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History of the Aish HaTorah Building: From the Second Temple Period to the Six Day War

Within the foundation of the building now known as Aish HaTorah World Center Dan Family of Canada Building lies the ancient aqueduct that once brought water to the Temple Mount. This aqueduct was part of a water system that stretched 40 miles from Jerusalem to various sources south of Bethlehem. It is not known exactly when this water system was first constructed but most researchers credit the Maccabees with the initiative. However, it was Herod the Great who improved the system and completed most of it.

Josephus tells us that the Roman governor "Pilate, the procurator of Judea, undertook to bring a current of water to Jerusalem, and did it with the sacred money, and derived the origin of the stream from the distance of 200 furlongs" (Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII, Chap. III. par. 2). When Pilate appropriated funds for the aqueduct that were supposed to be used for the Temple, Jews rioted against the Roman governor. Herod’s aqueduct had incredible longevity; it was refurbished by the British in 1924 and parts were still in use in 1967.

The water system that runs under Aish HaTorah World Center originated at Solomon’s pools, about 13 miles from Jerusalem. The construction of these massive pools which lie between Bethlehem and Beit Sahour is ascribed to Maccabean kings of the second century BCE. Water flowed through tunnels under Bethlehem and then to the area of the Armon HaNatziv neighborhood south of Jerusalem. The water was then conducted underneath the Hill of Evil council, exiting amid what is now called the Haas promenade.

The aqueduct then traversed the western edge of the Hinnom valley, skirting Abu Tor and emerged next to Mishkanot Sha’ananim. It crossed the valley there not far from today’s Cinemateque, visible from David’s Tower, and proceeded around Mount Zion and crossed under the Old City walls. Water then flowed under what is today’s Jewish Quarter, and then flowed along the cliff or scarp that forms the base of Aish HaTorah World Center. The water entered the Temple Mount along Wilson’s arch, which can now be seen in the tunnels accessible from the men’s section of the Western Wall plaza.

Portions of the system were first mapped by Charles Wilson, Conrad Schick and Charles Warren in the mid-19th century, and was confirmed by the 1996 survey undertaken by John Selegman, Adrian Boas and Rafa Abu Riya. The Aish HaTorah World Center thus stands upon an essential piece of the history of the Second Temple.

An Eastern Orthodox Church: The Crusader Period

In 1996, Dr. Adrian Boas, a lecturer at Haifa University, was brought by the Israel Antiquities Authority to survey the Aish HaTorah building site. Dr. Boas is an expert in the Crusader Period of Jerusalem, which was conquered by the Crusader knights in 1099.

The portions of the Aish building that survive from that period suggest the layout of an Eastern Orthodox church. Boas notes “what typifies these Eastern churches is that their overall plan is similar to regular (Latin) triapsidal basilicas, but rather than having two rows of evenly spaced piers they have four central piers supporting a drum and dome.” The layout of Aish Center thus has elements in common with St. James Cathedral, the central church in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem which dates from the same period.

The building measured some 10.5 by 14 meters and had walls 1.25 meters thick. According to Prof. Denys Pringle of Cardiff University, author of numerous books on Crusader churches in the Holy Land, part of the building collapsed and fell down the cliff. He also notes that it “does not seem possible to identify the church with any known from historical sources… there is no indication, however for it ever having been an Islamic building.” (Denys Pringle, Churches of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem: A Corpus, Cambridge University Press, volume 3)

The Israel Antiquities Authority survey of 1996 was inconclusive as to the exact dating of the building. What it noted was that in general the building can be separated into three main parts – the north, central and southern portions. The study noted that the building was re-used and renovated throughout the periods, though it is “not clear if it is in fact one building or multiple buildings placed together in later period.”

Prof. Pringle and Dr. Boas note that the to overcome the problem of supporting the building’s walls atop the cliff, buttressing was used and the result was the very large spur or buttress that sticks out from the cliff and makes Aish such a memorable site from the Western Wall. However the buttress was most likely constructed during the Ottoman period.

19th century: Muslims Landlords, Christian Missionaries and Jewish Redemption

In the year 1800, there were approximately 2,200 Sephardic Jews living in Jerusalem and around 50 Ashkenazi Jews. However in 1808, hundreds of followers of the Vilna Gaon arrived in Jerusalem and by 1836 the population of Jews in the city had grown to 3,250 (650 Ashkenazim). By 1860 the Jewish population had grown to 8,000 and it would increase to 11,000 in 1870. During the same period the Muslim population grew 4,000 to 6,500, and the Christian population grew from 2,750 to 5,400.

