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3 Adar I 5760 - February 9, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Derech Eretz and Much Torah -- The Jewish Community of Syria

by A. Ariel

Now when Syria is so much in the news because of the (stalled) peace talks, it is a good time to recall the illustrious Jewish community that flourished for thousands of years in Syria. This first part reviews the history, and the second part presents biographies of some of Syria's major rabbonim.

Part I

The once flourishing Jewish community of Aram Tzova, whose acronym spells out eretz -- Aleppo, Syria -- is no more. Its last rabbi has left. The shutters in the Jewish quarter have been shut for the last time as Jews have found their way out after selling their property and possessions for pennies while others have preferred not to sell. Shattered windows of apartments above the shuttered storefronts testify to empty interiors and to the hatred that propelled the stones and their throwers. For close to thirty years, the sound that once wafted from the many small synagogues has been stilled. Only unheard echoes still reverberate from those sounds that rippled outward for hundreds of years. Only the walls bear witness to the life that resounded within.

An illustrious community that was -- and is no more.

"You shall make midnight in Damascus," said Ben Hadad to Achav (Melochim I, 20). From then until very recently, there has been a Jewish settlement in Damascus. This city was a source of prosperity, of solid establishment. Historically, it has always been a flourishing, burgeoning city, situated at the central crossroads of east and west and an excellent source of livelihood for Jews living amidst peace and tranquility.

Throughout all periods, that of the Mishna and of the Talmud, during times of persecution or prosperity in the Holy Land, Jews in Syria have always enjoyed serenity and quiet. Even occasional bouts of oppression did not change the general character of the community, which knew when to lay low in face of the enemy, and to reassert itself when winds changed and to stage a comeback.

An Ancient Community

The Jewish community in Damascus has existed throughout the generations. One of the synagogues there boasted, until several years ago, a sefer Torah that had been written a thousand years ago. It also possessed a handwritten scroll of Nevi'im very artistically illuminated with colorful illustrations of the Beis Hamikdash, the walls of Jerusalem, the Mishkon and its golden vessels.

The Jewish settlement in Damascus spread to outlying villages during periods of prosperity and expansion. In the nearby village of Jubar there is an ancient synagogue which, tradition has it, was built in the time of Elisha, disciple of Eliyohu Hanovi. This synagogue has a stone which is said to have been used when that prophet anointed Chazoel as king of Aram. On the right side of this shul is a small cave which is also connected to one of the prophets. It is reputed to have served as a refuge for Eliyohu Hanovi when Hashem told him, "Go, return to the desert of Damascus."

Until the advent of the refugees from the Spanish expulsion, Jews living in Damascus originated from Eretz Yisroel or other countries. Many absorbed local culture as far as language, and some were called mistaarvim [like the misyavnim of Greek times] since they followed Arab culture. After the Spanish expulsion in 5252 (1492), many Jews and many rabbonim arrived and founded a large colony which exceeded one thousand five hundred families. But these Jews did not live peaceably with the local Jewish inhabitants, whose lifestyle, customs and traditions were so different.

Prominent Families

Unlike the community of Babylonian Jews, the Damascan Jewish community did not fill a significant place in the spiritual life and heritage of our people. It did not produce geonim or renowned rabbis. Most of the rabbis who served in Damascus in latter generations came from the outside. There was, however, a golden period in the life of this community, during which prominent scholars and leaders filled central positions in the government of the community. The most famous families of that period were the Farchis, Angels, or as they were known by the Damascans, the Shmaya family, the Stambulis, Lizvonas, Fijotos and the Laniado and the Ades families. The earliest of these family `dynasties' was the Farchis, who originated in Arabic lands and never stepped upon Spanish soil.

One hundred years ago one of the Farchis, R' Refael ben R' Shachada (Shaul) Farchi, served as the Damascan Treasury Minister. His brother, R' Chaim, was the Pasha's financial minister in Acco. We see from this fact that most monetary matters of cities of Syria and Eretz Yisroel were concentrated in the hands of one Jewish family.

