genizah). The middle ark contains a number of Torah scrolls from North Africa and several from Asia. These are read whenever the Torah is read in the synagogue. Part of the wall containing the arks has, remarkably, withstood two earthquakes. That is where the ark on the right side is. It contains one of the oldest Torah scrolls in the world, written by Rabbi Yitzchak Abouhav. It is taken out and read only three times a year—on Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year), Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and Shavuot (the anniversary of the giving of the Torah).

There is a Sefardic custom, mentioned by Maimonides, that when the lesson from the book of Prophets (haftarah) is read after the Torah portion , it should be read from a parchment, not from a book. It needs to be housed in a place that is separate from the ark for the Torahs, since the Prophetic writings have less sanctity than the Five Books of Moses. That is why this, and some other synagogues, have two arks.

When the Turks ruled Israel, only Moslems could be full citizens. The Koran requires that Jews and Christians be viewed as dhimmies, or second-class citizens. As such, Jews were persecuted and subjected to arbitrary and cruel laws. A ridiculous legend states that the Turks required every synagogue to have a copy of the Koran in a place of honor. Some tour guides erroneously teach that this ark was originally built to house such a Koran.

Reading the Abouhav's Torah Scroll

A Torah scroll is normally read in the synagogue on Monday and Thursday mornings, as well as on Saturday mornings and afternoons. The two weekday readings were instituted by Ezra the Scribe so that Jews would never go more than three days without hearing words of Torah. Mondays and Thursdays used to be market days; hence, many Jews would hear the Torah read publicly then.

When the Abouhav's disciples first arrived in Tzfat, his Torah scroll was read four times a week, as is customary. One day, the Torah reader was in the middle of reading when he came across a word that ended in the Hebrew letters gimel, daled, heh. Instead of reading the letter as a gimel and as part of a word, he read it nun daled heh. This spells the Hebrew word nidah, meaning ritual impurity. A Torah reader must read every word perfectly, and every letter must be perfectly written. A Torah scroll with an error is disqualified from being read. The congregation usually listens intently to the reading, and when a mistake is made, they usually call out the correction. This is exactly what happened with the Abouhav congregation when the reader mispronounced the word. The reader went back and reread the verse, and again misread the word as nidah. Again the congregation called out. The reader misread the word a third time. The rabbi, who sat in the front of the synagogue to the side of the ark, had been quite calm. Now, he became distraught, thinking that there was something wrong with the Torah scroll. He was devastated beyond words as he contemplated what this now-invalid Torah meant. The only intact item in the possesion of the comunity from 500 golden years of the Jews in Spain was this Torah scroll. The Abouhav who had written it was no longer. His grandson had passed away. The community had been fragmented and was in exile. Their creations had been destroyed. The only thing that had been left intact was this Torah scroll, in which Rabbi Abouhav had invested his heart and soul. And now, it was up to the rabbi of the synagogue to declare that the Torah scroll would no longer be a living, complete reminder for them of their past. Even this was broken and no longer whole. He was heart-broken. Nevertheless, it was his responsibility to go up on the Torah platform, confirm the blemish and declare that the Torah scroll was invalid. He arose, and slowly—as if walking to a funeral—stumbled toward the stairs, with tears rolling down his cheeks. But wait—a Torah scroll can be fixed! It only requires a proper scribe to mend it!  So why the upset? A Torah scroll is more than fancy calligraphy. It, like many other things in this world, reflects the holiness and intentions of the person who wrote it. Who could ever be on the spiritual plane of the Abouhav?! The rabbi realized that that aspect was lost and gone forever.  He made his way up the six stairs with his head lowered. When he reached the top, he raised his head and looked where the reader was pointing. He expected to see the letter nun in the place of the gimel. Much to his shock, he saw a gimel! At first, he heaved a sigh of relief, then became irate. He harshly demanded of the reader, "Why didn't you read this properly?" The reader insisted that the letter was a nun. When men argue over the validity of a Torah's letters, Jewish law states that they should invite a young child, who has just began to read, to come up and read what he sees. So, they summoned a young boy up to the Torah. The rabbi picked up the tender child and pointed to the letter to be read. "That's a gimel!" the young boy exclaimed. Still, the reader refused to accept that the letter wasn't a nun. An argument ensued, with each man insisting that he was right. Other men who stood on the Torah platform also saw a gimel, and the entire synagogue soon got caught up in deciding what the truth was. One young man, who had made his way through the crowd, looked over the rabbi's shoulder, and loudly exclaimed, "What are you all arguing about? Of course, it's a nun." This was too much for the rabbi. He had the whole congregation sit down. Then he summoned each congregant, in turn, to come up to the Torah. The rabbi pointed to the letter and asked "What letter is this? and each person read the letter that he saw. The majority of the congregation reported seeing a gimel, yet a nice-sized minority was totally convinced that the letter was a nun. By now, the entire synagogue was in an uproar. Finally, the rabbi banged on the table, picked up the Torah scroll, and took it to a nearby rabbinic court. He told them the story and asked them to investigate. They did. What they discovered was that each man who had immersed in the mikvah that morning and was spiritually pure had seen a gimel, as it should have been. Every man who had not immersed that morning and was spiritually impure saw nidahimpure! The rabbinic court decided that, due to the spiritual sensitivity of the scroll, it should only be read from when it is customary for all Jewish men to have immersed in the mikvah. Those occasions are on the eve of Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year), which is a Day of Judgment; Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), when the judgment is sealed; and Shavuot (Feast of Weeks), the day when God gave the Torah.  If one attends the Abouhav Synagogue on the mornings of those three days, they will see the ancient Torah scroll being taken out and read. Miraculously, there has never been a problem with the scroll since.

