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Descriptive Geography and Brief Historical Sketch of Palestine

By Rabbi Joseph Schwarz, 1850

The Mode of Worship of the Ashkenazim Before They Were Permitted To Have a Synagogue.

As I have told already in the description of the Ashkenazim Synagogue, they commenced only as late as 5572 (1812), to be again seen in Jerusalem, which they formerly did not dare to do. When their numbers gradually increased, and the Mahomedans appeared to have already laid aside some of their hatred towards them, incurred on account of the indebtedness of their ancestors, they hired a small place as a Midrash, and even took courage to hold worship therein; but they could not venture to carry thither a ספר תורה "A Roll of the Law," without the sanction of the chief civil authority; for to do so without previous permission being obtained would have been regarded and punished as a grave crime. But as it is impossible to hold a regular public worship without a Sepher Torah, they procured a small one, which was put up in the form of a large book, that is, they put it in between covers, and thus placed it among the other reading books, and it was hardly distinguishable from them. When they read out of it, and when it was necessary to remove it from its cover, they had, as may expected, to close the gates of the court­yard, and to place guards around, that no Mahomedan might detect them at their terrible crime, the great sin of reading the Word of God.

But through some oversight the matter became known to the Mahomedans. One day, therefore, while the gate was closed, during their reading the Sepher, they all at once heard a loud knocking at the door, when they put the book hastily in its cover, and placed it in the usual spot among the other books; immediately there entered a considerable number of the most respectable Mahomedans, connected with the administration of justice, to convince themselves by personal inspection of the crime committed by the Jews. They, however, saw no Sepher Torah, and the terrified worshippers maintained that they had no Asara Kilmat (literally "The Ten Words," meaning the Ten Commandments, by which name the Arabs designate the whole Roll of the Law, as well as the Tephillin and Mezuzah), out of which to hold public reading. But the others asked why they found the doors of the court closed? To which the malefactors replied, that they had done it on account of the dogs, which run freely about the streets, who otherwise would rush in and disturb them in their devotions.

The Mahomedans now searched in all corners, but never once thought that what they sought for was standing before their eyes among the other books. They, however, went away both furious and confounded, since they were convinced that a Sepher must be in the place of meeting though they had not been able to discover it. When the inquisitors had thus left, the congregation again closed the doors and finished the reading.

The day following the owner of the place came to the president of the community and said: "We know for a certainty that you have an Asara Kilmat in your Midras, out of which you read in public; but a higher Power must protect you to make it invisible, since we could neither see nor find it: give me now a considerable sum of money, and I will effect that no search shall again be made in your meeting-place; because, if I, as proprietor, am indifferent whether such a sin is committed in my house, and that it is so degraded, it must be a matter of indifference also to the other worshipful Mahomedans." The president gave him what he demanded, and they had now nothing to apprehend to be again molested by the visits of the authorities.*

At a later period the congregation applied to the supreme government at Constantinople, when they obtained a firman (decree) to be allowed to read publicly in their Midras out of the Sepher Torah; and in 5597 (1831), they obtained at length permission to rebuild their ancient Synagogue, when they restored the solemn public worship in the usual manner.

* It thus appears that the gravest prohibition, the greatest crime may be winked at by the pious believers, through means of a Bakshis, i.e. a present or gift, although it must be proportioned to the greatness of the crime or prohibition.

Jews and Muslims in Palestine