Aleppo, Syria

view: Aleppo Synagogue Coordinates:  36° 12' 0.04" N   37° 09' 0.40" E
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Aleppo synagogue
Aleppo Synagogue
(click to enlarge)

The Jews of Aleppo
Sarina Roffé

The Jewish presence in Syria dates back to Biblical times and is intertwined with the history and politics of Jerusalem. According to the book of Samuel and Psalm 60, Aram Soba, the Biblical name for Aleppo, as well as Damascus, were part of Palestine. Throughout the millennia, great Talmudic sages record Aleppo's unbroken record of communal peace and spiritual productivity. Early Jewish travelers to the area included Benjamin of Tudela in 1173, Sadai Gaon in 921, and Rabbi Petachya of Germany in 1170 - 80.

According to "the patriarchs Abraham and Isaac spent part of their lives in what is now Syria. During and after the late Biblical period, and until the late 19thCentury, Syria and Eretz Israel were often territories of the same superpower and were sometimes considered a single entity. The Talmudic Sages ruled that some of the religious laws that pertain only to the land of Israel (chiefly in the realm of agriculture) apply to Syria as well."

The politics of the region depended on the rulers. With the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of Rome, the Romans placed restrictions on Jews. These were lifted with the Arab conquest in 636 CE, when Islamic caliphates began ruling the region. From the seventh Century until the end of Ottoman rule, the Jewish community was self-governed. Self-government entitled the Jews to freedom of religion, a separate court system ruled by local rabbis to handle internal disputes, and military protection.

Old Citadel, 1921
Old Citadel, 1921

In return for political and military protection, the Jews were given dhimmi status, meaning they had to adhere to certain rules and pay a poll tax, which was based on the number of men in the community, and did not have to serve in the military. Dhimmi status did not entitle Jews to the same or equal rights as Muslim citizens, however. They, along with their Christian counterparts, were of a lower status than Muslims and disputes between a Christian or Jew and a Muslim were settled in the government court, which was ruled by Islamic law.

By the tenth Century, many Jews emigrated from Iraq to Syria, due to political unrest. This brought about a boom in commerce, banking and crafts in Syria (Vitrual Jerusalem). During the reign of the Islamic Fatimids, the Jew Ibrahim El Kazzazz ran the Syrian administration and granted Jews positions in government. For many years, the Jews lived comfortably under Muslim rule, secure in their place as dhimmi, a protected people. Living in a non-democratic state, both Jews and Muslims remained apolitical.

"One aspect of this low profile was that new synagogues could not be built. Furthermore, Jews had to justify the existence of older houses of worship by stressing their antiquity, such as the Great Synagogue of Aleppo, to Joab the son of Seruya. Ceremonies such as blowing the shofar and celebrating Purim had to be conducted so as not to disturb their Muslim neighbors" (Zenner).

The Jewish community that evolved in this setting developed a different kind of politics to govern their people. Paying and collecting taxes and obtaining patronage were forms of political participation. Yet the treatment of Jews was also based on the current Muslim ruler and the economics of the time. If things got worse economically, the treatment of Jews deteriorated. When times were good and the economy was booming, Jews were treated well, so long as they stayed in their place and did not upset the balance between the two religious groups.

chief rabbi jacob saul dwek, 1908
Chief Rabbi Dwek, 1908
(click to enlarge)

Distinguished rabbis studied in Syria for many centuries and it was a center of significant Torah learning. Among the reasons for Aleppo's importance in Jewish learning is a document known as the Aleppo Codex. It is believed that a member of the famous Ben-Asher family wrote the Aleppo Codex over 1,000 years ago. The text shows the final vocalization and punctuation of the Biblical text. Some believe it is the Biblical text that Rambam refers to in his Hilchot Sefer Torah (Lehrman).

For the most part, conditions remained good for Jews in Syria under the Fatimids and later under Ottoman rule. The Ottoman rulers favored the Jews, understanding that the Jews would contribute to a good economy and that they facilitated commerce.

The Convergence of Two Communities

As Jews left Spain after the expulsion in 1492 for the Mediterranean countries, many found themselves in areas of the Ottoman Empire that welcomed them. At the time, the Ottoman Empire included Palestine. Syria did not become part of the Empire until 1516. The Ottomans believed that the Jews would inspire trade and encourage economic growth in the region.

Many of the Spanish Jews stopped in Italy for many years as this was a center of Jewish learning and publishing. They did not get to Syria until the mid 16th Century, with some arriving as late as the early 17th Century. During the initial settlement period, the Spanish Jews remained separate and apart from the indigenous Syrian Jews. The Spanish Jews spoke Ladino, a mixture of Hebrew and Spanish. Spanish grandee Señor Shlomo Kassin, who arrived in Aleppo in 1540, led the immigration to Aleppo. The wealthy Señor Shlomo was an administrative genius and was soon appointed head of the community. Señor Shlomo's grandson, Rabbi Yom Tov Kassin, was the first Kassin family member to become a Chief Rabbi in Aleppo. Rabbi Yom Tov's son, Rabbi Yehuda Kassin (1708 - 1784), followed his lead and became a rabbi. He was buried in the courtyard of the Great Synagogue of Aleppo.