R' Chaim Farchi fell victim to the jealousy of the ruler of Acco, Achmad Jizair, who was also known as "the Ruthless Ruler." He forcibly seized power in Acco and his first act was to stigmatize the honor of the Jewish minister by gouging out his right eye and slicing his nose. R' Chaim Farchi could have fled for his life but, fearing that this savage ruler would vent his hatred upon his fellow Jews, he decided to remain in his home. He was sentenced to death by the wicked ruler and hanged. His vast wealth was, naturally, confiscated.

When his brothers, Refoel and Moshe, who lived in Damascus, heard of Chaim's cruel death, they appealed to Jews of influence in Constantinople to demand the Sultan's reprisal to avenge their brother's blood. One of the dignitaries of the community, Jilibi Bachur Karmona, a Jewish moneychanger, succeeded in obtaining a fatwa (court sentence), from Sheikh Al Islaam, and with this, the two brothers approached the rulers of Damascus and Aleppo and two other district rulers.

They hired mercenaries and went to fight the ruler of Acco. In spite of their might, they were unable to defeat the ruler of this fortified city. One brother was captured and put to death. When the two remaining brothers saw that their chances of victory were slim, they returned to Damascus with their armies.

The Shemaya Angel, Stambuli and Lizvona families filled very central positions in the community and in domestic political affairs. The Angel family accomplished much for the benefit of their brethren in Damascus, as well as for Jews throughout Syria and Eretz Yisroel. They defended them in times of trouble, and these were many. The Jewish community was in frequent danger of annihilation during riots and massacres carried on between different Christian, Moslem and Druze factions in the nineteenth century. Surely, it was the constant influence and intervention of the Shemaya family that spared them much loss of property and lives.

The Damascus Blood Libel

Some 160 years ago, the Jewish community of Damascus found itself faced with a grave physical and spiritual danger resulting from Christian slander. The Jews were accused of murdering a monk named Thomas in order to use his blood for ritual purposes.

Syria was under Egyptian rule in those days. Emir Mohammed Ali enjoyed the full support of the French in his war against the Turks, who were aligned with England and Austria. The latter feared that Mohammed Ali's victory would lead to further wars and extended rule over Arabian lands together with the French in the Near East. The Christians in Syria, who for many generations had suffered persecution and subjugation under Turkish rule, reared their heads and joined the ranks of Mohammed Ali. But they were unable to strike against the Moslems, who were far below them intellectually, socially and economically, and so they directed their hatred towards the Jews, who were a minority in influence in political and economic life.

The Christians turned to Sheriff Pasha, ruler of Damascus and representative of Mohammed Ali, demanding that he punish the entire Jewish community since, according to their version, Thomas had been murdered upon a visit to the Jewish quarter. The heads of the kehilla, including Rabbi Yaakov Entebbe, were thrown into prison and tortured. Many children were also arrested and tortured to force them to `confess' the sins of their parents. Moshe Abulafia, one of the heads of the community, succumbed to the pressure and embraced Islam. He even joined the instigators of the blood libel in order to save his skin. The French consul in Damascus also became involved in the affair and exerted efforts to prevent the truth from coming out and to protect the real perpetrators of the crime.

News of the blood libel roused the sympathy of Jewish communities throughout Europe. They rallied to their aid. In the forefront of the fighters was Adolf Carmier, one of the heads of French Jewry, and Sir Moses Montefiore from England. They appealed to their governments and demanded that they intervene and insist upon Mohammed Ali conducting a fair trial and that he free the innocent prisoners. Montefiore and his secretary, Dr. Levi, traveled to Egypt and obtained an edict from the ruler demanding that his representatives in Damascus release the Jewish prisoners, stating that they were innocent victims of a blood libel paralleling all blood libels in history.

The Jewish prisoners were finally freed and Sheriff Pasha, who had tortured them, was sentenced to death and hanged. The heads of the Jewish communities in Europe were not satisfied. They knew that a blood libel was no isolated act, and that the Jews in Syria were prone to suffer similar libels or acts of retribution at the slightest excuse. It was a powder keg awaiting another spark to ignite the fuse of a massacre.

