The old Jewish quarter of Barcelona, located in the city’s Gothic quarter. Although few vestiges remain, in the Centre d'Interpretació del Call visitors can get a good idea of what life was like for the Jewish community of Barcelona during the Middle Ages. The Call or Jewish Quarter forms part of what is now the Gothic Quarter. It was one of the city’s centres of culture in the Middle Ages and home to two synagogues. One of them, the Sinagoga Major, is one of Europe’s oldest, as it is believed to date back to the 6th century. The Jewish Quarter was home to schools, baths and hospitals, but now only a few houses are left standing. It was surrounded by two city walls on the limits of the old Roman settlement. The Jews, however, did not close themselves off from the rest of city as they had houses and workshops outside of these city walls. In the early 13th century the population had grown so much that the Call Menor, the smaller Jewish quarter, was created. Now practically nothing remains of it. The Call Major, the larger Jewish quarter, is home to the Sinagoga Major or Shlomo ben Aderet Synagogue, as it is also known, after the man who was the 13th-century leader of Catalan Judaism, the Rabbi of Barcelona and a banker to kings like James I (the Conqueror). It was the centre of Jewish life in the city until the start of the attacks on the community, the most serious of which, in 1391, ended with the death of 300 Jews. In the following years Jewish cemeteries and synagogues were destroyed and Jews were forced to convert to Christianity. Due to the expulsion decreed by the Catholic Monarchs in 1492, the quarter fell into decline and its buildings were converted. The Sinagoga Major became a dye works and the Sinagoga Menor was transformed into a Trinitarian convent, of which today only the parish church on Carrer de Ferran dedicated to Saint James remains.
The Sinagoga Mayor, also known as the Great or Ancient Synagogue, is believed to be an ancient synagogue located in the centre of Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. It has been described as one of the oldest synagogues in Europe. After many centuries of being used for other purposes, the building re-opened as a synagogue and museum in 2002. Though the synagogue is not open for regular prays services, it is used for special and festive occasions. Archaeological investigations show that the original structure of the building was built in the third or fourth century, though whether this structure was the synagogue cannot be said with certainty. The building was significantly expanded during the 13th century. King James I visited the synagogue in 1263 at the end of the Barcelona Disputation. Shlomo ben Aderet served as the rabbi of the Sinagoga Major for 50 years. When the Jews of Barcelona were massacred in 1391, the building was used for many other purposes, with its original use being forgotten. However, in 1987, Jaume Riera y Sans began researching the location of the Sinagoga Major. His research was based on a reconstruction of the route followed by a thirteenth-century tax collector that ended at the Sinagoga Major. Riera's work led Miguel Iaffa to examine the exterior of the building and he noted that the structure had been built in compliance with religious requirements that the building should face Jerusalem and that it should have two windows. In fact, the eastward orientation of the building (toward Jerusalem) broke with the northwest/southeast alignment of the streets in its neighborhood. Iaffa purchased the building in 1995 when its owner put it up for sale. The Call Association of Barcelona (Catalan: Associació Call de Barcelona), led by Iaffa, undertook the recovery and restoration of the synagogue. The opening of The Sinagoga Major to the public in 2002 drew in 20,000 visitors during 2005. In 2003, two Canadians became the first couple to be married at the Sinagoga Major in more than 600 years, and in 2006, a New York attorney donated a 500-year-old sefer Torah (Torah scroll) to the synagogue.
Plaza del Rei, the King's square, is located in the center of the Gothic District, radiating its cultural charm. Here, you can find the Palau Reial alongside, where the notorious Disputation of Barcelona ran its course in 1263, between the Dominican convert Pau Cristià, a great polemicist and expert in the Talmud, and the Jew from Girona, Moses ben Nahman, or Nahmanides, one of the great learned men of the age. The debate wne ton for five intense sessions conducted by the King, followed by a vast crowd in which the debate about the arrival of the Messiah was in stalemate. According to the drafting of the conclusions in Hebrew or in Latin, the outcome ended up meaning exile for the man from Girona.
