A Historical Look at LIFE in ALEPPO

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By: Sarina Roffé

Aleppo (Halab, or Aram Soba) is the second largest city in Syria, located in the country’s northern region, at the foot of the Tauris Mountains. It is 400 meters above sea level, on the edge of the desert, surrounded by orchards. The summers are hot and dry, and the winters cold, with snow falling every two or three years.

Over the years, the city suffered many major calamities, such as earthquakes, famine, and epidemics of cholera, smallpox, plague, and diphtheria. In 1822, a horrendous seismic upheaval caused the destruction of 4,000 buildings. Thousands of people, many of them Jews, died in the epidemic that broke out in its aftermath.

The city’s location made it an important strategic crossroad between East and West, and lent it commercial importance for thousands of years. Many caravans of traders passed through this city until the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.

In 1516, Syria was taken over by the Ottomans, bringing a significant financial and spiritual boon to the Jewish community, as it strengthened its connections with other Jewish centers in the Ottoman Empire. During that era, Halab attracted Jews, mainly Spanish, to the city to deal in commerce.

The legal status of the Jews was determined by Islamic law. The Jews, like the Christians, were considered “people of the book,” which meant that their law originated from a true revelation. They were therefore given the freedom to observe their religion, on the condition that they recognized their inferior status and paid a protection tax. By virtue of their inferior status, they were not allowed to build new synagogues, were required to wear clothes of a certain color, and were not permitted to ride on horses or carry weapons.

Tedef, Adlib, Ein Tab, Orfa, and Kilz are satellite villages located not far from Aleppo in northern Syria and southern Turkey. The Jews of these communities considered Halab their spiritual and commercial capital.


The Spanish Exiles

The expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 resulted in a large influx of Spanish Jews in Aleppo, triggering tensions between the newcomers and the mistarvim, the indigenous Jews, who came under pressure to change their traditions. Arguments erupted concerning matters of great religious importance such as the validity of mikvaot, the status of the study hall which shared a roof with the burial Cave of the Righteous, and issues of leadership and law enforcement.

The leaders of the Spanish Jews, Rabbis Moshe Kaletz and Eliezer Ben Yochai, wrote to the leading Sephardic rabbis of Tzfat – Rabbis Yosef Karo, Yosef Ben Moshe Tarani, and Yaakov Berav – and to Rabbi Levi Ben Haviv of Jerusalem, asking them to arbitrate and settle the dispute. Eventually, the Spanish Jews of Aleppo asked Rabbi Yosef Karo to come and serve as their rabbi. As he was unable leave Tzfat, Rabbi Karo sent his close disciple and friend, Rabbi Shmuel Laniado (known as the Ba’al Hakelim), to come and serve as rabbi of the community.

The new immigrants from Spain were men of spiritual and organizational stature who contributed to turning Halab into an important Torah center. Rabbinical families such as Laniado, Attia, Kassin, Labaton and others descend from Spanish exiles who settled in Aleppo. The Spanish rabbis were more accomplished scholars than the local rabbis, creating a rift in the Aleppo community, where the Dayan family, which descended from King David, had served as the religious leaders for many generations. For a period of time, there were two separate communities in Aleppo, until, within several generations, they united under the leadership of the rabbis from the Laniado family. In his book, Nahar Eldahab Fee Tareah Halab(The Golden River in the History of Halab), the Aleppan historian Kamel Al-Ghazzi claims that the reason why the Spanish rabbis succeeded in taking the place of the local rabbis was because of their erudition not only in Jewish studies, but also in mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, and medicine.


The Francos

In the 17thand 18thcenturies, Jewish merchants from Europe – mostly from Italy, Spain, and France – arrived in Halab to do business. While they intended to stay temporarily, they ended up marrying local Jewish girls and settling permanently in Aram Soba. They were known as “Francos,” or, more honorably, as “Senors Francos.” They enjoyed special legal rights because of their foreign citizenship. They were not under the jurisdiction of the Ottoman government, were exempt from paying taxes, and often served as honorary consuls or representatives for the government of their native country, or for other governments that did not have a consul in Halab.

The Francos differed in their traditions and manner of dress.
A major controversy erupted in the 1780s, when Rabbi Raphael Laniado, the city’s Chief Rabbi, decided to subject them to the community regulations. The Francos resisted and threatened to sever all ties with the rest of the community. Most of the rabbis of Aleppo, headed by Rabbi Yehuda Kassin, took the side of the Senors Francos. The dispute lasted 15 years, after which the Francos’ position was accepted. The Francos retained their own ritual slaughterer (shohet), were exempt from community regulations and taxes, and sent their contributions to the Holy Land separately from the contributions of the local community. During those years, the Francos contributed generously to the community’s charity and educational institutions.

