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Ancient Synagogues At Toledo.

By Elias H. Lindo, Esq., of London.

My Dear Sir:

Having been to Madrid lately, while in Spain, I felt it to be my duty to visit Toledo, the city where so many of our learned men flourished, who spread their learning through Europe at the time it was enveloped in barbarous ignorance; and a place so famed for remarkable incidents in Jewish history. As my notes may be interesting to you, I send them, permitting you to make any use of them you may think fit.

The first settlement of the Jews in Spain is lost in the obscurity of ages, but no doubt can exist of its having been at a very early period; for if the ancient Tarshish was, as is supposed by many learned writers, to have been a city of the Peninsula, some most probably resided there seven hundred years before the Christian era, for as we learn by the Bible, Jonah intended to flee thither. Now, as that event was a century and upwards after Solomon, whose ships traded to Tarshish, it may naturally be imagined that some settled there; for it can hardly be supposed the Prophet would have sought refuge in a place where none of his religion were to be met with. There is no mention in the history of the reign of King Solomon, that he sent collectors or received tribute from Jews resident in other countries; and even if he did, it is highly improbable he would have sent Adoniram, who “was over the tribute,” to collect it in Spain. I should, therefore, be inclined to doubt the assertion of the Murviedran manuscript, and the authenticity of the mutilated tombstones, found in the neighbourhood of the ancient Sagantum, as any corroboration of the deductions drawn from them. Spanish historians generally consider the immigration to have taken place on the destruction of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar, who had been accompanied in his expedition against Judea by Hispan as an auxiliary. On his return to Hispania, some Jews accompanied him, either voluntarily, or were presented to him by Nebuchadnezzar. Others state it to have been on the restoration to freedom by Cyrus, that some accompanied his captain, named Pirius, to Spain. Whether at the former or latter period, their early settlement is confirmed by Don Isaac Abarbanel, in his Commentary on Zechariah, where he states that his and another family resided at Seville during the second temple; and yet further, by a recorded fact in Spanish history, that where a capitation tax of thirty sols was levied on the Jews residing in Spain, those of Toledo were exempted from it on the plea of not being parties to the condemnation and crucifixion of Jesus. Some later writers assume the great influx to have taken place after the destruction of the second temple; one says, “After Titus the son of Vespasian subjected Judea, many of those who could escape from the sword of the Roman legions, or the flames that reduced the beautiful Jerusalem to ashes, fled seeking an asylum, some in the East, some in Babylon, some in Egypt, and the families of the greatest consideration were brought to Spain, among whom were the remnants of the tribes of Benjamin and Judah, descendants of the hose of David.”

The first Jewish settlers are generally supposed to have built the city of Toledo, which they had named Toledoth, תולדות by striking off the two last letters, its present name remains; although Hebrew writers of the middle ages (probably the Moorish appellation given to it) called it Tolatola. The population increased so much that they were obliged to extend their establishments, and founded the towns of Escalona, Maqueda, Cadaholsa, Guardia, Romeria, Almorox, Noves Nombleca, and the present Tembleque, which they had called Bethlehem. This is learned from an old history of Toledo,* and in a treat measure confirmed lay the historian Mariana. These towns are said to have been built four hundred years before the Christian era. At Toledo, three Synagogues are yet to be seen, one within the city, at the top of a street yet called Calle de la Sinagoga; it is a fine large building, entered through the yard of a house to whose owner it belongs, and though adjoining, forms no part of it, the height preventing any story being raised above it. It is now used as a storehouse, and at the time I saw it, was so full of winter provision, of provender, and fuel, that it was not possible to examine it minutely, and although the walls are covered with the most splendid arabesques, none of its other beauties are to be seen. There is a recess on the east where the Echal stood, also richly ornamented in the same style, from which, if not built long anterior, it may be supposed to have been in the eighth or ninth century, when the Moors were at the summit of their glory in that part of Europe.

* Rojas, Historia de Toledo.

