Great Synagogue of Vilna


obj2239geo1735pg57p9The Great Synagogue of Vilna, familiarly called the “Shtot Shul”, was one of the oldest in Eastern Europe. The building was begun in 1573, and its completion must have taken many years, for on the iron gates on its entrances, inscriptions of the various Societies which had donated them were dated 1640 and 1642.

The construction had to be in accordance with the law of that period which forbade any structure to tower over its neighbours. The Shul, therefore, had to be built downwards, with very deep foundations, to allow for a magnificent interior. The exterior view was plain and insignificant, but the interior, by contrast, was splendid and most impressive.

Four massive equidistant columns supported the beautiful. Gothic vaulting descending from the roof, and the great candelabrum was suspended from the centre. The Synagogue was constructed on a substantial and massive scale, for it was intended to serve as a stronghold, should the need arise for the Jews of Vilna to take refuge in it, at times of peril. At one time, it is known, people hid their valuables about the building, and this often incited robbery and hooliganism on the part of the populace.

After the building was enlarged, a new Bima was built in the centre. This was an ornamental edifice which inspired awe and was magnificent; it was in the style of the Italian Renaissance. The Bima was constructed of marble, and was placed in the centre of the pilläirs. It was commissioned in the second half of the eighteenth century by Rabbi JUJDAH BEN ELIEZER, a famous scribe and judge, commonly known as ‘The Yesod’, from the initials ‘YEHUDA SOFER V’DAYAN’.obj2239geo1735pg57p9

The Ark, with iron ornamental doors, was also handsome of design. According to an inscription, it was restored by the ‘BEDEK HABAYIT’ Society, presumably after one of the several fires which had occurred. Above the Ark was a large tablet bearing the Decalogue, supported by the customary Lion and Unicorn motif, also a gift from the Society. The Ark was approached by two flights of steps, with wrought iron balustrades. Within the angle thus formed, stood the AMUD, placed slightly below floor level, however, symbolising the words “From the Depths do I call unto Thee”.

Before the First World War, an imposing brass Menorah stood before the Ark, but on the eve of the expected German Invasion during the War, it was sent off to Moscow, to be saved from destruction. It was never seen again!

There was also once a “Chair of Elijah” on which Circumcisions were performed, but that too, disappeared.

The Great Synagogue did not have a women’s gallery, but at the end of the eighteenth century, an additional section was built along the north side. It consisted of two floors, and was divided along the main building by a wall, containing deep windows. This annexe gave the Synagogue an ‘L’ shape. The Ladies Gallery was commissioned by an Elder, NOAH BEN FEIBUSH BLOCH, who advanced a sum of fourteen thousard gulden for the purpose. When the Kahal could not repay his loan, he presented the structure in commemoration of his name.

Many legends arose around the Great Synagogue. It is related that when Napoleon went through Vilna in 1812, he was shown the Synagogue. Standing on the threshold, and looking down at the magnificent interior, with the impressive supporting pillars and attractive carvings, he is alleged to have been almost speechless with admiration, and exclaimed “This is the Jerusalem of Lithuania.”

A noteworthy feature of the Synagogue was a stone slab, which stood upright to the left of the Ark. It marked the place where once had sat the Head of the Beth Din, Rabbi SH’MUEL BEN AVIGDOR, who was deposed in 1785 after a bitter quarrel with the Elders of the Kahal. They decided to abolish the office of ‘Rav’ in their Synagogue, removed his seat, and replaced it by a warning plaque. From then onwards, all successive Spiritual Leaders could not sit close to the Ark, but only in the vicinity, and when a Rabbi was called to the Torah, he could not be designated by the title ‘Harav’.

The position of Chazan in the Shtot Shul would ensure fame and acceptance to its holder. For many years, Vilna was regarded as a ‘cradle and training ground’ for good Chazanim, yet, for some unknown reason, hardly any who served there, stayed for long.

The first Chazan of note was Reb Zvi Hirsch Lewenstein, 1822-30, and, coming from Libau, was called the “Lepyer Chazan”. The second was his son, Reb Yoel Dovid, the ‘Vilner Baihabessel’; the third ‘Aharontzik’ (the affectionate term for Aaron), left for Vitevsk in 1841. The fourth was Chaim Lomzer, who served from 1855 to 1867, after which he left for London. The fifth was one Yehoshua Fainzinger, who came in 1870 and stayed for only two years. The sixth was Chazan Cooper, who came in 1878 and left for New York in 1886. The next was Chazan Kahan who came to Vilna in 1889 and left there in 1896.

A year later, the famous Chazan Gershon Sirota arrived in Vilna, stayed for seven years, and departed for Warsaw in 1904.

His successor was Chazan Steinberg, who arrived in 1907, and left for Odessa after only one year. Then came Chazan Roitman, who served from 1909-12, and who went to St. Petersburg. Following him was Mordechat Hershman, who served the Vilna Shul from 1913 to 1919, and then departed for New York. After these ‘itinerant Chazanim’, Cantors were engaged only for the High Festivals, and among them was the late Chazan Elfand of the Brondesbury Synagogue of London.

The twelfth Chazan of the Vilna Shtot Shul was the late, great Moshe Kusevitzky. He entered his service there in 1925, and in 1927 went to Warsaw to succeed Sirota in the famous Tlomazke Shul.

On reflection, the rapid succession of Chazan after Chazan in the Vilna Shtot Shul. is self explanatory: Vilna took only the best: any Chazan who had ‘made the grade’ and had been accepted there, could virtually command his own terms in any European Synagogue, and eventually the “Golden Land”.. .America. The ‘birthplace’ of Chazanim’ — the Vilna. Shtot Shul– produced some of the greatest Chazanim of all time.

(From the September 1972 edition – no author)