The Ramchal Synagogue

The synagogue is named for Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, known by his acronym, RaMCHaL. The Ramchal was born in Padua, Italy, in 1707 and died in Acre in 1743. He delved into the mysteries of the Kabbalah, for which he was suspected of Sabbataian activities (relating to the “false messiah” Sabbatai Zevi) and was persecuted by the rabbinical authorities. Some of his writings were burned, others hidden away in a genizah (storeroom for banned books and manuscripts that nevertheless, for religious reasons, must not be destroyed).
The Ramchal wrote more than 100 books and literary works.
His most important book is: Mesillat Yesharim, that deals with ethics. Of this book, the revered Rabbi Eliezer ben Shlomo Zalman, known as the “saintly Gaon (genius) of Vilna” (acronym: ha-Gra), said that it doesn’t contain one superfluous word.
The synagogue is now located at the end of a small alley that leads off Fakhr ad-Din St. a bit north of the Dahr el-Omar Mosque (known also as al-Muallaq). A disagreement exists about how the synagogue came to be at its present location. Some say that Dahr el-Omar expropriated the original synagogue building, at the site of what is today the al-Muallaq Mosque. It was converted to a mosque, and the synagogue’s present location allocated to the Jews for that purpose. Others claim that the original synagogue building was converted to a mosque at the time of Abdullah Pasha, ruler of the city from 1818, and that it was he who gave the Jews the building where the Ramchal Synagogue stands today.
What is unique about this synagogue? First, it is the only active Jewish prayer hall in the Old City. Secondly, its structure lacks two typical elements of a synagogue: the bimah (raised platform in a synagogue from which prayers are led and the Torah is read) – having instead a chamber below ground level, visible to the worshipers through an iron latticework grille in the ground-level floor.
The Ramchal, who was modest and unpretentious, interpreted the verse “Out of the depths have I called Thee, O LORD” (Psalms 130:1) to say that not only should the prayer leader not stand on an elevated bimah, but should descend for prayer and stand below the assembly of worshipers. In addition, the synagogue is lacking a women’s section –as the Ramchal espoused Kabbalah, he forbade the entry of women into house of worship lest they be involved with profane (secular) matters. Because of this, the women opened a window in the western wall of the synagogue and would stand outside at street level to see and hear the blast of the shofar (ram’s-horn trumpet) and the rest of the prayer service.

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