Eliyahu welcomed us to the Ramchal synagogue in Akko in his best English. Unfortunately, his best English is almost incomprehensible. Between his Moroccan/Israeli accent, his limited vocabulary, and strange grammar I struggled to understand him. My class on the development of prayer and the synagogue was in Akko (also called Acre) to learn more about the Ramchal, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, one of the scholars of the 18th century Sephardi community. But I feared I wouldn’t learn about Ramchal from Eliyahu, no matter how long he spoke.
I wished he would speak in Hebrew instead. I might be able to understand that.
One of the more outspoken women in our group had the same thought. “Shulie,” she asked our guide, “do you think he could talk to us in Hebrew? And you could translate what we don’t understand?”
There were murmurs of agreement throughout the room.
Eliyahu is the caretaker of the Ramchal synagogue, located just outside the shuk in Akko, a city more renowned for its Christian and Muslim history than for its Jewish one. The Crusaders called it St. Jean d’Acre and made it their capital. Although they had lost Jerusalem to Salach ad-Din (Saladin) in 1187, they nonetheless named their country the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Crusader walls still stand around the old city and some of their halls have been excavated. Thousands of tourists come every year to see the Crusader buildings and re-enactments.When Shulie suggested to Eliyahu that he talk to us in Hebrew, his shoulders relaxed and his face lost its tense expression. He nodded, and started over. By the end of his first sentence, the rest of us had relaxed as well.
After the Crusaders were expelled by the Mamluks, the European presence seemed to disappear. There were Europeans here and there, but they exerted no significant influence in the life of the city.
In the eighteenth century, Napoleon tried to change that. After conquering Egypt, he led his armies up the Mediterranean coast. His goal was to conquer the whole Ottoman empire. After conquering Jaffa, he declared himself King of Jerusalem. That was a little premature—he never progressed that far east. The French advanced as far as the outskirts of Akko. Unfortunately for Napoleon’s aspirations, the British navy showed up to help their Turkish allies. An outbreak of plague added to his difficulties. Unable to conquer the city, the French lifted the siege of the city and sailed back to France, leaving hundreds of cannons and other weapons in the Akko harbor.
The failure of Napoleon’s campaign led to Akko remaining within the Ottoman Empire until its defeat in World War I. There was a strong Arab presence in the city throughout the British Mandate and until today. Now the city is about one-third Arab. Everywhere you look there seems to be a minaret sticking up; most of the stores and stalls in the old shuk are Arab. Many street signs are only in Arabic.
It is uncertain whether Ramchal himself ever prayed in the synagogue that bears his name. From the 16th to the early 18th century there was a large elegant synagogue in Akko, and Ramchal probably prayed there. But, as often happened, the property was taken over by the Muslim rulers. Dahar el-Omar evicted the Jews, and built the el-Mualek mosque on top of the synagogue in 1758. The Jews received the small building slightly north of their old building. The newer small building was where we listened to Eliyahu tell us the story of the Ramchal.
The Luzzato family was well to do and influential within the Jewish community of Padua, Italy. Moshe Chaim received an excellent education, and as a young man became interested in kabbalistic studies. Because of rumors that he was a follower of the false messiah Shabbatai Tzvi, he was forced to leave Italy. From 1735 to 1743, he lived in Amsterdam. He and his family then made aliyah, settling in Akko. Three years later, in 1746, he died of plague, the same disease that half a century later helped put an end to Napoleon’s campaign in the Middle East.
He lived only 39 years, but in that short time he made an impact on Jewish life and thought, writing 71 books. His most well-known work is Mesillat Yesharim, The Path of Just, a guide to ethics and character development. In it, the Ramchal shows the connections between mysticism and proper living.
He also wrote The Way of Torah, a guide to studying the Talmud, The Way of God, an explanation of Jewish beliefs, and Secrets of the Redemption. Additionally, he wrote poetry and was a playwright. His poetic abilities and style are evident even in his works of philosophy.
Writing a Torah scroll is a distinct skill, one that very few master, but Ramchal wrote one in Akko. Eliyahu pointed to a wrinkled dark brown document hanging on the wall–three columns of text taken from a Torah scroll written by Ramchal on gazelle skin parchment. The last time an expert inspected the scroll it was deemed pasul, unfit for ritual use because through the years some letters had been worn away. The rabbis had told Eliyahu the scroll must be put in a geniza, hidden away with other holy works unfit for use. Eliyahu couldn’t bear to see that happen. “What if we keep it for education?” he had asked.
The Torah scroll was deemed kosher for education.
The section on display is from the parshiyot of Ha’azinu and Zot ha-bracha, the last two weekly readings from Devarim (Deuteronomy). Standing close to the scroll, I could read the words. The ink has not faded. It was made from pomegranates by Ramchal himself. As Eliyahu explained, “Pomegranate, it stays forever. You spill it on your shirt, the washing machine does not help.” He moved his hand across his chest, making a scissoring motion with his fingers. “The only thing that removes pomegranate from a shirt is scissors.”
The synagogue is small. There was barely enough room for our group of fifty. And there is no ezrat nashim, a section for women. Ramchal felt that women did not belong in synagogue. A recess in a wall was once a window to the bordering street. Women who wanted to hear the prayers could stand outside to listen. There are small synagogues throughout the country that today lack an ezrat nashim. I have often seen women standing on the walkway outside the small synagogue next door to Daniel and Aliza’s building. They hold a prayer book in their hands, as they listen to the prayers or Torah reading through the windows.
In the Ramchal synagogue, a clear section of the floor allows visitors to look down into a narrow pit about five or six feet deep. At one time, the hazan stood in the pit to lead the prayers. In the Bible, several phrases refer to praying from low places, in addition to the injunction not to build an altar in a high place. Psalm 130 says. “From the depths, I cry out to You, G-d.” I suspect King David was referring to spiritual depths when he wrote this, but Sephardim take this sentence more literally. The entrances of many Sephardi synagogues lead down.
I have been to several synagogues in which the hazan stands an inch or two lower than the rest of the congregation. But this was the first synagogue I’ve seen in which the hazan had to actually go into the depths to call out to G-d.
Today, the man leading the prayers at the Ramchal synagogue stands in front of the other men, on the same level. The only reminder of praying from the depths is written in teal and purple beads on the white curtain in front of the aron kodesh, where the Torah scrolls are kept. It says, “G-d, I call to you from the depths.”
Few people today see the need to physically go down a ladder or stairs to pray. Nonetheless, I wonder how many retain the desire to reach into the depths of their souls in prayer.