The City

Aleppo was comprised of 24 neighborhoods, which were independently managed by the Moslems. Each neighborhood was autonomous, containing all necessary services, including grocery stores, a bakery, a butcher shop, a cobbler, a tailor, and a barber.

The town square, known as Bab El Farage(Gate of Success), was located in the middle of the city. In the center of the square was a tall tower with a clock on each of its four sides. Two of the clocks showed European time, and the other two showed local time, according to which, sunset took place at 12:00, which was theend of the day. The town square contained the only post office in the city, the telegraph center, a small hotel and a store.

The ancient markets of Halab were built in the 13thcentury. The styled arched gates and ceilings inspired an atmosphere and fragrance of ages gone by. The alleyways of the market included sections for spices, leather, silversmiths and carpets.

Home Life

Most of the Jews lived in the Bahasita neighborhood, where the ancient synagogue was located. At the beginning of the 20thcentury, wealthier townspeople began leaving the old neighborhood to move to the more modern neighborhood of Jamilia.

Homes in many Middle East neighborhoods were arranged around a courtyard, with one exit to the street in the Old City. Known as a hoosh, the courtyard might have three or four homes around it. The courtyard would have a cistern and an entrance to an underground cave for long-term storage of nonperishable goods such as wine, oil, wheat, dates, figs, raisins, and other dried foods. In 1918, the municipality began supplying water by pipeline to the courtyards, but not yet to the homes. The outhouse was also in the courtyard. As late as the 1930s, many of the homes still didn't have electricity. The wealthy heated their homes with charcoal heaters.

People did not have furniture the way Westerners did. They sat on the floor, which was covered with carpets, cushions and quilts. Every home had a mattress closet, and each night, the mattresses were taken out and arranged on the floor. In the morning, the mattresses were aired and returned to the closet. When the weather was hot, people would take their mattresses up to the roof and sleep there. The wealthy summered in the mountains to escape the oppressive city heat.

Cooking at home was done over charcoal in clay or metal pots. The more prosperous families cooked on primuses. Twice a week, the women would bring their unbaked dough to the large oven at the local bakery for baking. On Friday, they would again come to the bakery, carrying their pots of hamin, to leave them in the heated oven until Shabbat morning or noon. The impoverished were given free flour, and one thousand loaves of bread were distributed to the needy each week.

The public bathhouse, called the hamam, was open on separate days for men and for women. The children were washed at home in a large basin with water that was heated in a kettle. On Friday afternoons, the indigent community members made their rounds knocking on doors asking for food. On Saturday night, they came again with a knapsackinto which the housewives would put their leftovers from Shabbat.

Most of the men wore cotton robes, usually with stripes. The rich wore robes made from higher quality material. Most of the men wore a high tarbushon their heads. The poor wore turbans. Inthe winter, the men wore a coat called a jabaover their robe. Distinguished rabbis and men with important posts wore this coat all year around. Francos and some of the bankers and merchants wore European-style clothing, but not hats.

The Hacham Bashi and Community Leadership

Until the 1890s, the Jewish community was led by the Hacham Bashi (Chief Rabbi) – a post held by a great spiritual leader and outstanding Torah scholar, who served as the religious authority and the community’s representative to the Ottoman government. The Hacham Bashi was attired in a special robe, and his turban was larger and of a different color than the standard turbans worn by the Jews. Rabbis who held this position included Avraham Entebi, Mordechai Labaton, Shaul Dweck Hacohen, Menashe Sitihone, and Aharon Shweka.

In 1865, the Ottoman government produced a document known as Hukat Hamilat Hayehudi, which defined the leadership and representation of the autonomous Jewish communities in the Ottoman empire. In Halab, this edict went into effect in the 1890s. From that time on, the leadership was shared by two rabbis, one of which acted as the representative to the government, while the other served as the community’s spiritual leader. Among the rabbis who served in this capacity were Moshe Cohen, Moshe Swed, Avraham Dweck Hacohen, and Eli Hacohen Tawil. A committee made up of public activists took careof the community’s social and financial matters. The Francos did not participate in the community’s institutions, and instead founded and funded their own educational system and charity institutions.

The Chief Rabbi was appointed by a board known as TovehHa’ir and approved by the Sultan. This committee was made up of the heads of the community, men of wealth and aristocracy, along with the rabbinical judges (Dayanim). The Dayanimhad a major influence on the life of the Jewish community, besides their role as judges, arbitrators, and conciliators.

The rabbis were arranged in a hierarchy of authority, with the upper class consisting of the Heads of the Rabbis and the Dayanimof the court. The next class was made up of the functionaries, and the third contained the Torah scholars who did not hold any official public post.