An interesting note: The first letters of the Hebrew words Kippur (kuf), Shavuot (shin) and Rosh Hashana (resh) spell the word kosher—ritually fit!

Torah Scroll Removal

After the devastating earthquake of 1837, the population of Tzfat was reduced from as many as 15,000 to fewer than 400 Jews. The Abouhav Synagogue consisted of a mere part of a wall with a tin roof. A small group of old Sephardic men still prayed there. Many Jews had moved to Jerusalem, including the new generation, and there seemed to be little future for the dying community.  In 1844 ten men who were now living in Jerusalem decided to visit their former synagogue. They were aghast at its state of ruin. They decided that it wasn't an honor for the Torah scroll to remain inside such a shambles and planned to move the scroll to finer quarters in Jerusalem. They were 'warned' by locals that the scolls intended home was in Safed and it would behoove them to leave it be. On the day of the Torah's scheduled removal, each of the men fasted, prayed with great devotion, and immersed himself in a mikvah. Each then donned white clothes and with great awe, and towards evening approached the Torah ark. One man withdrew the Torah scroll, and walked with great reverence toward the door of the synagogue. The others lined up, single file, behind him. As the first man approached the doorway, he dropped to the floor, dead!, and luckily one of the locals caught the scroll before it fell to the floor.  Legend claims that the Torah scroll floated back into the ark. In a flash, all of the ten men who had attempted to remove this scroll from the synagogue were dead.

A Doubter

About ten years ago, a young Torah scribe heard that the Abouhav's Torah is only read three times a year. Most items in this world break or wear out the more they are used. A Torah scroll deteriorates when it is not used. A Torah that is rolled up and which is not used in years will be usually land up posul (forever disqualified from use).  This young Torah scribe insisted that the Abouhav's Torah scroll could not possibly be kosher. Jewish law states that if a Torah scroll is fit for use the last time it is read, one needn't check it. The Abouhav Torah scroll had never been disqualified since that one incident 500 years before.  Every day for a week, the young scribe bothered the synagogue caretaker to let him check the scroll.  Finally, the caretaker agreed to let the scribe check the Torah. The caretaker slowly walked up to the Torah ark, moved the curtain out of the way, put the key in the lock, and turned to the scribe. He said sternly, "If you really want to check the Torah scroll, I'll let you." Then he turned back to the key.  Suddenly he turned again and said " But I must warn you that the last person who touched the Torah scroll who was not on a proper level of spiritual purity died within the week." With that, the Torah scribe said, "I'm sure that the Torah is kosher (ritually fit)," and ran out.

Elijah's Chair and Holocaust Memorial

There is a chair for Elijah which faces the middle ark. The small chair next to it is for the baby who is circumcised. The silver candelabra hanging from above with six cups for candles above the chair memorializes the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust.

The Prayer Platform (Bima)

This synagogue follows the customs of Sefardic (literally, Spanish) Jews, or those from Mediterranean countries. They not only read the Torah from a raised, central platform in the synagogue, their prayer leader also recites prayers from that same place. This is based on a verse from Isaiah (40:26), "Lift your eyes on high."

The six stairs leading to the bima symbolize our striving every day of the week to reach our spiritual perfection on the seventh day, the Sabbath. Torah study is what enables us to reach those heights.



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