Photo: Sebastian Scheiner
Gur Admor
Photo: Sebastian Scheiner
Photo: Haim Zach
Prayer in Mea Shearim
Photo: Haim Zach

A step away, another world

Do you raise your eyebrows when you hear of Mea Shearim? Here's newsflash: Even extreme seculars can enjoy a tour of alleys, provided they observe the local codes

It is Friday evening and the men are dressing up, putting on their best suits, going to have some real fun. No, they are not headed for the hip disco but are about to spend their night in the traditional fashion of the ultra-Orthodox family: With their spiritual leader, the Hassidic rabbi.


Come 10 p.m., they all go to the central synagogue, where the Shabbat prayers were held just a few hours before. Now, everyone is sitting around one big and central table - the grand dinner table of the ruling Hassidic family.


Five hours after Shabbat started, after the festive family dinner, the Hassidic communities hold their tisch (table in Yiddish). They will spend hours, deep into the night, singing mightily under the inspiration of their Admor (acronym for Our Master, Teacher, and Rabbi), who is surrounded by the community elders and notables.

Mea Shearim (Photo: Gil Yohanan)


"This is a Hassidic happening during which the Admor gives a sermon and is offered food, which he then shares with his followers as a form of blessing that they accept with enthusiasm that reflects their admiration," said Jerusalem tour guide Ilan Shapira.


The Admor is obviously the "king" of his Hassidic court. He rules on every single issue and, as in any social framework, there are those who are closer to him than others, more revered.


At the tisch, the rabbi says the wine blessing and hands out wine to his followers. Next he says the "hamotzi lehem" blessing of the bread, and hands out pieces of the Shabbat chala. This is just a preview for the gefilte fish, the kigel, and other Jerusalem goodies.


Tisch tickets

Visitors are welcome, but only if they observe the local rules - the sanctity of the Shabbat, modest clothing, head cover, and avoiding unnecessary remarks, even if it tickles. On the Shabbat, a cell-phone on your belt, even if it is switched off, signifies disrespect and might be a source of dispute.


The Hassidic courts, as everything else in Israel, divide into three types: Small, medium, and large. The Gur and Belza courts are two of the largest.


The Belza Hassidim built a magnificent and huge temple in the middle of their neighborhood, on the outskirts of the Romema neighborhood (between Dover Shalom and Divrey Hayim streets). The construction of this huge replica of the original Hassidic schul in the township of Belza in Galicia was completed six years ago.


The temple plan, which addressed the finest details (including the number of lamps in the splendid and huge chandeliers or the placement of benches), follows the kabalistic concepts of this Jewish sect, preparing the place for the arrival of the Messiah.


On the eastern wall, next to the location of the ba'al tefila prayer podium, stands a glass box encasing a simple wooden chair that served the first Admor in old Belza. The synagogue houses up to 5,000, and tisches are held in the large hall below.


Gur is the biggest Hassidic court worldwide, comprising 13,000 families of which 10,000 reside in Israel. On special occasions and holidays, Hassidim from all over Israel and the world arrive and take housing in Jerusalem apartments. At times like these, seating tickets are handed out that wonderfully arrange the placement of each of the thousands of Hassidim on the metal benches in the hall.


Gur is a dynasty of seven admors, a title handed down from father to son for more than 200 years. It is considered one of the oldest Hassidic courts, having its roots in the township of Gura, Poland. The central Gur temple is presently being built in the Schneller Compound in Jerusalem, in the center of which will stand the largest synagogue in the world.


In the extremely modest Gur court, the women's region serves for prayer only and the tisch is only for men. Unlike in other Hassidic courts, it is held at the third meal, near the end of the Shabbat.


Stars and stripes

The Karlin-Stolin Court, whose center is in Mea Shearim, is known for its openness and desire to hold a dialogue with anyone who shows an interest. Its Hassidim are known musicians, and their tisch lasts hours, with singers and star musicians. On holiday weekdays (holomoyt) and in Purim, klezmerim join the chanting Hassidim, who sing and dance all night long.


The Karlin-Stolin Court has a boarding school for girls in a compound on 24 Ovadya St., in the Geula Neighborhood. Prominent here is a reconstructed old building, built in 1855 as one of the first three houses outside the Jerusalem walls. It belonged to British Consul James Finn, who built the Kerem Avraham Neighborhood around it. In excavations held there, a Roman columbarium was found and can be observed today.


Among the smaller Hassidic courts in Jerusalem we could mention the Toldot Aharon sect, whose yeshiva is in the heart of the Neitin Houses, outside historic Mea Shearim.


This court is considered very strict, and its members can be identified by their long coats in yellow and brown stripes, and their fur hats, the schtreiml. The Toldot Aharon Hassidim welcome visitors, so encountering outsiders impressed with the electrifying atmosphere, songs and chants there is not a rarity.


The school of the Toldot Avraham-Yitzhak Hassidic court is right next to Toldot Aharon's. The unique clothing style of that court was designed in Israel, based on costumes that Sephardi Jews used to wear here in the 18th century.


Slonim is another court originating from Lithuania. Their unique customs actually follow on the customs of the Lithuanian Court, who are opponents of the Hassidim.


Open the gates

Mea Shearim is actually a living relic of glorious Jewish communities that perished and no longer exist in the lands of their origin. A walk of only five minutes from a center of Jerusalem takes you to another world. This is where you can actually feel that sweet strangeness of being a tourist.


On the walls, you can read the announcements that preserve the world of old, serving as a major communication channel for community messages. Just walk leisurely along its narrow alleyways, admire the ingenuity of patchwork buildings, and enjoy the tastes and smells of fine Jewish food.


As weekend comes, the bakeries of Avihayil, Nehama, and Landner offer fine pastry with wonderful odors. Come here late at night to visit and pray at the schtibel where a minyan can be found 24 hours a day.


On the square outside the main schtibel here, Zichron Moshe, there is a night market with food stalls, and on Thursdays you can even find kigel and tshulnt here, sold in plastic cups. A neighborhood market at the Ungerin Houses offers second-hand Judaica, old clocks, and collectors' items.


Me'a She'arim is the fifth Jewish neighborhood built outside the Old City walls. It was founded in 1874 by several Old City residents, including founders of Nahalat Shiva, Yosef Rivlin and Yoel Moshe Solomon.


Because of the natural growth rate of the neighborhood residents, additional residential neighborhoods were built around it. The region turned ultra-Orthodox without warning in the 1940's, under the influence of Rabbi Sonenfeld, one of the most extreme rabbis at the time, who would not accept Chief Rabbi Cook as his spiritual authority.


Historically, the neighborhood was managed by a seven-member committee and imposed a strict code. Next to orders about cleaning the streets and yards, they gave instructions concerning who may rent an apartment there, banning "those who are not kosher Jews," which over time focused on keeping the neighborhood strictly ultra-Orthodox.


The neighborhood has been renewed for the past few years, and houses are expanded there under the supervision of the Jerusalem Municipality and the Site Preservation Council.


Getting there

Mea Shearim can be reached from the Shabbat Square or Shivtey Yisrael Street. Naturally, driving here on Shabbats and holidays is forbidden, and when touring the neighborhood, dress modestly and show respect for your hosts and their customs.


Tours of the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods are organized by various bodies in Jerusalem, such as Yad Ben-Zvi or Bet Shmuel; for special tisch visits: Ilan Shapira, 972-2-6289313, 972-50-7540939.


פרסום ראשון: 12.17.06, 18:20
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