Barcelona’s Jewish Community: One of Europe’s Oldest The stunning city of Barcelona is known for being one of the most beautiful cities in all of Europe. However, not many know that Barcelona the city is rich with Jewish history, culture, and heritage. On his visit to Barcelona in 1862, famed Danish author Hans Christen Anderson remarked that Barcelona was the “Paris of Spain.” True the city does seem to carry a joie-de-vivre of its own never running short on food, wine, music, history, or art. However Barcelona history began well before the time of Gaudi and Dali. The city was settled over 2,000 years ago as a Roman colony called Barcino. So named for the Roman Emperor Augusta Faventia Paterna Barcino. The settlement was used as an outpost and port for trading. This new economic opportunity came the city’s very first Jewish community. Early Catalonian Jewish History and Culture Jewish history in Barcelona is one of the oldest and most notable in the whole of Jewish Europe. From the time of ancient Rome until the Expulsion in 1492, the Jewish people of Catalan flourished both spiritually, intellectually, and economically. The community identity was so fervent that Barcelona’s Jews cultivated their own language called Catalanit. They occupied positions as doctors, merchants, and philosophers, and participating in some foundational moments in Jewish history such as the Barcelona Disputation of 1263. This was the religious battle over the truth of the messiah. This famous fight was between Spanish Jewry’s staple sage Nachmanides and Friar Paul Christian. However the most important roles Jews played in terms of their value to the state was money lending. During the end of the 7th century Barcelona’s Jewish community was the private financial resource of Catalonia’s sovereign courts because only Jews could legally lend money. Discrimination Against the Jewish People and WWII Despite the success and prosperity of the Jewish people there was a good deal of anti-Semitic persecution across the centuries. Long before the expulsion in 1492 Jews were subjected to pogroms, forced conversions, inquisitional torture, and cemetery vandalism. Even today one can still find Jewish gravestones within the walls of a few cathedrals. After Jews were expelled from Spain, Barcelona would not see a major growth in its Jewish community for four hundred years. Not until waves of Jewish refugees began making their way to Spain fleeing Nazi annihilation in Germany. In 1918 there were 100 Jews living in Barcelona by 1935 that number increased to 5,000 individuals. Barcelona’s Jewish Community Returns From Exile Barcelona’s Jewish culture declined slightly with the Spanish Civil War. Yet over in the last few decades more and more Sephardic Jews have returned after centuries in exile from North Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. There are synagogues that serve different communities and traditions from Modern Orthodox to Reform Judaism. There is also a kosher butcher and a Jewish day school that enrolls both Jewish and non-Jewish students. Rebuilding Jewish History in the “Call” Since the early 2000s there has been a significant community effort to commemorate and preserve the long Jewish history of Barcelona. In 2001 a construction project unearthed 500 Jewish tombstones in what was once the medieval Jewish cemetery in Montjuic. This site also known as “Mountain of the Jews.” In 2007, the mountain was recognized as a national heritage site. The local Chabad house nestled in the famed Jewish quarter has been heavily involved in the preservation of the once buried traces of Catalonian Jewish culture. What you can expect to find on your potential visit is a hidden history in almost every corner and street. The original Jewish quarter or the “Call” as it is commonly known forms part of what is now the Gothic Quarter and at one time housed 5,000 Jews. It is also home to the Synagoga Major, one of Europe’s oldest synagogues dated to the third or fourth century. The synagogue is built on the ruins of an ancient Roman structure the foundations of which are visible today through glass flooring. The building itself is very small, measuring only 60 square meters because in Medieval Spain a synagogue was never allowed to be taller or bigger than the smallest church in the city. The Mind of the “Rashba” One can also view the former home of Rabbi Shlomo Ben Avraham Ibn Aderet, more commonly known as the Rashba. Born in Barcelona in 1235 Ben Aderet became a successful banker in addition to the religious leader of Spanish Jewry designated as El Rab d’Espana. He served as Rabbi at the Synagoga Major for 50 years until his death in 1310. Rashba was one of the most respected minds of his day, receiving inquiries on Jewish law from across Europe. Many of his responsum were used in the authoring of one of Judaism’s most famous texts, the Shulkhan Arukh. A City That Celebrates Jewish History and Modern Culture Other than archaeological sites and famous historical figures there are other ways Barcelona celebrates its historic Jewish community. The Barcelona Film Festival has been the only one of its kind in the Iberian Peninsula since 1999. The festival offers a broad range of films that are used to dismantle prejudices inflicted on Jews and Jewish history. The colorful city of Catalonian culture dubbed the “Paris of Spain” could also be called the “Jerusalem of Spain” due to its established chapter of Jewish history. For over 2,000 years Barcelona’s Jewish community has known success and loss, innovation and confrontation. Most importantly that story is being continued today through the reclamation and celebration of Jewish heritage. Don’t wait too long to immerse yourself in the story. Explore Barcelona’s city page to plan your trip itinerary!