Celebrating Prophet Elijah

While it is established tradition for all Jews to celebrate the ancient prophet Elijah on the Festival of Pesach (Passover) by placing a glass of wine in the center of the Seder table to honor him on his annual “visit” to Jewish homes on that holy day with a message of the coming of the messiah, there is now for a handful of Jews far away something special to celebrate his arrival now again.

Not the physical appearance of the prophet Elijah but, rather, a structural one.

The 300 year old Jewish synagogue in the city of Alexandria, Egypt, the Eliyahu HaNavi (Prophet Elijah) synagogue is being reconstructed, repaired to its earlier magnificence, a Jewish palace built for the service to God.

When the ancient synagogue was first built, one of some twenty synagogue in Alexandria, there was a significant Jewish population in that city. And until 1948, and another Jewish exodus from Egypt, Alexandria had a Jewish population of some 40,000, most who fled from Egypt or who were forced out following the establishment of the Jewish State of Israel.

Today there remains only a handful of Jews who worship in the Eliyahu HaNavi synagogue. Only about twenty elderly Jewish males.

To the credit of the synagogue’s reconstruction to its early glory, the government of the Republic of Egypt is covering all costs to rebuild it.

Egypt takes great pride in preserving its ancient monuments which includes all historic houses of worship… Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Pharonic or Coptic. There is no discrimination in Egypt’s attempts to rebuild and to restore houses to the worship of the One God whom we have in common.

It is expected to celebrate the re-opening and re-dedication of the new Eliyahu HaNavi (Prophet Elijah) synagogue sometime in January. The synagogue has a seating capacity for 700 worshippers. Many Egyptian Jews now living in Israel may return to Alexandria for the historic celebration.

Cairo’s Jewish community was always larger than the Alexandrian community but it has been said that the synagogues of Alexandria were more lavish than those of Cairo, built on the style of French palaces.

In 1973 when I was able to visit in Cairo, I worshipped in the main synagogue of the capitol,Shaar Hashomayim, the only functioning synagogue in the very heart and center of the city on Adly Pasha street. It was built in 1906 and its architecture resembles an ancient Egyptian temple. Lotus blossoms are engraved on its exterior.

The building was clearly visible in its architecture as a Jewish place of worship. And even during the long wars between Egypt and Israel, the Cairo main synagogue was not attacked nor defaced and the few remaining Jews in Cairo continued to worship there. Egyptian police guarded the entry doors.

I met with the president of the Jewish community at that time, Felix Ischaki, who told me that on Shabbat there were only about twelve men and three women in synagogue services.

My guide took me to a very ancient synagogue the Ben Ezra, originally built in the Fustat district in 882 of the Common Era before the rise of Islam .In 1206 the building was torn down and was re-located to the Old Cairo district, its present location. From 1206-1240 a new structure was built and a special attic area called the genizah was built to house the hundreds of thousands of torn Hebrew manuscripts and scrolls which became unusable. Thus the name of the Ben Ezra synagogue was known as the El-Genizah.

It is said to have been the spot where the baby Moses was found in a basket by the river banks of the Nile.

Additionally, it is historically mentioned that it was the synagogue to which the prophet Jeremiah fled when he sought to save his life from those Hebrews who spoke of assassinating him.

There is no evidence to support that belief since synagogues did not exist in the lifetime of the biblical prophets. Worship was restricted only to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem where pilgrims gathered three times a year.

I was permitted to open the Holy Ark and to glance at the several deer-skin Torah scrolls written on parchment and going back to centuries whose exact dates were not known. I was also permitted to take photographs of the synagogue’s interior.

No one has worshipped in that synagogue for more than a thousand years, perhaps longer. Still, the building has been preserved and maintained by the Egyptian government as an important part of Egypt’s long history. It is a place which foreign tourists visit.

Cairo’s avenues of large and splendid department stores and luxurious ice-cream parlors and cafes still bear the names of the original Jewish founders more than 150 years ago. Chief among them are the glorious mansions which continue to bear the name Cicurel.

The reconstructing of the Alexandrian Eliyahu HaNavi synagogue by the government of Egypt will be breath-taking.

While Egypt had been a fierce enemy of Zionism and Israel it never permitted mutilation or destruction of Jewish places of worship.

In a few more weeks, Elijah the Prophet will be formally welcomed back to his historic place in the center of Alexandria.

But this time, his visit will probably be without the cup of wine. (Maybe CocaCola instead).

Thanks to the Egyptians. Todah l’Mitzrim. Shukran al-Masri.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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