Jews of Aleppo, Syria
By Sarina Roffe
The Jews of Aleppo, Syria were a religious and cohesive group that practices Sephardic Judaism and dates from the two thousand years plus they lived in the region. Their presence predates Christianity and Islam. Rulers came and went and with each the Jews learned to live peacefully. Between the 15th and 17th centuries, Aleppo absorbed other Sephardic immigrant groups largely from Spain, Italy and Iraq. Their education was limited to religious education and they remained apolitical due to their political status. These religious Jews remained isolated from the broader Jewish world and were not influenced by Modernism or Western education that affected the Jews of Western Europe. The Jews of Aleppo had little contact with the outside world and lived under the strict aegis of their rabbis who ruled the community with an iron hand, absorbing many of the cultural aspects of Islamic society such as food, naming practices, the treatment of women, and limited education. By the early 20th century, a majority had emigrated to Israel, Latin America and the United States. By the mid-1990s, there were less than a dozen Jews remaining in Aleppo.
Aleppo is a city that spans Jewish history from the days of King David over 3,000 years ago. Aristocratic and noble, Aleppo was the crown of the Sephardic world1Missing Entry. The Jewish presence in Syria is intertwined with the history and the politics of Jerusalem. According to the book of Samuel, and Psalm 60, Aram Soba, the Biblical name for Aleppo, was part of the extended area of northern Israel. Through the millennia, great Talmudic sages record Aleppo's unbroken record of communal peace and spiritual productivity. Early Jewish travelers to the area include Sa'adia Gaon in 921, Benjamin of Tudela in 1173, Rabbi Petachya of Regensburg in 1170-80.2Missing Entry
According to Aleppan-born author Joseph A. D. Sutton, perhaps even the patriarch Abraham visited Aleppo.
It is hoary Aleppo legend, both Jewish and Muslim, that the patriarch Abraham had settled for a period in Aleppo in his wanderings from his native Ur. He is believed to have milked his cows there. Halab, the Arabic name for Aleppo, is the Aramaic, Hebrew, and Arabic for 'milked.'3Missing Entry
Great Synagogue
The foundation for the Great Synagogue in Aleppo is believed to have been built by King David's General, Joab ben Seruya (circa 950 BCE), after his conquest of the city (2 Sam 8:3-8). Anthropologist Walter Zenner dates the building of the Great Synagogue to the fifth century of the Common Era.4Missing Entry The architecture of the synagogue was heavily influenced by the designs of Muslim mosques.5Missing Entry For example, over the centuries the ark of the synagogue has been an exact copy of a mosques mihrab. (The synagogue was destroyed during the rule of Tamerlane in 1400 and was rebuilt in 1418. In 1947 anti-Zionist groups burned the synagogue, which was in an abandoned state by 1995.6Missing Entry)
There are other synagogues in Aleppo, many of them small. Each synagogue had a mikvah. There were also social service organizations to help the poor, an org
Aleppo Codex
Through the centuries, distinguished rabbis learned in Aleppo, which was a center of significant Torah learning. Among the reasons for Aleppos importance in Jewish learning was the Aleppo Codex (see page right), which is described by scholars as follows:
The 'Jewel of the Crowns' is the Hebrew manuscript of the Bible written by the scribe Shlomo Ben Buya'a during the first half of the 10th century (or 896) and then verified, vocalized and pointed by Aaron Ben-Asher in Tiberias. It was taken to Egypt where it was seen by Maimonides, who considered it to be the most perfect of all versions and used it as an example and standard of the Bible 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 until 1947. Apparently it was damaged in the fire of the synagogue in 1947 and thought to be lost until 1958, when it was brought to Israel. Now most of its pages, 295 of the original 487, are safeguarded in Jerusalem, Israel.7Missing Entry
Because of the Aleppo Codex, its use by Maimonides, and the belief that it was an authoritative text of the Bible,8Missing Entry Aleppan Jews believed that they could achieve a higher level of Torah learning and thought of themselves as more learned and privileged than Jews in other places. This feeling of privilege extended to the region's governance and economy.
Political Standing
The politics of the region depended on the rulers. With the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of Rome, the Romans placed restrictions on Jews. These were lifted with the Arab conquest in 636 CE, when Islamic caliphates began ruling the region. From the seventh Century until the end of Ottoman rule, the Jewish community was self-governed. Self-government entitled the Jews to freedom of religion, a separate court system ruled by local rabbis to handle internal disputes, and military protection.