This period of Jewish demographic growth had to be matched by growth in the area of Jewish settlement. It was not until 1869 that Sir Moses Montefiore built Mishkanot Sha’ananim, the first Jewish community outside the walls of the Old City. Therefore before 1870 Jews were crammed into poverty- and disease-stricken areas in the Old City. Originally they were concentrated closer to Mount Zion but as the century progressed they began to expand their living quarters closer to the Western Wall. Jews subsisted in Jerusalem primarily on handouts from the Diaspora, a system called Halukka, much of which came from Jews in Amsterdam. During the period 1842 to 1918, the Jews lived under the authority of the Hakham Bashi or Rishon Lezion, the Chief Rabbi of Palestine who was recognized and endowed with authority by the Ottoman authorities.

In the first half of the 19th century, Jews were forced to pay discriminatory taxes, not only as non-Muslims but also had to pay a special tax to visit the Western Wall. The Wall then consisted of a very narrow alleyway (92 feet by 15 feet), surrounded by a poor area housing Mugharabi Muslims from North Africa. In addition the Jews paid a sort of protection money to local Muslim villages and leaders not to desecrate their graves on the Mount of Olives and to visit Rachel’s Tomb.

It was not until after an amendment to Turkish law called the Hatt-I Humayun in 1856 and further liberalization in the 1860s that Jews could effectively purchase land.

The first time the Aish Center appears in sources is in 1856, when it is shown clearly on a map by the Reverend James Turner Barclay (1807-1874). Barclay was a native of Virginia and a devoted Christian, who offered himself as a missionary to the American Christian Missionary Society. He argued for establishing a mission in Jerusalem, noting that “the Jews are a people to whom we must first send the Gospel… for the Jews there are very accessible and a blow struck on this great center of sympathies would be felt much more sensibly than anywhere else.” Barclay noted that the Jews of Jerusalem were poor and he predicted that the recent liberalizing laws of the Ottomans would cause them to “flock to Judea.” (David Staats Burnett, Jerusalem Mission, Arno Press, 1977)

Barclay arrived in Jerusalem in 1851 and served there until 1854. He returned to the U.S due to financial difficulties, but came back to Jerusalem in 1858. Barclay failed to convert more than a few Jews or others to Christianity but, since he was trained as a doctor, he was successful in treating those suffering from malaria and other illnesses. He established his mission at the border of what was then the Jewish Quarter, at the site of the future Aish Center and he indicated this clearly on his 1856 map that he prepared of Jerusalem. It is not clear how he obtained this property but it is probable that he rented it.

In 1864 the Secretary of War of Great Britain dispatched Charles Wilson to complete a survey of Jerusalem. The survey team included a photographer, Sergeant McDonald, who snapped a photograph of the building. The survey described the photo as “private houses standing on the west edge of the Tyropean valley, opposite Robinson’s arch.” (Charles Wilson, Ordinance Survey of Jerusalem, London: Government, 1865) Later the survey party entered Rev. Barclay’s house, and discovered “a shaft by which access is obtained to a passage running east and west under the mission premises.” The surveyors described Barclay as running a “church” and described some of the archeology of the Roman era aqueduct that ran under the mission house.

Sometime after the doctor-missionary Barclay vacated the mission house, it was closed and passed into the hands of the Jewish community. Yaacov Eliezer mentions in Courtyards in Old Jerusalem that a certain Rabbi Midrohovicher inhabited it. The Encyclopedia of the Pioneers of the Yishuv and its Building however tells of an Ashkenizi Rabbi Mardiscowitz who the courtyard was named after during the 1870s. Ownership of the building triggered a communal dispute, which reached all the way to the Chief Rabbi, who at the time may have been Raphael Panigel. Yehoshua Yellin, in his book Jerusalem Memories, recalled this scandal, noting that Mardiscowitz was eventually put in prison for his actions.

In 1881, the Turkish government foreclosed on the courtyard and building and declared that it would be sold at public auction. The Ashkenazi community, with which the previous rabbinical owners had been affiliated, began to search for a sufficiently wealthy Jew in Jerusalem who might prevent the house from falling into the hands of non-Jews. It was at this time that Yeshaya Bechar Shmuel, a wealthy Bulgarian tobacco merchant, stepped in and purchased the house that would hence be called “Yeshiachi’s Courtyard.”

The Ashkenazi rabbis who had purchased the property in the 1860s had done little to improve it from the way it appeared in the Ordinance survey photo from 1865. However all this was to change under the stewardship of the Yeshaya family.

Yeshaya’s Courtyard, 1881-1948: Center of Prayer, Security, Community and Charity

During this time, the future Aish Center was located on a street called HaMidan, at the corner of Sharsheret Street. Later the street would be called Misgav Ladach.

Yeshaya Bechar Shmuel was born in Sofia, Bulgaria in 1844. He was the son of the Hacham Rabbi Shmuel Bechar. During the Russo-Turkish war of 1878 (Bulgaria became independent in 1878), he moved with his family to Salonika in Greece, which was then a major population center of Sephardic Jewry and was one-third Jewish. During this period he became acquainted with the movement known as Hovevei Zion (Hibbat Zion), an early Zionist movement. He moved with his parents to the Land of Israel in 1880 and came to Jerusalem. Yeshaya remained wealthy due to the numerous properties he owned in Bulgaria and he used this wealth to acquire the old city property.