The other two are on the outskirts of the city, where I was informed was the part the Jews formerly lived in; certainly if that was the ancient Judería, they had no reason to complain of their situation, for it is a fine airy spot on nearly the highest part of the hill on which Toledo is built, commanding a fine view of the Tagus and adjacent country. The first is a fine large building, said to have been built in the eighth or ninth century, for there is no data on which to found the period at which this temple dedicated to the God of Israel was erected. The authors who assert it to have been about the above date, have no other foundation for their opinion than the interior decorations. Some state it to have been built by the first colony of Jews that settled in Spain. It is a fine large stone building; the exterior walls are in good repair; the interior measures, from the eastern door to the recess where the Echal formerly stood, seventy-two feet; there are six broad stone steps to ascend from the body of the building to the recess, which is fourteen feet in depth, so that the whole measurement of the interior is upwards of one hundred feet. The roof is supported by twenty-four immense polygonal stone columns in four rows, (thus forming three aisles); the two nearest the walls on each side seem to have been the breadth of the former gallery, nine or ten feet, the entire width of the building being about forty-five feet. From the rich engrailed Moorish work of the Gothic capitals of the columns, spring horseshoe arches, which support the roof; the height of it is quite disproportioned to the other dimensions of the building; the ceiling, as well as the beams supporting it, are said to be cedar of Lebanon; and the roof of the recess is much lower, arched and richly carved with arabesques interspersed with gilding. Although at present in a dilapidated state, from its solidity, the expense of putting it into complete repair would not be very great. It was used as a Synagogue from the time of its building until 1415, when Friar Vincente Ferrer instigated and led on the populace to massacre the Jews. It was taken from them, converted into a church, and dedicated to St. Maria la Blanca, I suppose in contradistinction of the same personage in the Cathedral., which is black; but she did mot keep possession of it as long as its rightful owners had; for on the French taking possession of Toledo in 1808, they removed her ladyship from her ill-acquired abode, and turned it into a military storehouse, and since their departure, it has remained unoccupied. The remains prove it to have been a most magnificent temple.

In the same quarter of the city is the other, built at the sole expense of R. Samuel Levi, (whose surname, according to the epitaph on his tombstone, was Abulaphia), treasurer, councillor, and friend of Peter the Great, from whom he obtained permission to build this Synagogue, although by the existing laws of Castile, only one was allowed in any city. The riches of R. Samuel were immense, for it is hardly possible to form a relative value between the coin of Spain five centuries ago and the present. When Don Pedro, in the eleventh year of his reign, (1360,) had him arrested and confiscated his property, history states that he took from him seven hundred thousand doblas, (at present about five hundred and fifty thousand pounds sterling,) and four millions -- of silver, besides one hundred and twenty-five pieces gold brocade, and eighty Moorish slaves; and further, that he had also secreted much property. When he built this Synagogue, history records, that he furnished it with silver lamps and candlesticks, and various articles of gold, which I suppose must have been the ornaments, &c., of the Sepharim. From the above it will be seen it was built between 1350 and 1360, consequently near five centuries ago. It is a large oblong square, without a single pillar; the roof, which is flat, is supported by beams laid on the walls, which are very high but yet harmonize with the size of the building, which is from seventy to eighty feet in length and proportionably wide; the complicated angular ceiling is said to be cedar from Lebanon; it is now a dark mahogany colour, and has the property of not imbibing moisture, nor decaying, nor harbouring any insect, so that not a cobweb is to be seen, and from its not suffering from the effects of humidity; the gilding is in as good a state of preservation as the day it was executed, which cannot be from present care, for its great height would render it a most difficult task. At the east end is a recess, having six steps to ascend to it, where the Echal formerly stood, but where is now to be seen a miserable figure of the Virgin styled Nuestra Senora del Transita, whose protection travellers going a journey may invoke if they think proper on leaving Toledo; but as I never met any at either of the visits I paid to it, I presume the rational and general opinion is, that they will do equally as well without it. Although more generally known by this name, when, in 1494, two years after our banishment, Ferdinand and Isabella presented it to the Knights of Calatrava, they dedicated it to San Benito. The whole is lighted by circular openings, covered with arabesque work, that go all around the building. They are immediately below the roof, under which is a broad green band, covered with Hebrew letters, in white cement in relief, and notwithstanding the band was so painted to render the characters more distinct, yet from the great height it is a painful task, at least I found it so to my eyes, and some of the letters being defective from small pieces of the cement having fallen off, renders the reading extremely difficult; however, by the help of a short ladder that my attendant procured for me from a gallery at the west end, which had been built for placing an organ, although to the present day, none has been erected, I was able to make out some of the inscription. The following is what I copied from the south side:

