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Aleppo, Syria's Legendary Jewish Community

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Aleppo, Syria

Aleppo, Aram Soba (Tsova) and Halab are interchangeable names for the same city in northwest Syria. Aleppo was the name given to Halab by the Italian merchants in the 14th and 15th centuries.

500 - 900CE

Jewish settlement in Aleppo has continued uninterruptedly since Roman times. The ancient section of the great synagogue was built in the form of a basilica with three storys during the Byzantine period; an inscription on it dates from 834.

Saadiah Gaon was in Aleppo in 921 and it is said that he found Jewish scholars there.

The level of Jewish religious observance and study in Aleppo is legendary and well respected. The Rambam (Maimonides 1135-1204) wrote in a letter to the Jews of Lunel, in the South of France: "In all the Holy Land and in Syria, there is one city alone and it is Halab in which there are those who are truly devoted to the Jewish religion and the study of Torah.

The Aleppo Codex - Keter Aram Tzova'

The Aleppo Codex, called the Crown of the Torah, was written during the first half of the 10th century (or 896 acc. to some scholars). The Hebrew manuscript of the Bible was written by the scribe Shlomo Ben Buya'a and then verified, vocalized, and pointed by Aaron Ben-Asher in Tiberias. It was taken to Egypt where Maimonides saw it. He considered it to be the most perfect of all versions and used it as an example and standard of the Biblical text.

Sometime towards the end of the 14th century the manuscript was taken into the custody of the Jewish community of Aleppo. Keter Aram Tzova (The Aleppo Codex), the most authoritative manuscript of the Masoretic text of the Bible, was kept in the Joab Ben Zeruiah Synagogue (in the Cave of Elijah) for some 500 years.

Apparently it was damaged in the fire of the synagogue in 1947 in the period known as "Days of Trial," and thought to be lost until 1958 when it was brought to Israel. It is housed in the Ben-Zvi Institute. Now most of its pages, 295 of the original 487, are safeguarded in Jerusalem, Israel.

The Aleppo Codex Mystery

1000 - 1200 CE

In the 11th century learned rabbis led a well-ordered community. R. Baruch b. Isaac was its leader at the end of the 11th century: fragments of his commentary on the Gemara as well as responsa have been found in the genizah.

In the second half of the 12th century the great Torah Center of Baghdad was in contact with Aleppo. R. Zechariah b. Barachel, a disciple of the gaon Samuel b. Ali of Baghdad was appointed to head Aleppo's bet din.

The scholars of Aleppo also exchanged letters with Maimonides; R. Joseph ben Aknin, Maimonides' disciple, lived in Aleppo at. that time.

With the inclusion of the town in Nur al-Din's (Nouredin) kingdom in 1146, security improved. Benjamin of Tudela estimated the number of Jews in Aleppo as 5,000 (according to the best-preserved manuscript versions).

After Saladin's death, Aleppo became the capital of an independent kingdom and until the middle of the 13th century the city enjoyed security and prosperity in which the Jews shared. In 1217, Judah Al-Harizi visited Aleppo and reported that there were several Jewish scholars, physicians, and government officials active there at the time.

In (1260) Mamluks defeated the Mongols and ruled over Syria until the beginning of the 16th century. Aleppo, their stronghold in northern Syria, contained a large garrison which brought further prosperity to the community.

There were several wealthy merchants, officials, craftsmen, and outstanding scholars among the Aleppo Jews. The rich community maintained educational institutions and scholars. The growth of Muslim intolerance under rulers from Cairo and Damascus and the periodical publication of discriminatory laws against non-Muslims, had their effect on the life of the community.

1300 - 1400 CE

In 1327, the synagogue was turned into a mosque with the approval of the sultan of Cairo. The end of the 14th century saw a power struggle between opposing factions of the leaders of the Mamluks and heavy taxes were imposed on the civilian population.

In 1400, Tamerlane captured Aleppo with much bloodshed and destruction. The community gradually overcame this disaster and in the second half of the 15th century Aleppo Jews again traded with India and scholars resumed their learned activities.

