There are hundreds, if not thousands, of synagogues in Jerusalem. From the tiny neighborhood shtiebels to the palatial Belz Synagogue that stands out on the northern Jerusalem skyline. But the oldest, and most unusual synagogue in the city is the Karaite Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.
Karaite Jews believe the structure dates back to the 8th century, but most historians attribute the underground prayer house to the 10th century–still pretty old even by Jerusalem standards.
Karaites branched off from mainstream Rabbinic Judaism sometime in the 8th century in Babylon (Iraq today). They believe only in observing the laws of the Bible, not in the interpretations of the rabbinic commentators who established what is known as the Oral Law that defines mainstream Jewish observance today.
The Karaite synagogue we can visit in the Old City today reflects their beliefs – they built their synagogue underground based on the verse in Psalms : “Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O LORD” (Psalms 130:1).
The Karaite community dwindled over the centuries and the synagogue was all but destroyed during the 19 years of Jordanian occupation of the Old City when no Jews were allowed in that part of Jerusalem. Renovations were completed in 1982 and since then, a lovely little museum about the history of the Karaites is open next to the synagogue. Visitors can only look into the synagogue itself, since the Karaites believe that all who enter must be ritually clean, but the experience of walking down into the depths to get to this unique place of worship, is not to be missed.
Just across the alley from the Karaites is another fascinating synagogue from a more recent period– the ruins of the Tiferet Yisrael Synagogue, built by Ashkenazic Jews in the middle of the 19th century, are stark but still beautiful. The synagogue was one of the 58 destroyed by the Jordanians during and after the War of Independence in 1948.
To arrange a visit to the Karaite Synagogue, call or e-mail in advance:
050.2.121045 when dialing from inside Israel