He refurbished the Aish building, adding additions, opening a synagogue and establishing a yeshiva. It was known as a center of prayer for people throughout the old city. Yaacov Eliezer recalls that he was called a “Hazikiro” and “Senior” after those who owned courtyards in the old city.

With the additions undertaken by Yeshaya, the roof and central rooms of the house had a perfect panorama of the Western Wall. Jews from central and eastern Europe came to the courtyard to see the Old city from its vantage point and it became a meeting place for Jews from the Balkans, Turkey and North Africa during the High Holidays. During Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, it was crowded with visitors. Yaacov Eliezer, in Old Jerusalem Courtyards, related that “the families that actually lived in the courtyard were annoyed but understood that people needed it for the high holy days. There was a well and water and it was cold and tasty for all the visitors.”

Photos from 1905 and 1915 show clearly the additions to the house added after 1865, including an entire third floor and new windows installed in the main structure facing the Western Wall. (Eli Schiller, Jerusalem: Photos from the Last Generations, Municipal Archives of Jerusalem) Another photo from 1935 shows that only one new window had been added since 1915. (Shimon Bar-Eliezer, Destruction and Renewal: Synagogues of the Jewish Quarter) This was a period of great change in the neighborhood as well. The land for the Porat Yosef Yeshiva was purchased in 1909 and the cornerstone laid in 1914. Chayei Olam Yeshiva, next door to Aish HaTorah World Center Dan Family of Canada Building, was opened in 1886. The imposing Nissan Bek or Tifferet Yisrael Synagogue was completed in 1871, west of the courtyard. Thus the renovations of the Aish Center was part of a general building spree in this part of the Jewish Quarter.

During the 1920 pogrom of Nebi Musa, when Arab rioters attacked Jews, the courtyard became a place of refuge.

After achieving wealth through the importation and making of Turkish tobacco Yeshaya Bechar Shmuel devoted his remaining years to his community, largely at the behest of the Chief Sephardi Rabbi, Yaacov Shaul Elyasher. Yeshaya became a manager of the Misgav Ladach hospital, located just around the corner from the house. He also managed the publishing company, “Shabbat Brothers,” through which he published religious texts for the community.

He had six children. At some point, due to illness, he moved to the Machane Yehudah neighborhood where he died in 1927.

His son Moshe Bechar Yeshaya (born 1873) inherited the Aish building from his father. He was educated in yeshiva and also attended the Paris based Alliance Israelite Universelle school in Jerusalem. Another son, Shmuel Bechar Yeshaya (born 1901) received a traditional Jewish education before moving to London where he received a BSC in economics. After the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, he went to work for the Israeli Interior Ministry and became deputy of the Interior Ministry.

The Yeshaya family left a great impact not only on their house and courtyard but on the Jewish Quarter and the Jewish community in the Land of Israel. They were involved in all walks of life, from communal to religious affairs, in local defense organizations and in business at home and abroad. They had seen the Jewish community in Jerusalem blossom from only 17,000 in 1880 to more than 100,000 in 1948.

Mid-20th Century: Falling Into Arab Hands

During the Arab riots of 1936 and 1939, and due to the general insecurity of the area, the families that lived in and around the courtyard began to move outside of the Old City walls. The courtyard became emptied of people, and was eventually sold to Jews in the Diaspora.

The area of the Jewish Quarter where the Aish Center is located was the first part to be taken over by Arab forces in 1948. Although a Haganah checkpoint and British police post had existed down the Midan road from the house to protect it from attacks, these seem to have been abandoned in the spring of 1948. By May, it was in the hands of the Arab Legion. Because it fell so early to Arab forces, it was spared the wide-scale destruction meted out by Jordanian troops against all the synagogues and yeshivas in the Jewish Quarter.

In fact, in the entire Jewish Quarter, the Aish building may have been one of the few Jewish properties to come through the war unscathed. This also meant, no doubt, that Arab squatters inhabited it soon after the war.

In June 1967, following an unprovoked attack from Jordan, Israeli paratroopers took the Old City of Jerusalem, restoring the Temple Mount, Western Wall, and Jewish Quarter once again to Jewish sovereignty. Photos from 1967 show the building intact with few changes to its appearance. Only one window seems to have been added to the third floor of its southern portion.

In 1969, the Jewish Quarter Development Company (JQDC) was established by the Israeli government to rebuild the desolate Jewish Quarter. The JQDC cleared the title of the building and became responsible for its usage. Through a series of fortuitous events, and in recognition of Aish HaTorah’s vast contribution to the future of the Jewish people, in the 1980s ownership the building site – constituting 40 percent of the frontage facing the Western Wall – was transferred to Rabbi Noah Weinberg and Aish HaTorah.


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