In return for political and military protection, the Jews were given dhimmi status, meaning they had to adhere to certain rules and pay a poll tax, which was based on the number of men in the community. According to the Quran, dhimmi status did not entitle Jews to the same or equal rights as Muslim citizens. Jews, along with their Christian counterparts, were of a lower status than Muslims and disputes between a Christian or Jew and a Muslim were settled in the government court, which was ruled by Islamic law.
In addition, Jews had to agree to live under the laws of the Pact of Umar, which included regulations such as wearing distinctive dress, not riding horses or any animal that would make a Muslim look up to a Jew, and not building new synagogues. Jews had to justify the existence of older houses of worship by stressing their antiquity, such as the Great Synagogue of Aleppo to Joab the son of Seruya. Ceremonies such as blowing the shofar and celebrating Purim had to be conducted so as not to disturb their Muslim neighbors.
These laws were irregularly enforced, depending on the economics of the region and the current Muslim ruler. If things got worse economically, the treatment of Jews deteriorated. When times were good and the economy was booming, Jews were treated well, so long as they stayed in their place and did not upset the balance between the two religious groups. The Jewish community that evolved in this setting developed a different kind of politics to govern their people. The community was governed by the hakham bashi, or chief rabbi. Paying and collecting taxes and obtaining patronage were forms of political participation. For the most part, Jews learned to live under this political structure and avoided bringing attention to themselves such that they could live peacefully.
Conditions remained good for Jews in Syria under the Fatimids and later under Ottoman rule. The Ottoman Empire was particularly interested in efficient governance. A census was taken of its territories to determine ethnic composition and dispute claims concerning ethnic populations in the Ottoman territories. The empire was divided geographically into administrative units called vilayets, or provinces. Vilayets were further divided into sanjaks, or sub-provinces, which in turn were divided into kazas, or cities. A kaza might also include small villages that surround it. The chief town of a sanjak was called the merkez kasasi, or central kasa. Aleppo was a vilayet, and encompassed a vast area that included what is now Beirut, as well as numerous outlying villages.
It is widely known that the Ottoman rulers favored the Jews, offering them refuge after the 1492 Edict of Expulsion from Spain, because the Ottomans believed that the Jews would bring their skills as merchants, which in turn would help the economy. Many of the Jews expelled from Spain fled to the part of the Ottoman Empire that we now know as Syria. This included Damascus and Beirut as well as Aleppo, an established center for great rabbinic learning.
In 1920, the Ottoman Empire was split by the Treaty of Versailles. The French Mandate of Syria (as well as Lebanon) were mandated by the League of Nations. In 1923, the Republic of Turkey was established. In 1924, the French combined provinces of Aleppo and Damascus into the State of Syria.
Rabbinical Leadership in Aleppo
From the mid-nineteenth century on, the Ottoman government appointed a chief rabbi (Hakham bashi), who represented the Jewish community before government agencies and could be a powerful individual in the community in his own right. Rabbis often came from families with a long tradition of supplying the community with hakhamim.9Missing Entry The hakham was distinguished by his clothing, for example, the size and color of his turban and the long, wide sleeves of his outer garments.10Missing Entry While it was customary for everyone to wear an ankle-length robe with a sash around the waist, the Hakham bashi was a government official and wore a finer robe with ceremonial orders and medals, gold and silver embroidery. The Hakham bashi had two government-appointed bodyguards who carried his Staff of Office and cleared the way for him.11Missing Entry
Aleppan rabbis were learned in Kabbalah and Talmudic legal tradition. They dealt with cases of Jewish law, ranging from spiritual to civil cases including marriage, inheritance, business contracts, torts, building regulations and Jewish rituals.12Missing Entry Aleppan Jews consistently had a reputation for respecting rabbinic authority.13Missing Entry