ל יראה אל אלהים בציון יי אלהים צבאות שמעה תפלתי האזינה אלהי

And on the north side,

להולכים בתמים יי צ" אשרי אדם בוטח בך

This is a very insignificant portion of the whole, as the various inscriptions go completely around the entire edifice. Immediately below this green band is a white one, about six feet, of the most exquisite arabesque work, beautifully raised, interspersed with fruit and foliage, a vine predominating; its broad leaves and light tendrils being here and there lost to view, then again appearing running completely round the Synagogue, cause the visiter admiration, as he looks on the elaborate and beautiful works, and the genius and taste of the artist who executed it. Below this again, are more Hebrew inscriptions in relief like the former; but being on the white wall, although lower than the former, are quite as painful to the eye to decipher. On each side of the recess, at about twelve to fourteen feet from the paved floor, are two squares, each containing six lines of Hebrew. Some of the letters were much defaced by age. I took a piece that was falling from one and found it to be a species of cement; some have supposed that it was carved from stone. By once more ascending the ladder, I began to copy the lines in the square on the right. The following is a facsimile of them:

ראו דקדש אשר וקודש בישרי ל
והבית אשר בוד שמואל
ומגדל עץ

I was now obliged to suspend my labour, and intended returning after my guide could return; but in the meanwhile I learnt that a Senior Cerbanero might give me some information respecting it, as he was well-informed in the antiquities of Toledo. That gentleman, although a perfect stranger, without any introduction to him, received me in the politest manner. I learnt that there was no copy of the Hebrew inscriptions, but that a translation of them was in the public literary, which I found so conformable to what I had copied, that I conceived the whole would be equally correct, and therefore gave over the fatiguing task of copying any more. It states the upper inscription to be a Psalm of David, which is recognised to be Psalm 84. On my return to London, I learnt from R. Moses, Hazan of Jerusalem, that there is a Synagogue in the Holy City that has the same psalm round its roof. On the right of the recess is: "See the sanctuary that was sanctified in Israel, the house that Samuel built, and the wooden pulpit for reading the written law and the laws ordained by God, and arranged to enlighten the understandings of those that seek perfection." On the left: "This is the fortress of the perfect words; the house of God; and it is the acts and things they performed towards God to congregate the people that come before the gates to hear the Law of God in this house." Around the buildings on one side is: "God hath been pleased to perform his mercies towards us, in raising up among us Judges and Princes, to deliver us from our enemies and oppressors--there being no king in Israel who could deliver us since the last captivity from God, which He raised on Israel, for a third time dispersing us, some to this country, and others to various parts where they reside, wishing for their country and we for ours. And we, the inhabitants of this land, have built this house with a strong hand and mighty power. The day it was built was a great and joyful, one for the Jews, who from the fame of it came from the ends of the earth to see if there was any way by which some lord might raise himself over us, who could be a tower of strength for us, to govern our state with perfect understanding. No such lord was found among us who resided in these parts; but there arose among us for our assistance, Samuel, with whom and with us, God was. He was a man for peace and for war, powerful among all the people, and a great builder. This occurred in the time of Don Pedro. May God be his help, aggrandize his kingdom, prosper and exalt him, and place his throne above all princes. May the Lord be with him and all his house. Let all men bow to him, and the great and powerful in the land acknowledge him, and all who hear his name feel pleasure at hearing it through all the kingdoms, and may it be manifest that he is appointed by God a defender and help to Israel." On the other side, it says, (in continuation): "trough him, and by his assistance and permission, we resolved to build the temple. Peace be with him and with all his generations, and a help in all his troubles. God hath now delivered us from the power of our enemy, and since our captivity we have not had such a refuge. We have erected this building by advice of our Sages. The mercy of God was great towards us. Don R. Meir, blessed be his memory, enlightened and guided us. He was born that he might be a treasure to us and to our people; for previously we had daily fighting at our doors. This holy man gave such relief and assistance to the poor, as had not been done in former days and ancient years. He was not a prophet; but by the hand of God, an upright man who walked in perfection. He was one of the fearers of God, and of those who regard his holy name; to all this he added a desire to build this house of prayer, for the name and fame of the God of Israel."