Torah scholars enjoyed various privileges, particularly tax exemptions. Forty Torah scholars received a stipend from a community fund known as Keren Kayemet. The stipend given to each Torahscholar was designated according to his place on a list. The first name on the list had the largest stipend and was usually that of the Chief Rabbi, followed by the elder rabbis. The lowest amount was for those who had been on the list for the shortest amount of time.

Torah scholars who devoted themselves solely to learning were highly respected and esteemed by the general populace. It was believed that the blessing and curses of Torah scholars had great power, and this belief increased the rabbis’ prominence and authority.

Those who paid taxes to the community fund had the right to vote for members of the local committee. The community fund was financed by taxes and by various pledges. The wealthy also contributed their part.

The community supported fivefunds. The first fund was for assisting the sick, founded mainly by the Francos, who brought this tradition from Italy, to aid the ill and to help them pay for their medical expenses. In 1903, a Jewish hospital was founded by the Tzedaka Umarpeh Society, financed partially by the community fund, as well as a pharmacy which distributed medications for free to the indigent. The other funds were to support Torah scholars, the burial society, guest hospitality, and Bedek Habayit. Girls from underprivileged families were given an honorable dowry from the community fund.

Besides paying internal taxes, members of the community were required to pay large sums to the government. Until the middle of the 19thcentury, both the Jews and the Christians were required topay a special tax, the jizha, which symbolized their inferior status. From 1856, they were also required to pay another tax, known as bedel oskari.

Family Life

In Aleppo, a great deal of importance was ascribed to social status. The highest social stratumwas occupied by the families of rabbis and Torah scholars, and of rich philanthropists who supported Torah and charity institutions. Families remained in the same social status for generations, and marital connections were rarely made outside one’s socialstanding.

The family usually consisted of three generations living in one home. A number of families lived in homes surrounding a common courtyard. Most of the routine daily activities, such as cooking and laundry, took place in this courtyard. The children were trained to obey their elders and to give respect to their father. The wife ran the household. Only the daughters of the poor worked outside the home, as domestic helpers in the homes of the rich. The man of the house would shop at the market and have the purchases delivered to his home. The wealthy would send a servant to do the shopping.

Marriages were usually arranged within the extended family. Once the conditions of the marriage contract were written and signed, there was a series of reciprocalvisits, dinners, and gift-giving between the two families, accompanied by great ceremony and fanfare (Source:Shoshana Zonshine). The weddings took place on Friday afternoons in the courtyard of the groom's family. The young couple usually began their married life living in the home of the groom’s family.


Well-to-do men would bring a Torah scholar (hacham) into the home who would serve as a teacher for the children and would answer any halachic questions that arose in the household.

Children began school – the “kittab” – at the age of three or four, when they were first taught the Hebrew alphabet followed by the texts of the blessings and prayers, and the weekly Torah portion. The study of Humashbegan with the Book of Vayikra, and only afterward were they taught Beresheet. The children also studied En Yaakov, a compendium of legends from the Talmud. From the kittab, the children graduated to the next level of their education – the talmud Torah. At the age of 11, the boys began to study Gemara. They were taught according to the Halab method, which differs from the method used in Europe. Upon completing the talmud Torah, the boys went on to study in the “Midrash,” or yeshiva.

Aleppo produced many Torah scholars who were renowned for their brilliance, their sharp analytical skills, and their encompassing knowledge of Torah and its treasures. They were the pride of
the community.

In 1869, the Alliance Israelite Universelle opened a modern
school in Aleppo to improve conditions for the city’s Jews.
The curriculum included Torah studies as well as general secular studies, and many rabbis endorsed the program and taught religious studies in the school. The rabbis encouraged registering children in the school, and sent their own children to study there. They organized fundraising campaigns in the synagogues and yeshivas for these new schools. Later, however, conflicts arose between the school and the rabbis over differing philosophies.

Beginning in the 1880s, economic decline spurred emigration from Aram Soba. Many of the rabbis and Torah scholars of Aram Soba moved to Jerusalem, creating a spiritual center there. Communities formed and preserved the traditions of Halab in Manchester, Cairo, Alexandria, New York, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Panama, Sao Paulo, and other places.

Today, the descendants of Aleppo’s Jews carry their heritage with a great deal of pride in their history and traditions. Despite being transplanted in geographically and culturally remote regions, and despite the upheavals that have fundamentally changed the way people live, Syrian Jews remain passionate about, and fervently devoted to, their ancient heritage. The timeless values of family, Torah scholarship and practice, and dedication to community continue to characterize today’s Syrian Jews no less than they did centuries ago. This commitment will assure the Syrian Jewish community’s continued qualitative and quantitative growth for generations to come, and will cement its stature as one of the greatest communities in the history ofthe Jewish diaspora.