While the Aleppan communitys leaders paint a historic picture of strict observance and Torah learning, it should be noted that there was an unsuccessful attempt to introduce Reform Judaism into Aleppo in 1862 by Rabbi Rafael Kassin, the great great grandfather of R. Jacob Kassin. The grandson of Rabbi Yehuda Kassin, Rabbi Rafael Kassin (1780-1871) was chief rabbi of Baghdad for many years. When he returned to Aleppo, he declared himself a religious reformer.14Missing Entry Rabbi Rafael Kassin had a tremendous following and his supporters wanted to separate from the community.15Missing Entry
According to researcher Yaron Harel, "Quarrels which broke out in the bazaar between the two groups forced the local authorities to intervene to prevent disturbances of public order."16Missing Entry The movement was temporarily quashed but in 1865, another rabbinic reformer Rabbi Eliahu Ben Amozeg - wrote Em Lamikra, which presented modern scientific commentary on the Bible. The rabbis of Aleppo issued an edict to destroy all copies of the book throughout the Middle East and to excommunicate the author, but only the rabbis of Damascus accepted the edict. 17Missing Entry
The rabbis of Aleppo made significant contribution in terms of religious literature. Examples are as follows:
  1. Rabbi Haim Mordecai Labaton (1780-1869 Aleppo), the son of Luna and Rabbi Helfon Labaton, became Chief Rabbi of Aleppo and head of the Beit Din. During his lifetime he was revered and respected by both Jews and Muslims of the region. He wrote two learned treatises, Nochach Hashulchan and Ben Yayir.
  2. Rabbi Helphon Labaton, one of the sons of Rabbi Haim Mordecai, was a kabbalist who died in 1824 at a young age, predeceasing his father. Some of his writings are included in Nohah HaShulhan Rabbi Helphons son, Rabbi Isaac Labaton (d. 1912), was one of the most respected Dayans in Aleppo. He knew the Book of Laws by heart and was an expert in writing agreements and contracts between businessmen according to Jewish law.
  3. Rabbi Isaac Labaton wrote Oseh Hayyil and his response are published in works by other authors. Rabbi Isaac Labatons daughter, Sarah Labaton, married kabbalist Rabbi Shalom Hedaya (Aleppo 1862-1945), son of Rabbi Moshe Hedaya. Rabbi Shalom wrote Shalom LaAm, Dober Shalom, HaHayyim VeHaShalom, She LeBet Abot, and Shalom veTzedek
  4. Rabbi Yitzhak Attia (b. 1775 Aleppo) wrote six books over the course of his life. Rabbi Yitzhak's first book is titled Zara Yitzhak Attia and is an explanation of the first two sections of the Chumash. The second book, Vatican Yitzhak, is a continuation and covers the next three Chumash. Shut Avot is an explanation of the Gemarra. Rov Tagan, his fourth book, is an explanation of the six books of the Mishna. His fifth book Mesharet Moshe, speaks of the strong hand of the Rambam; Echet Chael, is a literal translation of the Woman of Valor poem. His last book was titled Tana Veshiar.
  5. Rabbi Rafael Kassin writings include Maarekhet HaShulhan, Lehem HaMarekhet, Yayyin HaRekaa (a collection of sermons), Derekh Hahayyim (a defense against Gentile attacks on the Bible and Talmud) and Tekafo Kohen.
Prior to the 1492 Expulsion from Spain, a vast majority of the Jews living in Aleppo were indigenous to the area. The 1492 Expulsion brought a number of Jews to Aleppo. In 1516, when the Venice ghetto was opened, many Jews emigrated from the Italian city-state to Aleppo. Thus, there were three groups in Aleppo by the 16th century the indigenous Jews, the Spanish, and the francos.
During the initial settlement period, the Spanish Jews who had emigrated from Spain, remained separate and apart from the indigenous Aleppan Jews. The Spanish Jews spoke Ladino, a mixture of Hebrew and Spanish that was not understood in Aleppo, where the population spoke Arabic and read Hebrew with an Arabic accent.
Spanish grandee Seor Shlomo Kassin was a wealthy Spanish immigrant and an administrative genius. Soon after his arrival in Aleppo, he was appointed head of the community. Seor Shlomo's grandson, Rabbi Yom Tov Kassin, was the first Kassin family member to become a Chief Rabbi in Aleppo.
A dispute between the Jewish community of Aleppo and the Francos was settled in a 220-page rabbinical decision (Mahane Yehuda treatise, Livorno, Italy) issued by Rabbi Yehuda Kassin (Aleppo 1708 1784 Aleppo). Mahane Yehuda (Livorno, 1803) contains hundreds of responsa and illustrates mastery of all phases of Talmudic literature. The end of the book has printed agreements between Jerusalem and Damascus rabbis. A collection of Rabbi Yehuda's response was subsequently published in Jerusalem by his great grandson Rabbi Shaul Kassin under the title Ro'ei Yisrael (Jerusalem 1904) in three parts. A collection of his sermons, VaZot LiYehuda, exists in manuscript form. It is a book of questions and answers on Torah, Gemara, and Kabbalah.
It took several centuries, but eventually the two communities the new Spanish Jews and the Jews indigenous to Aleppo, converged into one and the Ladino language of the Spanish Jews died out by the middle of the 18th Century. Yet the surnames of the families - like Liniado, Kassin and Labaton - live on into the 21st Century