Meanwhile, Syria fell to the forces of the Turks. Jewish communal figures knew that they would find an attentive ear from the Sultan in Constantinople, Abdal Majid. Montefiore went there and obtained a royal firman document promising protection to the Jews from any Christian libels.

Years passed in which the Damascus community had its ups and downs. Years of prosperity and influence, alternating with years of abuse and disfavor, persecution and vengeance. Spiritual life also enjoyed years of Torah leadership, Torah study increasing and blossoming, yeshivos founded and flourishing, followed by years of spiritual devastation, suffered in pain and silence.

The Damascus ghetto was left a shadow of its not-too-distant past. These gloomy shadows told of a community that had survived in spite of oppression and which had tried, at all costs, to quit the land of sojourn of millennia, rather than continue to subsist under these present untenable conditions.

Their pleas reached Heaven, and now, whoever so wishes, is able to leave Damascus. This city has remained with a small Jewish population that can tell many a tale, to any chance listening ear, of a community that suffered for its Jewishness and was forced to vacate.

The Community of Aram Tzova

One community with many people; wise and great men filled its ranks. The illustrious community of Aram Tzova (Aleppo) had deep Jewish roots. It was fondly known as EReTZ ZOVAs cholov udvash, a play on the acronym of Aram Tzova, a city filled with figurative milk and honey. This was a community, most of whose precious Jews would rouse themselves each night, filling the botei medroshim and botei knessiyos in huddled groups to recite tikkun chatzos and to continue studying Torah until morning.

All of them were worthy, G-d fearing people, men of truth who relished their study. Those capable of it, delved in Zohar, while the lesser scholars pored over midroshim, aggados and Tehillim, or mishnayos, halocho, Rambam, Shas uposkim, each according to his capacity. Fortunate was this city of Torah, fortunate its inhabitants, blessed people who greeted the dawn with their Torah study. The light of each new day was greeted with the light radiated by the Torah of its scholars. Thus did the day begin for the Jewish kehilla of Aram Tzova. This was its routine, its unique character, its daily program.

Their G-dly service of prayer was equally outstanding. Their outpourings surely rose up directly to Heaven with heartfelt emotion, deep intensity, studied concentration, decorum, proper enunciation. Such prayer, laden with spiritual yearning, did not stop short with the final Kaddish; rather, its aura lingered on. An atmosphere of holiness pervaded the air of the synagogue which, at the end of the service, reverted to its role as House of Study where Torah was pursued at all times.

When a community is immersed in Torah, all of its activities are carried on with sanctity and reverence. Its scribes were exacting to the very lettercrown of the law and were considered great craftsmen in their profession, due in great measure to their extreme piety. Adherence to the fine points of halocho became synonymous with professionalism and expertise. Slaughterers were likewise strict and meticulous in the small and fine points of the laws involving their work, with fowl as with livestock, adherent to the nth degree of stringency.

They had a special order of work and study. They would constantly review the laws of shechita until they knew them practically verbatim. This EReTZ-land produced exceptional scholars who, in turn, also produced outstanding scholars who transformed the entire city into a major, vibrant center of Torah.

The lay businessmen also traded honestly and trustfully; they were a credit to their community. Their integrity was an ingrained part of their lives. Other communities would look jealously at the quality of Aram Tzova's glorious population, whose secret lay in their study of gemora, the Oral Tradition, which molds a person's character, purifies him, upgrades his traits, and refines his sense of decency, his outlook and his good sense.

This community also led the battle against the spread of Haskalah which wreaked havoc elsewhere and sought to make inroads here, too. But they were stopped short. Torah scholars fought them fiercely, courageously, as is testified in the introduction of the work, "Lakedoshim Asher BaAReTZ" (referring to Aram Tzova). "A `land' where you shall eat your bread without scarcity." Bread referring to Torah. A `land,' a city, of whose spiritual beauty all speak with reverence, whose rabbis, leaders and wise counselors are sustained by Torah and who `export' it outward to `chutz l'AReTZ, beyond Aram Tzova. Their wisdom, piety, conduct, counsel, guidance in Torah, their acuity, expertise and merit enable them to fight the battle of Torah. The radiance of their Torah spreads a net reaching the four corners of the earth. They toil and tire in Torah purely for its own sake. They extract `bread' from the soil, from the AReTZ (motzi'im lechem min ho'oretz)."