At the beginning of the 16th century exiles from Spain started to arrive in Aleppo, among them outstanding rabbis. The spiritual and intellectual leadership of the community gradually passed to the Sephardim, and important rabbis include:

  • R. Solomon Atartoros in the middle of the 16th century and after him
  • R. Abraham ben Asher of Safed,
  • R. Samuel ben Abraham Laniado, his son,
  • R. Abraham (who officiated until 1623), and his grandson,
  • R. Solomon.

1500 - 1600 CE

After the Ottoman conquest in 1517, constant contacts were established with the great communities in Constantinople and the other towns in Turkey, as well as trade links with them and with Persia and India.

The influence of the Safed Kabbalists was marked. Shabbateanism found many adherents In Aleppo and after Zevis Shabbetai's apostasy, Nathan of Gaza went to Aleppo and continued his activities there.

1700 CE

In 1700, R. Moses ben Raphael Harari of Salonika was rabbi of Aleppo. At that time, European Jews from France and Italy also settled in Aleppo; they participated in the extensive trade between Persia and Southern Europe in which Aleppo served as an important station.

These merchants, called Francos, enjoyed the protection of the consuls of the European powers and this created antagonism in the community. The Francos liberally supported communal institutions, but refused to pay the regular taxes and did not recognize the authority of the community.

R. Samuel Laniado II, rabbi of Aleppo in the first half of the 18th century, forcefully demanded that the Francos have the same obligations as all the other Jews of Aleppo and that all the rules should bind them. In the second half of the 18th century the dispute flared up again when the chief rabbi, Raphael Solomon ben Samuel Laniado tried to compel the Francos to accept the rules of the community and was opposed by R. Judah Kazin, who defended the Francos; the latter, in protest, ceased to take part in public prayers. The dispute had a social background, since the Francos were wealthy and learned and were attached to the ideas and customs they brought from Europe.

At the end of the 18th century, with the decline of trade between Aleppo and Persia, the number of Francos dwindled.

1800 - 1900 CE

In the first half of the 19th century, the status of the community declined both economically and culturally. At the same time hostilities erupted between the various religious communities in Syria.

In 1869 the Alliance IsraMlite Universelle established a school for boys and in 1889, a school for girls, utilizing European teaching methods.

Printing Industry

In 1865 Abraham Sasson and his sons set up a printing house in Aleppo, one of the sons having learned the craft in Leghorn.

In 1887 Isaiah Dayyan established another printing press with the help of H.P. Kohen from Jerusalem.

From 1910 to 1933 Ezra Hayyim Jouegati of Damascus set up a press, having learned the craft with Eliezer Ben-Yehuda in Jerusalem.

Another printing press was founded by Ezra Bijo in 1924 and continued until 1925. Altogether, approximately 70 books were printed in Aleppo, mostly works by local scholars, ancient manuscripts found locally, and prayer books of the local rite.

World War l - present

After World War I there were over 6,000 Jews in Aleppo. In 1947, Aleppo had a Jewish community of about 10,000.

In an outbreak of violence against the Jews in December 1947, all the synagogues were destroyed and about 6,000 Jews fled Aleppo. Many of them secretly crossed the frontier into Turkey or Lebanon, where they settled, or continued to Israel, Europe, or America. The 1,000 Jews living in Aleppo in 1968 resided in two quarters: Bahsita, the old quarter; and Jamiliyya, founded after World War I.

The four schools of the Alliance IsraMlite Universelle were closed by the government in 1950, and thereafter most of the children studied at a religious elementary school (talmud torah). As the community dwindled, this school was also closed, and some Jewish children studied at Christian schools.

Following that event, the political climate and the uncertainty of life in Syria scattered any Jews remaining in the region. Today there are essentially no Jews left in Aleppo, but the heritage of this illustrious city continues to stand out among Jewish communities by virtue of the families who emigrated over the years but continued to maintain a spiritual bond with their roots.

The Dayan Family of Aleppo

The Dayan family has very deep roots all the way back to King David, in an unbroken male pedigree.

Until the time the Jews began to emigrate from Aleppo in the early 1900s, precipitated by the Young Turks Movement, matters of honors concerning the Torah remained the province of the Dayan family. This custom had been the practice for many centuries.