From the gallery at the westward is a door leading to the dwelling, where at present the Sacristan resides; the prior of San Benito had formerly occupied it, but originally, it must have been the dwelling of the Rabbi, who from the following Hebrew inscription, appears to have had this room as a college or בית המדרש

"This is the house of feasting for those who desire to know our law and seek the Lord. He commenced building this house and dwelling, and finished it in a very good year for Israel. God increased after this house was built for him eleven hundred of his people, who were great and powerful men, that with a strong hand and mighty power, they might maintain this house. Before this, no people in, any part of the world, had less power; but here, O Lord our God, Thou being the Lord of war, and all-powerful, hast chosen that we should finish this house for good, in goodly days and happy years, that thy name might prevail through the whole earth. Accept, as worthy, this the house of prayer, that thy servants have built to invoke therein the name of God their Redeemer."

It is to be regretted there is no data whereby to learn who was the R. Meir here mentioned in the inscription. By some, he is supposed to be R. Meir Aldabi, author of שבילי אמונה "The Paths of Faith;" but he was alive in 1360, and the inscription alludes to a person who was dead, and the Synagogue must have been completed before the death of Samuel, which took place in October, 1360. Neither could it have been the famed R. Meir bar Todros, who died a century before, as it alludes to a person who guided them. I am, therefore, induced to suppose him to have been the father of Samuel, who died in October, 1350, which I am led to by the epitaph on his tombstone, which I have adjoined, as well as that of the founder. I omitted mentioning that from the two squares on the sides of the recess to the roof is covered with rich arabesques. A splendid engraving of this Synagogue had lately been executed at Paris, in the Monumental Antiquities of Spain, a work published at 192 francs.

On Samuel Anagid

אבן בחן
ותחחיה נגנז צדיק נבחן
סבל שבט מוסר
ומדרכי האל לאסר
וקבל את הייסורין מאהבה
ה אהב את התוכחות נדבה
בחרות אף ה' על בית הלוי ומאוס מאסהו
אדניו מקום אשר אסירי המלך אסורים שמהו
שם שם לו חק ומשפט ושם נסהו
ושם קרא ה' שמואל שמואל
ויעלהו אליו הרמה בית אל
השר הגדול ר' שמואל נשיא האל
ושמואל תקן בראשית
ויוסף ה' קרוא עוד שמואל בשלישית*
פֶרַח מטה לוי וצמרתו
וציצת צבי תפארתו
בחור וטוב ראי ען יפה עינים
וברוחו פי שנים
הוא ר' שמואל הלוי מ"ב
בן כבוד ר' מאיר הלוי רי"ת הנקרא אבולעפייא
נפטר בחדש מרחשון

There is no year here

On R. Meir

כתוב על הקבר ובאר היטב מכתב
למען ירוץ קורא בו
ופתוחי חותם תפתח על האבן
וידעו כי נגנז תחתיו כתר הזמן ונזרו

* There were three princes named Samuel of the tribe of Levi.
1. Samuel the Prophet.
2. The Prime Minister to the King of Granada in 1027. (Samuel Ha-Nagid)
3. The one here spoken of.

ועטרת פארו
חֲלִי הַיְקָר וְעֶדְיו
ועץ היחס ופריו
תפארת אדם
והדר בני לוי והודם
מבני חברון ועזיאל
אצילי בני ישראל
ועֵד נאמן
ופרנס רחמן
אהב ללכת בדרכי האל
וישפוט את ישראל
הוא ר' מאיר הלוי מ"ב הנקרא אבולעפייא הלוי
בן כבוד ר' שמואל הלוי רי"ת בן אל-לאוי
ונפטר בחדש מרחשון שנת קט"ב וחמשת אלפים ליצירה
עלתה לַמָרום חַיָתו
וכלתה אל אלהיו נשמתו
לשמור משמרת ביתו
ולעבוד את עבודתו
ונכספה ונם כלתה קדשו
ולאור באור החיים
ככל אחיו הלוים
לשאת בכתף כליהם
כי עבודת הקדש עליהם
וימים שבעה לפני מאתו
לתור מנוחה לשבתו
ותמצא מנוח לכף רגלה
וילך אישה אחריה
לקץ הימין בהִנָעֵר עַצְמות יְשֵנָי
מאיר עיני שניהם ה'