The origin of the city's name is very interesting. It is written in Seder Hadoros: "Terach, father of Avrohom, took another wife in his old age named Plila. She bore him a son whom she named Tzova. When he was thirty, he begat Aram, Achlin and Meryach. Aram, son of Tzova, had three wives who bore him twelve sons and three daughters. Hashem gave Aram great wealth and property and cattle, and he spread and propagated. Aram and his brothers went and found a valley beyond the land of the east, and they built there a city called Aram; this is the city known as Aram Tzova."

Milk for the Poor

Why was it called Chaleb -- Aleppo? The reason is stated in the work "Sivuv Kdei Pesachya," written by R' Pesachya of Regensburg, brother of R' Yitzchok Halovon, one of the baalei Hatosafos. This is what is recorded: "And he turned his face westward and returned to Nineveh and from Nineveh [he went] to Netzivin where the synagogue that Ezra built is located. It has a stone with the words `Ezra Hasofer' engraved upon it . . . Netzivin has eight hundred Jews . . . And from there he went on to Chaleb, which is Aram Tzova. And why is it called Chaleb? Because upon this mountain Avrohom herded his sheep. There were steps leading down the mountain slope which he descended in order to distribute milk -- cholov -- to the poor."

Aram Tzova produced world-famous Torah scholars. Its records boast of names from the period of the prophets through the ages to this very last era. The rishonim tell that Yoav Ben Tzruya, King Dovid's military commander, built a synagogue here. Rav Assi also maintained a spiritual `court' called Chush Derav Al Sif, which remains to this day. There is a family in Aleppo which calls itself Beis Assi, and near that ancient synagogue is a stone upon which is engraved the words, "The burial place of tanoim ve'amoroim."

R' Saadia Gaon lived in Aram Tzova, as is stated in one of his letters dealing with the leap year. "Know that while I was still in Aleppo, which is Aram Tzova, a few disciples from baalei Gad came and said that Ben Meir is considering to establish this as a non-leap year, and I refused to believe it."

Up until the times of the Rishonim, we find the city of Aleppo mentioned in the Rambam's letters. At the end of his Letter to the Scholars of Luniel, France, he writes, " . . . but in all of these places, Torah has been lost from its sons. Most of the [Jewish centers in the] major cities are dead or in the process of dying. Three or four places are stricken and all of Eretz Yisroel and all of Syria, one whole country known as Aleppo, which still has a remnant of Torah scholars who delve in study."

R' Yosef son of R' Yehuda, called R' Yosef Mugrabi-Maarivi, a scholar highly praised by the author of Tachkemoni, lived in Aleppo. R' Yehuda Alcharizi, the author, himself, was born there, as well as R' Set son of Yefes.

R' Levi ben Chabuv, the Maharlbach, refers to this community in a responsum. "When I was traveling, I lived for a while in Aleppo, and found there people who were wise and learned, who appointed a set regimen for study throughout the day. They were engaged in Elu Ne'oros, and I joined company with them willingly and enthusiastically."

We find testimony to the great love for Torah possessed by the scholars of Aleppo in a letter of the Sheloh Hakodosh describing his travels in 5382 (1622):"And so we arrived safely in Syria just before Yom Kippur and found ourselves in a Jewish mothercity, the illustrious community of Aleppo, just before Succos, where we remained until Monday of the week of parshas Lech Lecho. The great respect, brotherhood and amity that exists there is simply indescribable. I felt at home there as if I were in my own city of Prague, in dignity and glory. Their souls thirst for the Torah I was able to impart to them. They flocked to my lodgings from early morning to late at night, and spoke only in loshon hakodesh. I addressed them in this language, which was understood by all."