The Ottoman Government did not keep vital records, although individual rabbis kept records of brit milahs, marriages and deaths, so most population estimates for Aleppo are unreliable. By examining immigration patterns, it is generally believed that there were over 20,000 Jews in Aleppo at the end of the 19th century.
The general nucleus of emigration from Syria was between 1900 and 1920. Although the Ottoman General Census shows a fairly stable Jewish population of about 10,000 Jews in both Damascus and Aleppo, there is evidence in the United States of about 2,000 immigrants a year from this region between 1900 and 1920, with the exception of World War I. According to the Ottoman census, in 1881, there were about 10,000 Jews in Aleppo. The same figures are shown up to 1914, with a slight rise in Jewish population in 1916.18Missing Entry
The Hebrew Immigration Aid Society (HIAS) reported that from 1899-1907 about 2,732 Levantine (Sephardic) Jews came to the U.S. After World War I, HIAS estimated about 10,000 Jewish emigrants left the Middle East region for the U.S. It is safe to estimate another 5-7,000 emigrated to Palestine and Latin America (a majority of these settled in Mexico City and Buenos Aires, although some settled in Panama and Venezuela).
After World War I, the French Mandate government governed Aleppo and Damascus. Jews who had passports from European countries were exempt from local taxation, which caused a drain on the finances of the local Jewish community.19Missing Entry Massive emigration from Syria occurred during the period after World War I and continued until the late 1920s, when the Great Depression began.
As religious Jews, family size tended to be large. A survey of family genealogies from this region, indicates that most families had between six and 12 children. Extended families lived together on a hoosh, a number of small dwellings that opened up onto an indoor courtyard in the Jewish quarter.
There were two classes of Jews in Aleppo. The wealthier members of the community were bankers or merchants, while lower class members included brokers, grocers or peddlers. They were craftsman, stall-keepers, cobblers, clerks, peddlers, porters, or others without skills. The occupations of the Aleppo Jews determined their social class standing and their wealth. There was a social class structure that determined marriages. Besides life cycle events, recreation activities favored backgammon and cards.
Until the end of the 19th Century, cotton and silk were the primary exports from the Middle East to Asia and Europe as caravans traveled from East to West. The first signs of serious economic hardship came with the start of the Industrial Revolution, which caused a reversal in the flow of trade, compounded with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1867.
The combination dealt a bitter blow and ultimately destroyed trading along the caravan routes, which included Aleppo and Damascus. Economic times became bad, then worse.
Education was not provided for girls, who were protected and did not leave the home without a male escort, even after they were married. Boys attended religious school and learned basic math necessary for keeping track of business expenses. Once a boy reached his 13th birthday and became a bar mitzvah, he no longer attended school. In the late 19th century, the French introduced the Alliance Israelite Schools to Aleppo but few children could afford to attend.
Marriages were generally arranged after a girl had her first cycle, often as young as 13 or 14. Teenage girls and marriage women adorned their arms with gold bangle bracelets, a tradition that carried forward to the present time. Before a wedding took place, the groom's mother would send gifts to the bride, including money to go to the mikvah (ritual bath) where she would prepare herself for her wedding night, and a white handkerchief.
The handkerchief was used to clean the bride after her first union with the groom. Girls were prepared for their lives as wives and mothers, learning sewing, meal preparation and how to manage a household. Cooking was a religious effort in order to uphold the laws of kashrut and convey the Syrian culture to their children through food and annual traditions.
Few women worked and they rarely shopped. In the Middle East it was customary for the husband to arrange for a stock of staple items and to market since it was assumed that he was the better negotiator. Women were highly respected and honored because their work as mothers and homemakers was important. They kept their heads covered, and if they went out in public, their faces.
Factors Leading to Emigration
Worldwide politics began having an influence on Syria in the early 19th Century when European powers sought equal treatment for Christians and Jews. Jewish contractual positions with the government disappeared, but civil service positions were created.
