Journal of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center
No.13, Summer 2001

Prof. Yitzhak Avishur

The first synagogue in the world was built, it seems, in Babylon. Though there is no accurate information in this regard, except for the legend connected with the founding of "Shaf weYativ " Synagogue. The legend tells us that King Yehoyachin who was exiled in the first Diaspora to Babylon (597 B.C.), brought with him earth from Israel, or more accurately bricks, which he used in the building of the "Shaf weYativ " Synagogue in Nehardea, traditionally believed to be the Great synagogue in Baghdad.

Rabbi Ezra Dangoor in the Great Synagogue
in Baghdad, 1910

Rabbi Yosef Hayyim worked hard to lend credibility to this belief. On his return to Babylon from a visit to Eretz Yisrael, he brought with him several sacks of dry earth and a large stone. He engraved on the stone the words "stone from Eretz Yisrael " and laid it at the entrance to the Great Synagogue to be kissed by all those who came to pray. He scattered the earth all over the synagogue floor which was not tiled, and so added credibility to the legend that the Great Synagogue in Baghdad is no other than the "Shaf weYativ ". Furthermore, one cannot ignore the historical events that took place and lent weight to this tradition. Since the time the Israelites were forced into exile they were faced with the danger of being assimilated into various non-Jewish Communities in exile. Exile meant living geographically and religiously distant from Eretz Yisrael. Furthermore, exile to Babylon seemed irrevocable without any chance of return and meant the loss of their legacy in Eretz Yisrael.
This concept was widely believed by no other than Jerusalem residents who stayed there after King Yehoyachin was exiled in 597 B.C. Jerusalem residents demanded total and utter dissociation from the exiled people in Babylon and claimed Eretz Yisrael as their inheritance and theirs alone (Ez. 33:24). The exiled multitude reacted with "Miqdash Me'at ". "Miqdash Me'at " is a spiritual concept that came into existence as a substitute for the Holy Temple, which had been destroyed (Ez. 11:16). The tradition of Talmud Babli identifies the "Miqdash Me'at " with the synagogue. The "Miqdash Me'at " provided the answer to spiritual and physical needs in order to gather the exiled people in Babylon under a spiritual leadership for religious instruction; and so the concept of "Miqdash Me'at " became a synonym for synagogue.
All through the era of the Geonim, little was known about the synagogues. The Babylonian Geonim provided little bits and pieces of information in their answers. From the 9th to the 11th centuries, the status of the Yeshivoth in Babylon reached an unprecedented low. The Babylonian Jews who immigrated to Eretz Yisrael, Syria, Egypt and other countries built Babylonian synagogues and rabbinical courts of law in every important city they inhabited: in Aleppo, Damascus, Cairo (the ancient Fustat) and in Alexandria. The Babylonian synagogues' importance exceeded those of the local Jewish community.
Numerous letters that were found in the Genizah (archives) addressed to the large communities in Aleppo and Egypt, in Hebrew or in Jewish-Arabic were sent mainly to them: the Babylonian and the Eretz Yisraelite Communities (non Babylonian).
Those letters mentioned "Kanisat El Iraqiyin ". The grandest and most important of all synagogues was the famous one in Fustat, which lost its importance in the beginning of the 15th Century; a lot is known about it as well as the big and well-organized Babylonian Community gathered there. They founded their own rabbinical law court and supported tens of their needy members listed as receiving support and assistance directly from the management of this synagogue.  >>>