Holech Tomim, written by R' Avrohom Dayan and printed in 5610 in Livorno, brings an amazing story about the gates of Aram Tzova:

"It has seven iron gates. I heard from an elderly Torah sage who knew of a tradition claiming a special wonder involving each one of them at some time in ancient history. He knew of three of them. One, called Baab [gate] El Natzir, displayed the tooth of a fish, two cubits long, visible for all to see. Another gate sported the fingernail of one of the giants of Biblical times, the nefilim mentioned in the Torah. A third gate displayed a vessel containing sand from the Sambatyon River which moved about all six days of the week and laid still on Shabbos. A gentile saw this marvel once and was so upset by it, since it was a living proof of Jewish tradition and belief, that he went and shattered the vessel, and its contents were scattered. Since then, scoffers and heretics who have traveled extensively throughout the world, have denied the existence of any such river as the Sambatyon.

The Chida writes of a portion of the Persian border which is impregnable due to the fierce wild animals and snakes that seem to guard it. He brings the story of a scholar who was sent on a mission from the community in Eretz Yisroel and lost his way. He reached that point and could go no further, and had to be rescued. I heard of another person from Sharaab, Yemen, who wished to reach Eretz Yisroel and came to Aram Tzova. He said that Sharaab lay at the end of civilization; it bordered on a huge desert that contained wild animals and plentiful snakes and scorpions. That city was under the rule of princes called shurfa [perhaps the Arabic `sheriff'], who trace their lineage back to Yishmoel.

An Ashkenazi Jew by the name of R' Boruch (who appears to be the famous R' Boruch Ashkenazi, coinciding to the dates), came to Aram Tzova in 5586 (1826) and told me that he undertook the mission of seeking out the Ten Lost Tribes. He reached Sharaab, told people of his desire, and was told that there was a guide who could lead him there. This guide agreed to do so but first equipped him with a special coat of armor, with which he encased himself and his camel, as well.

Thus, they went there and saw many Jews living together with another nation in peace. However, they lived as nomads, without permanent homes, and were ignorant of Torah except for several mitzvos which they practiced according to traditions passed down through their generations. They said that there were more Jews living further away, beyond the Sambatyon, but the roads there were treacherous. Upon hearing this, R' Boruch returned to Sharaab and related his experiences. He died shortly after and was buried there.

"Some people claim that the world conducts itself in a purely natural fashion; they believe only what they see or what they read and know to be authentic. I will therefore copy here what is written in an illuminating secular work on page 88 in the name of the head of Church, Volume XV, chapter nine. This refers to the size of ancient giants, the tooth of one of which he himself saw. It was one hundred times the size of a normal human tooth. The work Mikveh Yisroel also brings that in Lisbon, Portugal, there was an African who possessed a glass vessel filled with the special sand aforementioned. Every Friday he would go to the Jewish quarter and display it to the shopkeepers, saying, `Shabbos is coming. It is time to close up shop.'

"I also heard from a reliable Jew who told his friend that a gentile in Rome also showed him a sample of this special sand wrapped up in paper which rustled restlessly during the week, but lay still on Shabbos. Regarding the existence of the giants, I saw it recorded by a reliable scholar, a dear and close friend of mine who, aside from being learned in Torah, was also well versed in secular knowledge.

"He read in a book written by a famous scholar who wrote a dissertation on giants, quoting numerous sources of records describing huge bones and teeth, primarily of one particular king who lived in France, called Theofompeux, whose shoulders spanned a huge breadth. He verified that whatever is written in the Bible concerning the nefilim, the Fallen Angels [see the Midrash], is precise and certified. This should be sufficient to seal the mouths of all scoffers and disbelievers."

Much is still left unsaid concerning Aram Tzova. Seas of ink would not suffice to say it all. This was one community of many, an outstanding example of the illustrious Syrian Jewry which once flourished but exists no more. Its roots have withered, its branches shriveled. But the fruits it bore have spread throughout the world to flourish and disseminate the beauty and glory of the distinguished community of Aleppo.

Syrian Jews Today

by Yated Ne'eman Staff

When he walks home through the quiet, narrow streets of the Jewish Quarter, Salim Hamadani thinks a lot about the old days: weddings, family holiday gatherings, day trips with neighbors he'd known since childhood.