Throughout that time the Dayan family included distinguished scholars in Aleppo. They laid detailed claim, generation by generation, to descent from King David. They established Beit Nasi (House of the Prince), a revered house of study and prayer that functioned in Aleppo until Israels independence in 1947-8.

The Davidic Dynasty of the Dayan Family

Yosef Dayan was born in 1945 in Mexico to Sephardic Jewish parents from Aleppo, Syria. The Dayan family traces its lineage directly to the Exilarchs of the ancient Near East.

Dayan made aliyah (emigrated to Israel) in 1968 and joined Rabbi Meir Kahane's Kach movement. He was instrumental in establishing the Hebron Hills settlement of El-Nakam, which was destroyed on the orders of the then-Minister of Defense, Moshe Arens in 1982.

He is the founder and current director of Malchut Israel, an organization with the goal of restoring Israel's royal Davidic house.

Dayan is the author of several books in Hebrew, Spanish and Italian. He also worked to translate modern Spanish literature into Hebrew. He is married with 6 children and currently resides in Psagot, Israel. His has a son, Sgt. Hananel Dayan.

Yosef Dayan, Family Progenitor

The Dayan Family's progenitor was Yosef Dayan of Aleppo, Syria, who became the royal heir of a dynasty of the Jewish Palestinian Nesi'im, its collateral-line, the Nasi Family, upon its extinction, which were both representative of the House of Bostanai, the "3rd" dynasty of Babylonian Exilarchs.

The office of the Palestinian Principate was in abeyance during the period of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, 1099-1187 & 1229-1244, but by the 1300s many other families of royal Davidic descent began supplying royal scions to be the rulers of the various Jewish settlements in Palestine, especially at Jerusalem, where its last dynasty of Jewish "Nesi'im" established itself circa 1187, which is essentially of Israel’s "dispossessed" royal house, and its head or spokesman is "Prince of Israel", the royal Davidic heir, the unofficial and/or "uncrowned" "King of the Jews". There is reference to the existence of the Palestinian Principate as late as the 1800s.

The Jewish "Prince" Yeshai, who was a medieval Davidic Dynasty prince of the exilarch's house, the grandson of the 34th Exilarch Azariah, emigrated along with his father, "Prince" Solomon, to Israel/Palestine and founded another dynasty of the Israeli/Palestinian "nesi'im", c. 1187, and, became the ancestor of the Ha-Nasi Family, which family reigned until its deposition by the Turkish sultan in 1678, whereupon, the dynasty's heir took up residence in Aleppo, Syria. The Nassi Family, which became extinct in the male-line, upon which its surviving off-shoot, the Dayan Family, inherited its legacy.

Yitzak Dayyan was considered heir in 1933 by Jewish rabbis as the Davidic Dynasty's heir and titular "King of Israel"; but after his death none of his three sons pursued their father's dynastic claims. Then, in 1968, another family member, Yosef Dayan, was encouraged by Jewish rabbis to be an active claimant to the throne

The Dayan Family appears to have the best claim to Israel's throne, for Dr. Nahum Sloushz in his article "Where are the True Descendants of King David?", in "The Jewish Morning Journal", dated September 1, 1933, says that Rabbi Isaac (Yitzhak) Dayan was considered the head of King David's House in his time due primarily to his strong personality, rather than according to his place in the line of succession.

Too, in 1617 the old great Rabbi Kehahr [Kevod HaRav HaGaon] recorded in an unpublished manuscript the ancestral-line of his contemporary Nathan Ha-Dayan [son of Mordechai Ha-Dayan and father of Yosef Dayan, the royal heir] in which he heaps praise upon him reminiscence of the praise heaped upon the post-exilic royal heir Zerubabel by the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, which suggests appointment of him, his family, and descendants, as the heirs of the Davidic Dynasty and/or the ancient Jewish kings.