Heads of the religious communities such as the chief rabbi, were appointed positions. The jizha tax was a substitution for military service and was eliminated. The Ottoman Empire, which encompassed what is today Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and other territories, fell early in the 20th Century. In 1908 the Young Turks, who succeeded the Ottomans in certain areas, began conscripting Jews into their Army, spurring a mass emigration of Jews to the Americas. Overnight, Jewish men were secretly being sent away to avoid military service. The first wave of Syrian Jews went to America to escape military service. Syrian Jews arrived in Mexico City, Buenos Aires, New York, Chicago, and other cities, although most remained in New York.
Another major factor was regional economic decline, which caused great hardship for the Aleppan Jews and spurred emigration. Until the end of the nineteenth century, cotton and silk were the primary exports from the Middle East to Iran and Europe as caravans traveled from East to West. The first signs of serious economic hardship came with the start of the Industrial Revolution, 20Missing Entry which caused a reversal in the flow of trade, compounded by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1867. The combination dealt a bitter blow and ultimately destroyed the trading along the caravan routes, along which lay Aleppo and Damascus.
Emigration from Syria halted during World War I and many families were separated. After World War I, the French took control over Aleppo and it, along with Damascus, became a French Mandate. Travel required a French passport or travel paper. Jews who had passports from European countries were exempt from local taxation, which was a drain on the finances of the local Jewish community. Massive emigration from Syria occurred again during the period after World War I and continued until the mid-1920s, when the Great Depression began. The emigrs from the early 20th Century migration populate what is known today as the Syrian Jewish communities of Brooklyn and New Jersey. Those who were denied entry into the United States ended up in Latin American cities such as Mexico City and Argentina, where today there are also large populations of Jews of Syrian descent.
The Ottoman Empire was divided into areas controlled by France and Great Britain. Palestine was under British Mandate. Syria was under French control. The Republic of Turkey was established in 1923. Syria gained its independence from France in 1946. Attacks against Jews who remained in Syria after World War I increased. Pogroms in 1947 left Jewish shops and synagogues destroyed. Thousands of Jews left the country for America and Palestine. The pogroms and destruction also placed the cherished Aleppo Codex in great jeopardy.
"When the synagogue was torched in 1947 during a pogrom, the Codex was saved and hidden. In 1957, it was smuggled out of Aleppo to Israel, where it was presented in 1958 to President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. It is housed in the Ben-Zvi Institute. Of the original 487 leaves, only 295 leaves remain. The Aleppo Codex is believed to be the most authoritative, accurate and sacred source document, both for the Biblical text and for the vocalization and cantillation. It has greater religious and scholarly import than any other manuscript of the Bible."
After the birth of the State of Israel in 1948, persecution of Jews remaining in Syria was common. The Jews were no longer permitted to own property, travel or practice their occupation. Jews who tried to leave the country were persecuted. The Muslim dhimmi laws were strictly enforced. Those Jews who were permitted to travel for business purposes could not travel with family members because the Syrian government feared that they would flee. The Syrian government feared that Jewish men would join forces with Israel and fight against them in the Israeli Army.
During a 10-year period in the 1980s, a collection of Jewish Holy objects was smuggled out of Syria through the efforts of then-Chief Rabbi Avraham Hamra. The collection included nine ancient Bible manuscripts, known as the Ketarim, each between 700 and 900 years old. In addition, there were 40 Torah scrolls and 32 decorative boxes in which the Sephardic Torah scrolls were held. The collection was taken via Turkey, in stages to the Jewish National and University Library of the Hebrew University in Israel. The smuggling was necessary since official requests for permission to take them out of Syria were denied.
A massive lobbying effort on the part of the Syrian Jews who had emigrated to New York resulted in Syrian Jews being granted exit visas to America as tourists in the early 1990s. Fewer than a dozen Jews remain in Syria today.

