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Rabbi's Blog

rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  (rabbi@adathisraelsf.org) has been the Rabbi of Adath Israel since May 2013. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem and has served previously as a congregational Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Irvine, California. A full biography of Rabbi Landau is available here.


 

Since this coming Shabbat is Tisha B’Av (though we postpone the fast/mourning until Sunday), I’d like to share with you an eye-witness account of how the 19th century Jews of Jerusalem used to mourn for the loss of the Temple on a weekly basis.

In August 1870, the American statesman William H. Seward — a former governor, senator, and President Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State — embarked on a fourteen month world tour together with his adopted daughter, Olive Risley Seward. They visited Japan, China, Indonesia, India, the Levant, and Europe, and on their return in the fall of 1871, began working on a book about their travels. The nearly 800-page volume — William H. Seward’s Travels Around the World — was published in 1873 and became a bestseller.

In Seward’s day, Jerusalem was part of the Ottoman Empire, an Islamic superpower, and had been for centuries. Yet as Seward noted, Jews were the city’s largest demographic. Many people would be surprised to find out that the population of Jerusalem has been predominantly Jewish since at least the early 1800s:

The Mohammedans [i.e., Muslims] are 4,000 and occupy the northeast quarter, including the whole area of the Mosque of Omar…The Jews are 8,000 and have the southeast quarter. . . . The Armenians number 1,800 and have the southwest quarter; and the other Christians, amounting to 2,200, have the northwest quarter, which overlooks the Valley of Hinnom. (p. 647)

The following is a particularly moving description of what he saw in Jerusalem: 

June 15th. – "And the name of the city from that day shall be, the LORD is there."

Our last day at Jerusalem has been spent, as it ought to have been, among and with the Jews, who were the builders and founders of the city, and who cling the closer to it for its disasters and desolation. We have mentioned that the Jewish quarter adjoins, on the southeast, the high wall of the Haram [The Haram el-Sharif, or Temple Mount]. This wall is a close one, while the upper part, like all the Turkish walls of the city, is built of small stone. The base of this portion of the wall, enclosing the Mosque of Omar, and the site of the ancient temple, consists of five tiers of massive, accurately-bevelled blocks. It is impossible to resist the impression at first view, notwithstanding the prophecy, that this is a portion of the wall of the Temple of Solomon, which was hewn in the quarries and set up in its place without the noise of the hammer and the axe. So at least the Jews believe.

For centuries (we do not know how many) the Turkish rulers have allowed the oppressed and exiled Jews the privilege of gathering at the foot of this wall one day in every week, and pouring out their lamentations over the fall of their beloved city, and praying for its restoration to the Lord, who promised, in giving its name, that he would "be there." 

The Jewish sabbath being on Saturday, and beginning at sunset on Friday, the weekly wail of the Jews under the wall takes place on Friday, and is a preparation for the rest and worship of the day which they are commanded to "keep holy." The small rectangular oblong area, without roof or canopy, serves for the gathering of the whole remnant of the Jewish nation in Jerusalem. Here, whether it rains or shines, they come together at an early hour, old and young, men, women, and little children – the poor and the rich, in their best costumes, discordant as the diverse nations from which they come.

They are attended by their rabbis, each bringing the carefully-preserved and elaborately-bound text of the book of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, either in their respective languages, or in the original Hebrew. For many hours they pour forth their complaints, reading and reciting the poetic language of the prophet, beating their hands against the wall, and bathing the stones with their kisses and tears. It is no mere formal ceremony.

During the several hours while we were spectators of it, there was not one act of irreverence or indifference. Only those who have seen the solemn prayer-meeting of a religious revival, held by some evangelical denomination at home, can have a true idea of the solemnity and depth of the profound grief and pious feeling exhibited by this strange assembly on so strange an occasion, although no ritual in the Catholic, Greek, or Episcopal Church is conducted with more solemnity and propriety. (p. 651-653)

Could Seward have believed that within a century, Jews would be the sovereign power in Jerusalem, or that the Ottomans, like every other empire to have ruled Jerusalem during the long, long history of the Jewish people —Hittites, Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, Mamelukes, Crusaders — would fade into obscurity? Perhaps not. But there is little doubt that the Jews he observed that day, “bathing the stones with their kisses and tears,” would have believed it.