References ↑ David Hughes, Davidic Dynasty Source

Dayan Family Researchers

  • Felix Lazarus (1890, 1934) researched the first major study of the exilarchs. Using a list compiled by Elisha Crescas, the only list of exilarchs that we have, and using Talmudic references and historical accounts, especially the Epistle (lggeres) of Sherira Gaon, Lazarus created his own list of officeholders. The list of Elisha Crescas comes from a manuscript dated 1383.
  • Jacob Mann (1927) did some very interesting work on the later exilarchs. His article, which is in Hebrew, has a major collection of the pedigrees.
  • Abraham David wrote biographical articles in Encyclopaedia Judaica on the later exilarchs as well as articles on individual exilarchs and other prominent figures.
  • Alexander Goode (1940-1). His reconstruction of the list of exilarchs has been widely adopted in other publications.
  • Moshe Gil's article "The Exilarchate," published in English in 1995. Gil is the leading scholar in the field of study, publication, and translation of Geniza fragments. Gil considers at least ten lists related to the history of the exilarchs, including Dayan of Aleppo. He consolidated these lists and genealogies, showing various branches of descendants of Bustanai, into a comparative table. A sharp distinction between pedigrees and lists of office-holders explained many inconsistencies between these related lists.
  • David Kelley Archeology Professor Emeritus of the University of Calgary (Canada), a Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists is a foremost expert on royal and ancient dynasties. One of the references cited in Kelley's paper is Gens Dayanica, the pedigree of the Dayans of Aleppo.
  • Don Stone, a colleague of Kelley. Stone studied a Web-based copy of the Geniza manuscript (fragment #H462) found among the artifacts in the Cairo geniza at Dropsie College16 in Philadelphia. The fragment17 is a piece of parchment detailing the lineage of King David that has been preserved for more than 700 years.

Aleppo's Musical Tradition

Syrian Jewry and, particularly, the community of Aleppo long enjoyed a reputation as lovers of music and singing. In the course of eight centuries, they developed a characteristic style in their liturgical and related activities.

As early as the 13th century, the Spanish Hebrew poet Judah Al-Harizi, referring to Syrian personalities, mentioned the cantor R. Daniel and said his performance conquered "the hearts of the holy people by his delightful song" (Tahkemoni, 46).

Almost all the chants and hymns sung outside the formal religious service were the work of distinguished Aleppo rabbis such as,

  • Moses Laniado,
  • Raphael Antebi,
  • Jacob Abbadi
  • Mordecai Abbadi,
  • Mordecai Levaton,

The rabbis were poets as well as composers. Some of them may have modeled themselves on the poet Israel Najara of Damascus who was highly esteemed by composers of the period.

This encouragement of the art of singing by the rabbis found strong support in R. Mordecai Abbadi's introduction to a book of bakkashot (Sephardi hymns), Mikra Kodesh, published in 1873.

The melodic style of Aleppo belongs to the Arabian-Turco-Persian musical family, but also shows other influences, mainly those of Sephardi Jews.

History of Aleppo Source: Encyclopedia Judaica,

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ALEPPO, 1947

Opposite Rafi’s apartment in a middle-class neighborhood in Aleppo, Syria, was a delicatessen owned by a Jewish family named Mizreb. This was in 1947. The deli sold canned foods imported from abroad, preserved meats, pickled cucumbers made by the proprietor’s mother, and French baguette sandwiches.

The Jewish geography of Aleppo was ancient: Jews had been praying at their Great Synagogue since the 5th century C.E., and the first known evidence of Jews in the city is seven centuries older than that. The community thus predated not only Islam but also Christianity and the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The Jews were the oldest of the city’s native sects.

Mizreb’s delicatessen was a new addition to the geography, but an important one, or at least so it seemed to Rafi. If a young Jewish man wanted to treat his girlfriend in those days, he took her to the deli and bought her a baguette sandwich and a drink. Rafi was not yet old enough to do such things himself but he was, in the manner of fifteen-year-olds, attentive to them.

