The Transit Synagogue, Toledo, Spain

Category: Toledo

Are you planning a trip to Spain, specifically the Toledo region of the country?  Do you need some ideas with regard to some of the places of interest you should visit while you’re there?  Toledo is a wonderful city, one renowned for its rich history, melting pot culture and plenty of commemorative monuments.  If you plan to visit this fascinating town, which, by the way, is centrally located and not far from the nation’s capital, Madrid, you should definitely try to check out the Transit Synagogue while you’re there, known in Spanish as the Sinagoga del Tránsito.  To give you a little background on this popular Spanish attraction, below we have provided a brief overview of the facility, including some information regarding its historical significance, the history of its changes and the architectural design and features.

The Transit Synagogue:  Overview

The Transit Synagogue is a historic structure in Toledo, Spain, renowned for its opulent stucco decoration, which is similar to that of the Alcazar of Seville and the Alhambra Palaces of Granada.  It was founded in the 14th century, specifically around 1356, by the Treasurer serving under Peter I of Castile, a man named Samuel ha-Levi Abulafia (some locals in Toledo still refer to the Transit Synagogue the “Samuel ha-Levi”).  The founder was a member of a family that had faithfully served the Castilian kings for generations; a family that included kabballists and scholars of the Torah such as Meir and Todros Abulafia, and another Todros Abulafia, who was one of the last poets to write in the Arab-influenced style preferred by Jewish poets in Spain during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

It is widely believed that King Peter I of Castile gave the go-ahead for the construction of the synagogue to compensate the Jews of Toledo for destruction that had occurred during anti-Jewish riots in the city in 1348, accompanied by the Black Death in Toledo.  The founder, however, Samuel ha-Levi Abulafia, eventually fell afoul of King Peter I and was executed in 1360.

Transition Synagogue:  Changes through the Years

Following the expulsion of the Jews, an order prescribed by the Alhambra decree of 1492, the Synagogue came under the Order of Calatrava, a group that converted the building into a church honoring Saint Benedict.  The name of the church later changed in the 17th century to Nuestra Señora del Transito, a name deriving from a painting by the Spanish artist Juan Correa de Vivar, called Transit of the Virgin.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the synagogue was used as military headquarters and barracks, and in the late 19th century (1877) it became a national monument.  Today it is home to the Sephardic Museum, a transformation that was initiated by the Veca-Inclan foundation in 1910.  Given its age and many uses over the years, the building, at least for the most part, remains in very good condition.

Architecture and Features

When the Synagogue was initially built in the 14th century, there were laws in Spain that said Jewish synagogues had to be built smaller and less grand than churches.  However, the law was not abided in this case, probably due to the founder’s relationship with the Castilian King Peter.  Very large and exceedingly magnificent, its design features polychrome stucco-work in the Nasrid style of architecture, with Hebrew inscriptions lauding the king and founder and quotations from the Book of Psalms.  It also has multi-foil arches and an enormous paneled ceiling, constructed in the Mudejar style, with Arabic inscriptions interwoven into the floral patterns of the panels.

Perhaps the most interesting and historically significant feature of the Transition Synagogue is the Women’s Gallery.  In the time period when the building served as a synagogue, women were not permitted to mingle with the men during the ceremonies, but they were allowed to watch from the Women’s Gallery.  This section of the synagogue is located on the ground floor of the southern wall and features five open windows looking down on the Hechal, the Sephardic term for the Aron Kodesh, or “Holy Ark,” the main focal point in all synagogues.