History of Aleppo
Source: Encyclopedia Judaica
Also: Aram Zoba (city, Syr.)
ALEPPO (Ar. Halab) called by the Jews Aram-Zoba (Aram Zova), second-largest city in Syria and the center
of northern Syria. The Hebrew form of Aleppo (Haleb) is, according to a legend quoted by the 12th-century
traveler, Pethahiah of Regensburg, derived from the tradition that Abraham pastured his sheep on the
mountain of Aleppo and distributed their milk (halav) to the poor on its slopes. Jewish settlement
there has continued uninterruptedly since Roman times. The ancient section of the great synagogue
was built in the form of a basilica with three stoae during the Byzantine period; an inscription
on it dates from 834. Saadiah Gaon was in Aleppo in 921 and it is said that he found Jewish scholars
there. In the 11th century learned rabbis led a well-ordered community. R. Baruch b. Isaac was its
leader at the end of the 11th century: fragments of his commentary on the Gemara as well as responsa
have been found in the genizah. Apparently the rosh kehillot ("head of communities"), i.e., a leader
common to the various communities of Jews (such as Babylonians, Palestinians, etc.), represented all
Jews before the Muslim authorities.
The community seems to have had close contacts with Palestine, and heads of Palestinian yeshivot visited
Aleppo. In the second half of the 12th century the great yeshivah of Baghdad was in contact with Aleppo.
R. Zechariah b. Barachel, a disciple of the gaon Samuel b. Ali of Baghdad was appointed to head Aleppo's
bet din. The scholars of Aleppo also exchanged letters with Maimonides; R. Joseph b. Aknin, Maimonides'
disciple, lived in Aleppo at. that time. With the inclusion of the town in Nur al-Din's (Nouredin) kingdom
in 1146, security improved. Benjamin of Tudela estimated the number of Jews in Aleppo as 5,000 (according
to the best-preserved manuscript versions). After Saladin's death, Aleppo became the capital of an
independent kingdom and until the middle of the 13th century the city enjoyed security and prosperity in
which the Jews shared. In 1217, Judah Al-Harizi visited Aleppo and reported that there were several Jewish
scholars, physicians, and government officials active there at the time.
The Mongol conquest (1260) led to the slaughter of Jews, but the central synagogue, untouched by the
invaders, offered asylum to many. The same year, the Mamluks defeated the Mongols and ruled over Syria until
the beginning of the 16th century. Aleppo, their stronghold in northern Syria, contained a large garrison which
brought further prosperity to the community. There were several wealthy merchants, officials, craftsmen, and
outstanding scholars among the Aleppo Jews. The rich community maintained educational institutions and scholars.
The growth of Muslim intolerance under rulers from Cairo and Damascus and the periodical publication of
discriminatory laws against non-Muslims, had their effect on the life of the community. In 1327, the synagogue
was turned into a mosque with the approval of the sultan of Cairo. The end of the 14th century saw a power
struggle between opposing factions of the leaders of the Mamluks and heavy taxes were imposed on the civilian
population. In 1400, Tamerlane captured Aleppo with much bloodshed and destruction. Many Jews were killed and
enslaved. The community gradually overcame this disaster and in the second half of the 15th century Aleppo Jews
again traded with India and scholars resumed their learned activities.
At the beginning of the 16th century exiles from Spain started to arrive in Aleppo, among them outstanding rabbis.
They established a separate community although sharing the general institutions with the musta$arbim (Orientals).
The Jewish population increased markedly; the great synagogue (called, "the Yellow") could no longer accommodate
all the congregation and in the second half of the 15th century an additional (eastern) wing was added where the
Sephardim prayed. The spiritual and intellectual leadership of the community gradually passed to the Sephardim,
and important rabbis include: R. Solomon Atartoros in the middle of the 16th century and after him R. Abraham b.
Asher of Safed, R. Samuel b. Abraham Laniado, his son, R. Abraham (who officiated until 1623), and his grandson,
R. Solomon. After the Ottoman conquest in 1517, constant contacts were established with the great communities in
Constantinople and the other towns in Turkey, as well as trade links with them and with Persia and India. Contacts
with the Jews of Palestine were also close, and the influence of the Safed kabbalists was marked. Shabbateanism
found many adherents In Aleppo and after Zevis Shabbetai's apostasy, Nathan of Gaza went to Aleppo and continued
his activities there.