Deshen, Shlomo and Zenner, Walter, Jewish Societies in The Middle East: Community, Culture, and Authority (Lanham, MD, 1982).

Goshen-Gottstein, Moshe H. "The Authority of the Aleppo Codex." Textus: Annual of the Hebrew University Bible Project 1 (1960).

Harel, Yaron. "A Spiritual Agitation in the East the Founding of a Reform Community in Aleppo in 1862." Hebrew Union College Annual. Vol. 63: 1992.

Harel, Yaron. "The Edict to Destroy Em Lamikra Aleppo 1865." Hebrew Union College Journal. Vol. 64:1993. July 16, 2005

Israel Yearbook and Almanac, 49 (1995).

Karpat, Kemal H. Ottoman Population: 1830-1914. (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985).

Sutton, Joseph A.D. Magic Carpet: Aleppo-In-Flatbush. (New York: Thayer-Jacoby, 1979).

Sutton, Joseph S. Aleppo Chronicles. (New York: Thayer-Jacoby, 1988).

"The Influence of Judaism by Islam,"

Wischnitzer, Mark. Visas to Freedom: The History of the HIAS (Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1956).

Zenner, Walter P., "Reinterpretation of a Tradition by a Transnational Elite: The Rabbis of the Aleppan Diaspora," unpublished paper, November 2000.

Zenner, Walter P. A Global Community, The Jews from Aleppo, Syria (Wayne State University Press: 2000).

1Joseph A.D. Sutton, Aleppo Chronicles (New York, 1988) 18.
3Ibid. See also Israel Yearbook and Almanac, 49:196 (1995).
4For many years, the Jews maintained a low profile in order to live peacefully under Muslim rule. As Zenner writes: One aspect of this low profile was that new synagogues could not be built. Furthermore, Jews had to justify the existence of older houses of worship by stressing their antiquity, such as the Great Synagogue of Aleppo to Joab the son of Seruya. Ceremonies such as blowing the shofar and celebrating Purim had to be conducted so as not to disturb their Muslim neighbors. (Walter Zenner, A Global Community, The Jews from Aleppo, Syria (Detroit, 2000, 39)
5The Influence of Judaism by Islam,
6Zenner, Global Community 35.
8Moshe H. Goshen-Gottstein, "The Authority of the Aleppo Codex," Textus: Annual of the Hebrew University Bible Project 1 (1960) 17-58.
9Walter P. Zenner, "Reinterpretation of a Tradition by a Transnational Elite: The Rabbis of the Aleppan Diaspora," unpublished paper, November 2000.
10Deshen and Zenner, 174.
11Joseph A. D. Sutton, Magic Carpet:Aleppo-In-Flatbush (New York, 1979), 214-215.
12Deshen and Zenner, 174.
14Yaron Harel. "A Spiritual Agitation in the East the Founding of a Reform Community in Aleppo in 1862." Hebrew Union College Annual. 63 (1992), 1.
16This statement is supported by an addendum to Harel's article, which is a letter from British Acting Consul in Aleppo to the British Ambassador in Constantinople. The document is on file with the Public Record Office in London and is evidence of western influences in Aleppo.
17Yaron Harel, "The Edict to Destroy Em Lamikra Aleppo 1865." Hebrew Union College Journal 64:1993. Introduction.
18Kemal H. Karpat Ottoman Population 1830-1914: Demographic and Social Characteristics (Wisconsin, 1985). pp. 133-179.
19Zenner, Global Community, 40.
20Deshen, Shlomo and Zenner, Walter, Jewish Societies in the Middle East: Community, Culture, and Authority (Lanham, MD, 1982) 174.