It took several centuries, but eventually the two communities — the new Spanish Jews and the Jews indigenous to Aleppo — converged into one and the Ladino language of the Spanish Jews died out by the middle of the 18th Century. Yet the surnames of the families — like Kassin and Labaton — lived on into the 21st Century.

Aleppo in the 19th and 20th Centuries

Until the end of the 19th Century, cotton and silk were the primary exports from the Middle East to Asia and Europe as caravans traveled from East to West. The first signs of serious economic hardship came with the start of the Industrial Revolution, which caused a reversal in the flow of trade, compounded with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The combination dealt a bitter blow and ultimately destroyed trading along the caravan routes, which included Aleppo and Damascus. Economic times became bad, then worse. Some emigrated to Manchester, England and to Egypt.

Culturally, little changed among the Syrian Jews except their rulers. Boys had a kittab school education until their bar mitzvah, after which time they worked. In religious life, gender segregation provided women with an opportunity for social time and for leisure activities, such as card playing. It was unusual for girls to receive any formal education until well into the 20th Century. Marriages were generally arranged after a girl had her first cycle, often as young as thirteen or fourteen. Teenage girls and married women adorned their arms with gold bangle bracelets, a tradition that carried forward to the present time. Few women worked and they rarely shopped. In the Middle East it was customary for the husband to arrange for a stock of staple items and to market since it was assumed that he was the better negotiator.

Jews were observant as rabbis and community leaders governed the community. The Ottoman government did not keep birth records for the Jewish communities, although individual rabbis kept records of brit milahs, marriages and deaths.

From the mid-19th Century on, "the Ottoman government appointed a chief rabbi (hakham bashi). This individual represented the Jewish community before government agencies and could be a powerful individual in the community in his own right. Rabbis often came from families that had a long tradition for providing the community with hakhamim."

The hakham was distinguished by the size and color of his turban and the long-wide sleeves of his outer garments (Zenner). While it was customary for everyone to wear an ankle–length robe with a sash around the waist, the hakham bashi was a government official and wore a finer robe with ceremonial orders and medals, and gold and silver embroidery. The hakham bashi had two government-appointed bodyguards who carried his Staff of Office and cleared the way for him (Zenner).

Worldwide politics began having an influence on Syria in the early 19th Century when European powers sought equal treatment for Christians and Jews. Jewish contractual positions with the government disappeared, but civil service positions were created. Heads of the religious communities such as the chief rabbi were appointed positions. The jizha tax was a substitution for military service and was eliminated. In 1908 the Young Turks, who succeeded the Ottomans in certain areas, began conscripting Jews into their Army, spurring a mass emigration of Jews to the Americas.

The Jews of Aleppo and Damascus migrated to the United States in the early 20th Century for three basic reasons. First, an economic decline in Syria crippled their ability to earn a living. Second, military conscription and third, the rise of Zionism led to increased anti-Semitism in the Middle East region. Syrian Jews arrived in New York, Chicago and other American cities. Others went to Mexico City, Mexico; and Buenos Aires, Argentina, separating families.

After World War I, the French took control over Aleppo and Damascus, which became a French Mandate. Massive emigration from Syria occurred again during the period after World War I and continued until the mid-1920s, when the Great Depression began. The emigrés from the early 20th Century migration populate what is known today as the Syrian Jewish communities of Brooklyn, N.Y. and Deal, N.J.

Chief Rabbis
  • Efraim Laniado (1787-1805)
  • Abraham Sitehon (1805-1817)
  • Abraham Antebi (1817-1858)
  • Haim Mordekhai Labaton (1858-1869)
  • Shaul Dwek HaCohen (1869-1874)
  • Menashe Sitehon (1874-1876)
  • Aharon Chuoeka (1876-1880)
  • Moshe HaCohen (1880-1882)
  • Abraham Ezra Dwek HaCohen Kalussi (1883-1894)
  • Shelomo Safdieh (1895-1904)
  • Yaaqob Shaul Dwek HaCohen (1904-1908)
  • Hezqiah Shabtai (1908-1921 & 1924-1926)
  • Shabtai Bahbout (1921-1924)
  • Ezra Hamaoui (Ab Beit Din)
  • Moshe Mizrachi (Ab Beit Din)
  • Ezra Abadi Shayo (Ab Beit Din)
  • Yom Tob Yedid Halevi

  1. Wikipedia: Aleppo
  2. Wikipedia: Jews in Aleppo
  3. The Jews of Aleppo
  4. Jewish Virtual Library: Aleppo
  5. Avotaynu Online: Jewish Nobility of Aleppo
  6. The Times of The stunning tale of
    the escape of Aleppo's last Jews by Cathryn
    J. Prince (12 Nov 2015)
  7. Wikipedia: Syrian Jews



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Created: 16 April 2019

Last Modified: 01-18-2024

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