For Jews never stopped believing it. “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,” run the haunting words of the 137th Psalm, “let my right hand forget her skill.” No people have had such an enduring connection to a city. The bond between Jews and Jerusalem is ancient and unbreakable. 

The rest of Seward’s visit that day is quite interesting as well. Here is an excerpt of his visit to the Hurva Synagogue: 

Though we supposed our party unobserved, we had scarcely left the place, when a meek, gentle Jew, in a long, plain brown dress, his light, glossy hair falling in ringlets on either side of his face, came to us, and, respectfully accosting Mr. Seward, expressed a desire that he would visit the new synagogue, where the Sabbath service was about to open at sunset. Mr. Seward assented.

A crowd of "the peculiar people" attended and showed us the way to the new house of prayer, which we are informed was recently built by a rich countryman of our own whose name we did not learn. It is called the American Synagogue. It is a very lofty edifice, surmounted by a circular dome. Just underneath it a circular gallery is devoted exclusively to the women.

Aisles run between the rows of columns which support the gallery and dome. On the plain stone pavement, rows of movable, wooden benches with backs are free to all who come. At the side of the synagogue, opposite the door, is an elevated desk on a platform accessible only by movable steps, and resembling more a pulpit than a chancel. It was adorned with red-damask curtains, and behind them a Hebrew inscription. Directly in the centre of the room, between the door and this platform, is a dais six feet high and ten feet square, surrounded by a brass railing, carpeted; and containing cushioned seats. We assume that this dais, high above the heads of the worshippers, and on the same elevation with the platform appropriated to prayer, is assigned to the rabbis.

We took seats on one of the benches against the wall; presently an elderly person, speaking English imperfectly, invited Mr. Seward to change his seat; he hesitated, but, on being informed by Mr. Finkelstein that the person who gave the invitation was the president of the synagogue, Mr. Seward rose, and the whole party, accompanying him, were conducted up the steps and were comfortably seated on the dais, in the "chief seat in the synagogue." On this dais was a tall, branching, silver candlestick with seven arms. 

The congregation now gathered in, the women filling the gallery, and the men, in varied costumes, and wearing hats of all shapes and colors, sitting or standing as they pleased. The lighting of many silver lamps, judiciously arranged, gave notice that the sixth day's sun had set, and that the holy day had begun. Instantly, the worshippers, all standing, and as many as could turning to the wall, began the utterance of prayer, bending backward and forward, repeating the words in a chanting tone, which each read from a book, in a low voice like the reciting of prayers after the clergyman in the Episcopal service. It seemed to us a service without prescribed form or order.

When it had continued some time, thinking that Mr. Seward might be impatient to leave, the chief men requested that he would remain a few moments, until a prayer should be offered for the President of the United States, and another for himself. Now a remarkable rabbi, clad in a long, rich, flowing sacerdotal dress, walked up the aisle; a table was lifted from the floor to the platform, and, by a steep ladder which was held by two assistant priests, the rabbi ascended the platform. A large folio Hebrew manuscript was laid on the table before him, and he recited with marked intonation, in clear falsetto, a prayer, in which he was joined by the assistants reading from the same manuscript. We were at first uncertain whether this was a psalm or a prayer, but we remembered that all the Hebrew prayers are expressed in a tone which rises above the recitative and approaches melody, so that a candidate for the priesthood is always required to have a musical voice.

At the close of the reading, the rabbi came to Mr. Seward and informed him that it was a prayer for the President of the United States, and a thanksgiving for the deliverance of the Union from its rebellious assailants [the just-concluded Civil War]. Then came a second; it was in Hebrew and intoned, but the rabbi informed us that it was a prayer of gratitude for Mr. Seward's visit to the Jews at Jerusalem, for his health, for his safe return to his native land, and a long, happy life. The rabbi now descended, and it was evident that the service was at an end. (p. 653-655)

This blog contains excerpts from Seward, W. H. (1876). William H. Seward's Travels Around the World. United States: D. Appleton and Company.