In 1700, R. Moses b. Raphael Harari of Salonika was rabbi of Aleppo. At that time, European Jews from France and
Italy also settled in Aleppo; they participated in the extensive trade between Persia and Southern Europe in which
Aleppo served as an important station. These merchants, called Francos, enjoyed the protection of the consuls of
the European powers and this created antagonism in the community. The Francos liberally supported communal institutions,
but refused to pay the regular taxes and did not recognize the authority of the community. R. Samuel Laniado II,
rabbi of Aleppo in the first half of the 18th century, forcefully demanded that the Francos have the same obligations
as all the other Jews of Aleppo and that all the rules should bind them. In the second half of the 18th century the
dispute flared up again when the chief rabbi, Raphael Solomon (b. Samuel) Laniado tried to compel the Francos to accept
the rules of the community and was opposed by R. Judah Kazin, who defended the Francos; the latter, in protest, ceased
to take part in public prayers. The dispute had a social background, since the Francos were wealthy and learned and
were attached to the ideas and customs they brought from Europe. At the end of the 18th century, with the decline of
trade between Aleppo and Persia, the number of Francos dwindled.
In the first half of the 19th century, the status of the community declined both economically and culturally.
At the same time hostilities erupted between the various religious communities in Syria. In 1875, a blood libel
was spread about the Jews of Aleppo; however, the missing Armenian boy, whose absence had provided the charge,
was found in a nearby village. In 1869 the Alliance IsraMlite Universelle established a school for boys and in
1889, a school for girls, utilizing European teaching methods. In 1865 Abraham Sasson and his sons set up a
printing house in Aleppo, one of the sons having learned the craft in Leghorn. In 1887 Isaiah Dayyan established
another printing press with the help of H.P. Kohen from Jerusalem. Two years later they had to cease operation,
not being able to obtain a government license. The license was obtained in 1896 and printing resumed and continued
until World War I. From 1910 to 1933 Ezra Hayyim Jouegati of Damascus set up a press, having learned the craft
with Eliezer Ben-Yehuda in Jerusalem. Another printing press was founded by Ezra Bijo in 1924 and continued until
1925. Altogether, approximately 70 books were printed in Aleppo, mostly works by local scholars, ancient
manuscripts found locally, and prayer books of the local rite. After World War I there were over 6,000 Jews
in Aleppo. The wealthy moved from the Jewish quarter, which was surrounded by a wall, to new quarters. However,
the link with Jewish culture was not severed; traditional learning was not neglected and some Jews emigrated to
In 1947, Aleppo had a Jewish community of about 10,000. In an outbreak of violence against the Jews in December
1947, all the synagogues were destroyed and about 6,000 Jews fled Aleppo. Many of them secretly crossed the
frontier into Turkey or Lebanon, where they settled, or continued to Israel, Europe, or America. The 1,000
Jews living in Aleppo in 1968 resided in two quarters: Bahsita, the old quarter; and Jamiliyya, founded after
World War I. Muslims, who had moved into these quarters after the departure of the Jewish residents, occasionally
assaulted their Jewish neighbors and several cases of murder were recorded. The four schools of the Alliance
IsraMlite Universelle were closed by the government in 1950, and thereafter most of the children studied at a
religious elementary school (talmud torah). As the community dwindled, this school was also closed, and some
Jewish children studied at Christian schools. A special prayer-customthe Aram-Zobah riteexisted in Aleppo
(its prayer book was printed in Venice, 152327). Jews of Aleppo living in Israel continue to observe it.
[Haim J. Cohen]
Syrian Jewry and, particularly, the community of Aleppo long enjoyed a reputation as lovers of music and singing.
In the course of eight centuries, they developed a characteristic style in their liturgical and related activities.
As early as the 13th century, the Spanish Hebrew poet Judah Al-Harizi, referring to Syrian personalities,
mentioned the cantor R. Daniel and said his performance conquered "the hearts of the holy people by his delightful
song" (Tahkemoni, 46). Almost all the chants and hymns sung outside the formal religious service were the work
of distinguished Aleppo rabbis such as Moses Laniado, Raphael Antebi, Jacob and Mordecai Abbadi, and Mordecai
Levaton, who were poets as well as composers. Some of them may have modeled themselves on the poet Israel Najara
of Damascus who was highly esteemed by composers of the period. This encouragement of the art of singing by the
rabbis found strong support in R. Mordecai Abbadi's introduction to a book of bakkashot (Sephardi hymns), Mikra
Kodesh, published in 1873. The melodic style of Aleppo belongs to the Arabian-Turco-Persian musical family, but
also shows other influences, mainly those of Sephardi Jews. Both in prayers and other songs, the maqam style (melodic pattern)
and elaboration prevail. For each Sabbath or festival prayer there is an appropriate maqam, and the various zemirot (hymns)
also conform to the maqam pattern. See also Bakkashah.