Spain / Castile-La Mancha / Castile-León

Toledo

Tránsito Synagogue and Sephardic Museum

Calle de Alcántara, 5, 45006 Toledo, Toledo, Spain

Santa María la Blanca Synagogue

Calle de los Reyes Católicos, 4, 45002 Toledo

Tránsito Synagogue, Toledo ©Antonio Velez

The “Sephardic Jerusalem” is known around the world for the beauty of its synagogues and its Jewish quarter. The memory of the community has remained vivid in Toledo; historians have from the thirteenth and fourteenth century onward been able to supply fairly precise information about the location and history of the city’s Jewish community. Toledo is a city of great historical and artistic importance and is listed here as a World Heritage Site.

At the time of its greatest splendor, just before 1391, Toledo had ten synagogues and five to seven yeshivot. In 1492 there were five grand synagogues, two of which survive: the Tránsito, now the Sephardic Museum, and Santa María la Blanca.

The Tránsito Synagogue

The Tránsito Synagogue was built in 1357 at the order of Samuel Levi, treasurer to King Pedro I. Archaeological finds suggest this imposing edifice was erected on the site of an older synagogue. In 1492 the Catholic monarchs donated it to the Calatrava military order, which transformed it into a priory. During the Napoleonic Wars is served as barracks. In 1877 it was declared a national monument. When Spain’s Jewish community revived, the outbuildings became the Sephardic Museum.

As is often the case, the brick facade is austere, without decoration, but the interior is very beautiful. This is probably one of the finest example of the Mudejar style in Spain. Harmonious in proportion (approximately 76 x 30 feet high) it has an ornate coffered larch-wood ceiling. The women’s gallery has its own entrance and is well lit by five large windows. The synagogue is famed for its interior decoration. The wall with the niche made for the Sepher Torah is covered with panels and a plaster frieze sculpted in the oriental tradition. Numerous inscriptions along the wall commemorate Samuel Levi and Pedro I. Verses from the Psalms complete this decoration lit by windows with fine ornamental columns and lace-like mashrabiyahs.

Santa María la Blanca, Toledo ©E. Marber

In the outbuildings the museum exhibits gifts and articles collected from all over Spain, taking visitors through the history of Spanish Judaism. There are some very fine tombstones from León, and the oldest object os the sarcophagus of a child with inscriptions in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin and decorated with royal peacocks, a tree of life, a shofar, and a menorah. Seminars, courses, and talks are organized throughout the year on themes relating to Spanish Judaism. The synagogue is not used for worship.

Santa María la Blanca

The second synagogue,  Santa María la Blanca, now bears its later name as a Christian church. Built in the early thirteenth century, it was consecrated as a church in 1411 by the preacher San Vicente Ferrer, the man behind the wave of conversions in 1391. From 1600 to 1791 it was an oratory, and after that a barracks. It was restored in 1851 and declared a national monument. It is in the Mudejar style, but less rich than the Tránsito. Its twenty-five horseshoe arches and thirty-two columns create an impression of considerable space. Note the variety and quality of the capitals and the building’s similarity to Andalusian mosques.

Be sure to see the many streets of the old judería around the Calle Santo Tomé. In spite of much rebuilding, the area still has a certain charm.

The “Holy Innocent Child”

Jews in the two small villages of Tembleque and La Guardia near Toledo were accused of the ritual murder of a child, who immediately became a figure of popular legend under the name of the “Holy Innocent Child”. The accused were dragged before the Inquisition at Ávila in 1490 and 1491 and condemned. This stiry had such an impact that during the golden age, the great Spanish playwright Lope de Vega wrote the tragedy The Holy Innocent Child and Bayeu, Goya’s grandfather, painted a picture on the theme (it still hangs in the Toledo cathedral). Popular fervor bore fruit in the construction of a chapel on the road to Madrid, which still stands. Of course, historians have since shown that the accusation, although frequently repeated, was unfounded

Suggested itineraries in the medieval Jewish quarter

In his book The Médieval Jewish Quarter of Toledo, which we recommend reading to anyone interested in the Jewish heritage of the city, Jean Passini offers three routes of visits to the city. Each of them will take you about an hour. If the majority of buildings are destroyed, you will however find some remains, and grasp the atmosphere that was once one of the most flourishing Jewish neighborhoods in southern Europe.

Route I: The borders of the medieval Jewish quarter

The tour starts at Plaza del Salvador, where the “Fernando Garbal jewish store and wine cellar” was located in 1491. The building is located at the foot of San Salvador Church. Then walk to Plaza de Marrón, where the Caleros Synagogue was located in the 15th century. Then take the streets Alfonso XII, San Pedro Mártir, Traversia San Clemente. You will arrive at Plaza de la Cruz, where was the north gate of the Jewish quarter. The house at number 1 of the place belonged to Master Alfonso, a pharmacist. Beyond the street Doncellas, there is a cellar with an octagonal dome, typical of medieval Jewish buildings. It can be visited by appointment. At number 11 Doncellas Street was a baking oven. Take Cuesta Street from Santa Leocadia and Calle San Martin to Callejón (Square) San Martin. On your left you will see houses built against what was the wall of the Jewish Quarter in 1637. At number 11 Calle Alamillos de San Martin, you will find the only surviving wall of what was a medieval tavern. At the end of Molino del Degolladero street, you will also find remains of the wall. On your right, take Bajada de Santa Anna where there was a medieval Jewish castle. Then you go past the old synagogue before ending up at your starting point, Plaza del Salvador.

Route II: The main Jewish district

From Plaza del Salvador, head towards Calle Taler del Moro to reach Paseo de San Cristóbal. Retrace your steps towards Plaza del Conde, then towards the Greek Museum. This museum is housed in what was Samuel Levi’s house. Two cellars are kept in the basement. There was also a courtyard and two rooms. You will then arrive at the synagogue of Tránsito, then at the old ritual butchery. Then take Bajada de Santa Anna, San Juan de los Reyes Bajada, Calle de los Reyes Católicos where the Sofer synagogue was located from the 12th to the 14th century. Turning left Calle del Ángel, you will pass under small arches that marked the entrance to the Alacava. Going down the stairs to Calle Santa Maria la Blanca, you will pass the synagogue of the same name. Continue to Traversía de la Judería. At number 4 you will find the Casa del Judío, the Jewish house, where you can visit the courtyard. Take Calle de San Juan de Dios, originally the main street of the Jewish Quarter. You will arrive at Calle, then Plaza de Santo Tomé, where there was the market, shops and stalls.

Route III: El Alacava

Start at Plaza del Salvador, then Calle Alfonso XII, Valdecaleros Plaza, Calle de las Bulas, Callejón de los Golondrinos. At numbers 29, 31 and 33 of this street were a synagogue and adjoining community buildings. From Plaza Virgen de Gracia, then Calle del Ángel, Arquillo de la Judería, then Callejón de los Jacintos, Calle Reyes Católicos, Plaza de Barrio Nuevo, Calle de Samuel Levi, Calle de San Juan de Dios, Plaza, then Calle from Santo Tomé.

Source (itinéraires) : Jean Passini, The Medieval Jewish Quarter of Toledo, Editions of Sofer