Kaifeng Synagogue

Kaifeng Synagogue
Kaifeng Synagogue

In 1163, the Great Jin (1115-1234, ruled by the Jurchens) government granted the Jews in Kaifeng a plot of land and subsidised the construction of the Kaifeng synagogue. The assigned land was bounded by the Teaching Torah Lane North (北教经胡同) and Teaching Torah Lane South (南教经胡同). The synagogue was accompanied by sukkah, study area, ritual bath, large kitchen and kosher butchering facility. Scholars believed the original congregation probably had 500 people, composed of 70 clans (or families).

While the Kaifeng Jews embraced many elements of Chinese culture, they guarded hard their own faith. The synagogue had a traditional Chinese architecture on the outside but it differed from other places of worship in China on the inside – there were no idols, of any form. Generations of Jewish children studied Hebrew and Torah here. The facility also allowed the Jews to follow a kosher diet. The Chinese called them “the Religion that Plucks Out the Sinews (挑筋教)” in reference to their custom of removing thigh muscle from Kosher meat.

Over the next 700 years, this synagogue was destroyed and rebuilt at least nine times.

In 1723, Emperor Yongzheng (雍正帝爱新觉罗胤祯, 1723-1735) passed a decree to ban all missionaries from China.

Just before the ban, in 1722, Father Jean Domenge visited Kaifeng and recorded extensively about the Kaifeng synagogue.

He made sketches of both the interior and exterior of the synagogue and noted that the Jewish community took extreme care and great pride in the maintenance of their house of worship. He observed that the synagogue was very Chinese in architecture, with courtyards, wood carvings and strong bilateral symmetry.

The synagogue was called the Temple of Purity and Truth (清真寺) by the locals. The synagogue had a separate hall for ritual slaughter. Special booths were decorated and dedicated to their well-known ancestors, and incense sticks were burned in honour of their patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The synagogue was decorated by many large trees. Typical of local tradition, the main entrance was closed all year round except during Chinese New Year time. People normally entered the synagogue by the two side doors. The Holy of the Holies was a special room that no one except the rabbi could enter, and only during special times of the year. The stone tablets were placed in a visible spot to the right-hand side of the courtyard.

It was further recorded that there were 13 copies of the Torah scroll, each enclosed in a silk case. On Sabbath, the Jews had the tradition of placing the Torah on a special “chair of Moses” before reading it. Above the chair hung a plaque that said, “Long live the Emperor (皇上万岁),” a requirement for all places of worship by the Imperial Court. The Jews were wise – in Hebrew characters which the Chinese could not understand, above plaque, they placed the Shema. The Shema stated, “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” With this, the Jews knew in their heart that their God was above everything.

About the Author
I was born in Hong Kong and currently studying in a school in Oxford, UK. I am fascinated in Jewish history, particularly in China; this points towards Jewish communities in Shanghai, Harbin, Hong Kong, and above all Kaifeng. This is a fairly niche area of interest and would like to share what I learn on my academic journeys with everyone.
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