These days, he spends a lot more evenings at home.

Syria's Jewish community, 3,900-strong less than a decade ago, has dwindled to about 125 in the eight years since President Hafez Assad lifted travel restrictions.

Most have gone to New York and nearly 1,600 have ended up in Israel; mainly the poor and elderly have remained.

Hamadani, a 36-year-old antiques dealer, hopes a peace between Syria and Israel might entice enough of those who left, to return and revive the Jewish community before it disappears. At the least, he expects it to open borders so friends and relatives are an easy few hours' drive away.

"We can spend Friday-Shabbat over there and come back on Sunday morning," he said. "This is what we're thinking -- round trip every week."

A Syrian-Israeli agreement likely would bring an open border along the Golan Heights frontier. Expectations of a deal are high among Syrians of all faiths, despite a delay in talks that opened last month in the United States, after a freeze of more than three years.

Not all, probably not even most, of the Jews who left would return.

"When the peace comes, we will know," said Yousef Jajati, leader of the Jewish Community Council in Damascus, who is sure some will be back.

But many sold their homes in Syria, he said, and have settled into new lives, their children are in school and their businesses are up and running.

Like others, Jajati was quick to praise Assad's peace efforts and said peace must involve the full return of the Golan Heights.

The Syrian government's hostility toward Israel is usually expressed in political, not religious terms. Jews interviewed in Syria say they face little discrimination, though hundreds left when given the chance.

Across the Middle East, Jews found their homelands in Arab states, transformed into hostile places, in the political fallout surrounding the 1948 creation of the state of Israel.

Muslims, Christians and Jews mix in work places like Jajati's menswear store, but the extent of social interaction is difficult to assess. The Syrian government keeps close tabs on citizens, who speak guardedly, particularly about sensitive subjects.

Before the 1992 legal changes, Syrian Jews traveling abroad had to leave behind bonds of 2,500 Syrian pounds, then about $600, and additionally at least one family member.

The changes, stemming from U.S. pressure applied during Mideast peace efforts of the early 1990s, also lifted restrictions on selling and buying property.

Today, only about 100 of the 3,000 Damascus Jews of 1992 remain, along with 12 in the Aleppo Jewish community and 12 in the northern town of Qamishli, according to Jajati. Many are elderly or poor and are financially supported by the Damascus Jewish community, he said. The 10 women and two men in Aleppo, in their 50s through 70s, each receive about $65 a month, he said.

The Jewish community flourished after 1099, when more than 50,000 Jews fled Christian armies that conquered Jerusalem in the First Crusade. A century ago, 100,000 Jews lived in Damascus, and the community prospered despite periods of harsh repression.

Today, more tourists than worshipers visit the synagogue in Damascus' Jubbar neighborhood.

A Jewish school attended by 500 students in 1992 is still running, educating only about a dozen. Syria's chief rabbi, Ibrahim Hamra, left in 1994 and now lives in Holon, Israel. Every two or three months, a rabbi visits from Istanbul, Turkey, to oversee preparation of kosher meat, which residents freeze and use until his next visit.

Sami Halwani, caretaker at the Elijah synagogue, says he's content to stay in Damascus, where he looks after the two open synagogues and many of the 20 others that have closed since 1992.

Halwani, 54, has a brother in Paris and another in Brooklyn, New York. He, too, hopes peace will allow the community to grow again, but he's not sure his brothers, kosher butchers, will be back.

Every evening, Hamadani walks from his antiques shop near the Old City's Bzourieh spice market to his home in the winding streets of the Jewish Quarter, where most homes are dark and empty inside. Often, he said, that's when he thinks about good times with old friends -- days when neighbors gathered three or four times a week for weddings, holidays, bar mitzvos or other celebrations.

Hamadani said he's still happy he chose to stay in Syria, where he has friends, a business to look after and a good life. His parents in Israel plan to move back after peace, he said, and his sister and her family hope to have homes in both countries.

But his quiet voice softens further when asked if the Jewish community, one of the world's oldest, will vanish if peace fails.

"I think so. I think so."

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