On November 30, 1947, a Sunday, Rafi looked out at his street from between the slats of wooden shutters. The night before, he had listened on the family’s radio to the broadcast from the United Nations where delegates voted to partition Palestine into a state for Arabs and a state for Jews. Now Jewish stores were ablaze in Aleppo, and up the street were piles of Jewish books in flames; like the burning of books and smashing of glass nine years earlier, in colder cities, the smoke augured the end of a Jewish world. Bands of rioters incited by the press and the government roamed the neighborhood looking for Jewish homes and businesses. According to one contemporary report, the mob burned down 50 stores, 18 synagogues, five schools, the community’s orphanage, a youth club, and more than 150 homes.

In the ancient Jewish quarter in the Old City, families huddled in basements, hid in the apartments of friendly Muslim or Christian neighbors, or—in the case of one boy I would interview as an elderly man decades later—jumped barefoot from a kitchen window ahead of a mob bursting through the front door and sprinted through the alleys to a chorus of Arabic jeers and breaking glass.

A group of rioters gathered outside the storefront of Mizreb’s deli. Rafi could tell by their worn slacks and shoes that they were from the provinces or the city’s poorer quarters. They smashed the storefront, and two of the marauders ran across the street with an enormous jar of Mizreb’s famous pickled cucumbers. Sitting on the steps of Rafi’s building, they began to fight over the jar, tugging it back and forth until finally it fell to the ground and shattered, spilling the contents on the ground. This would be one of Rafi’s indelible memories of that day, a fifteen-year-old’s view of the beginning of the end.

By the next day the community’s well-off families had fled. By the mid-1950s, of the 10,000 Jews in Aleppo in 1947, only 2,000 remained, mostly the poor. They were prisoners of the Syrian regime and its secret services, the mukhabarat. The Jews’ passports were stamped in red with the word mousawi, “Mosaic,” so that their movements could be more easily restricted. Travel between cities was forbidden except by special permission. Many university faculties were closed to Jews.

In the early 1990s, when the remaining members of the community were finally allowed to leave, they did so immediately, shuttering the Great Synagogue of Aleppo, the oldest functioning house of Jewish prayer in the world.

By this time, Rafi was long gone. In 1949, two years after watching the riot through the shutters of his home, he escaped on a rickety boat that sailed from Lebanon and deposited him on a beach in the new state of Israel.

My first intimate exposure to this history came in the course of writing about the Aleppo Codex, a manuscript of the Hebrew Bible guarded in that city for six centuries. That led me to Rafi, who became a character in my book. Prior to our long conversations, which still occur regularly, I might have thought of Jews like him as Sephardim, meaning Jews of mainly Spanish descent—but Jewish Aleppo and other eastern communities existed not only before the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 but before they arrived there in the first place.

Or I might have thought of them as Jews of the Islamic world, which is not inaccurate but conceals its own slight, since Jews were in places like Aleppo at least a millennium before the birth of Islam. Jews of the Arab world, then? True of most of them—except that Jews had been living in Arab countries long before those countries were Arab.  

Let us call them, with apologies for the lack of geographical logic, Jews from the Middle East, stretching the term “Middle East” to include North Africa even though the “eastern” city of Casablanca is farther west than the “western” city of London. In the 1940s there were about 260,000 Jews living in Morocco, 140,000 in Algeria, 40,000 in Libya, 140,000 in Iraq, 80,000 in Egypt, 60,000 in Yemen, and many others in Arab countries and in non-Arab countries like Iran and Turkey. Most were Arabic-speaking, with minorities who spoke Persian, Kurdish, Turkish, and other languages.

In all, there were nearly a million Jews living throughout the Middle East only 70 years ago, members of one of the region’s ancient native religious communities. Beginning in the mid-20th century they were forcibly displaced en masse, never to see their homes again. Most of them became concentrated in one minute slice of the region.

In Israel they have become known collectively as Mizrahim, easterners, a generalization that incorporates people from vastly different countries and classes but sharing roots in the world of Islam and similar experiences after their arrival in Israel.


 In Aleppo, Mizreb’s delicatessen is gone. Rafi’s old school and synagogue are gone. Jewish Aleppo is gone. Now much of the rest of Aleppo is gone as well. Rafi and his wife Rina, who hails from another Aleppo family, their three sons, all of whom are in Israel, and their eight grandchildren.