The Fascinating History of Meah Shearim in Jerusalem

by Harlan Kilstein | Jan 8, 2024 | Neighborhoods | 0 comments

Meah Shearim is a neighborhood in Jerusalem, Israel, known for its ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. The neighborhood was established in 1874 by a group of shareholders who pooled their resources to purchase the tract of land. Meah Shearim was the second Jewish neighborhood to be built outside the walls of the Old City and has since become one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Jerusalem.

The name “Meah Shearim” means “hundred gates” in Hebrew, a reference to the numerous synagogues and study halls in the area. The neighborhood has a rich history and is home to many religious and cultural institutions. Meah Shearim is also known for its strict dress code and conservative approach to public morality, which is reflected in the walls of signs in Hebrew and English that bookend the neighborhood.

Despite its small size, Meah Shearim has played an important role in shaping the cultural and religious identity of Jerusalem. Today, it remains a vibrant and unique community that attracts visitors from around the world who come to experience its rich history and traditions.

brown brick arch hallway during daytime

Founding of Meah Shearim

Meah Shearim is an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem, known for its religious and cultural traditions. The neighborhood was established in 1874 as the fifth settlement outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. Its name is derived from a verse in the weekly Torah portion that was read the week the settlement was founded: “Isaac sowed in that land, and in that year he reaped a hundredfold (מאה שערים, Mea Shearim); God had blessed him” (Genesis 26:12) 1.

Early Settlement

Meah Shearim was established during the Ottoman Empire, a time when the Jewish population of Jerusalem was growing rapidly. The settlement was founded by a group of Orthodox Jews who wanted to live in a community that adhered strictly to Jewish law and tradition. They built their homes around a central courtyard, known as a “haredi court,” which became a hallmark of the neighborhood.

Key Founders

The key founders of Meah Shearim were Rabbi Yosef Rivlin and Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Porush. Rabbi Rivlin was a prominent Jewish scholar and leader who had previously lived in the Old City of Jerusalem. He was instrumental in organizing the settlement and securing funding for its construction. Rabbi Porush was a wealthy businessman who donated much of his fortune to the establishment of Meah Shearim. He also served as the neighborhood’s first mayor and was a key figure in its development 2.

Overall, the founding of Meah Shearim was a significant event in the history of Jerusalem and the Jewish people. It represented a commitment to preserving Jewish tradition and culture in the face of modernization and secularization. Today, Meah Shearim remains a vibrant and thriving community, with a rich history and culture that continues to inspire and influence people around the world.

Footnotes

  1. Wikipedia
  2. Jewish Virtual Library

Cultural Significance

Meah Shearim is a neighborhood in Jerusalem that holds immense cultural significance. The neighborhood was established in the late 19th century by a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews who sought to create an insular community that followed strict religious practices and customs. Today, Meah Shearim remains an insular neighborhood in the heart of Jerusalem, with its Haredi, and overwhelmingly Hasidic, population, the streets retain the characteristics of an Eastern European shtetl, as it appeared in pre-war Europe [1].

Architectural Style

The architecture of Meah Shearim is one of its most striking features. The neighborhood’s buildings are constructed in a traditional European style, with stone and brick facades and ornate balconies. The streets are narrow and winding, and many of the buildings have arched doorways and windows. The buildings are often decorated with intricate carvings and paintings, and many of them have small courtyards or gardens [2].

Community Life

Meah Shearim is known for its tight-knit community, which is centered around its synagogues and study halls. The neighborhood is home to dozens of synagogues, each of which is associated with a particular Hasidic sect. The synagogues are often small and intimate, and many of them are decorated with elaborate wood carvings and paintings. The study halls, known as yeshivas, are also an important part of community life in Meah Shearim. The yeshivas are where young men come to study Torah and other religious texts, and they are often housed in large, ornate buildings [3].

The residents of Meah Shearim are deeply committed to their religious practices and customs, and the neighborhood is known for its strict adherence to traditional Jewish law. Men and women dress modestly, and many of the men wear traditional black suits and hats. The streets of Meah Shearim are closed to traffic on the Sabbath and holidays, and the neighborhood is known for its lively celebrations of these occasions. The community is also known for its charitable work, and many of the residents are involved in supporting the poor and needy [1].

Overall, Meah Shearim is a unique and vibrant neighborhood that offers a glimpse into traditional Jewish life in Jerusalem. Its rich cultural heritage and commitment to religious tradition make it a special place that is beloved by its residents and visitors alike.

[1] Source: Wikipedia [2] Source: Art Levin [3] Source: Jerusalem Guidebook

Historical Events

Ottoman Era

Meah Shearim was founded in the Ottoman era and was initially home to a mixed population of Jews and Arabs. During this time, the neighborhood was known for its diverse community and religious tolerance. However, tensions between the two groups eventually led to violence and the neighborhood became predominantly Jewish.

British Mandate

Under the British Mandate, Meah Shearim experienced a renaissance. Many new buildings were constructed, and the neighborhood became a center for Jewish religious and cultural life. However, this revival was short-lived. During Israel’s War of Independence, the area was heavily bombed, and many houses were destroyed.

State of Israel

After the establishment of the State of Israel, Meah Shearim became a symbol of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. The neighborhood is known for its strict adherence to Jewish law and customs, and visitors are often struck by the traditional dress and customs of the residents. Despite its insular nature, Meah Shearim is an important part of Jerusalem’s cultural and religious heritage.

Challenges and Controversies

Modernization Efforts

Meah Shearim is known for its conservative and Orthodox Jewish community, which has resisted modernization efforts over the years. The community has maintained its traditional way of life, including strict adherence to Jewish law and customs. However, as the city of Jerusalem grew and modernized, Meah Shearim faced pressure to change as well. In the early 20th century, the community faced a decline due to poor hygiene and living conditions. Efforts to modernize the neighborhood were met with resistance, as residents feared that any changes would threaten their way of life.

Political Tensions

Meah Shearim has also been a site of political tensions over the years. The neighborhood is known for its conservative views and opposition to the State of Israel. Some residents have refused to recognize the State of Israel and have even protested against it. In recent years, tensions have risen between the community and the Israeli government over issues such as military service and funding for religious institutions. These tensions have sometimes led to protests and clashes with police.

Despite these challenges and controversies, Meah Shearim remains a unique and vibrant community in the heart of Jerusalem. Its residents continue to uphold their traditions and way of life, while also navigating the pressures of modernization and political change.

Meah Shearim Today

Demographics

Meah Shearim is still predominantly a Haredi Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem, with a population of approximately 30,000 people as of 2021. The neighborhood is known for its strict adherence to Jewish customs and traditions, and residents often dress in traditional clothing.

Due to the high birth rate within the community, Meah Shearim has a young population, with a significant number of children and teenagers. The neighborhood is home to several schools and yeshivas, where students study Torah and other Jewish texts.

Tourism and Economy

Meah Shearim has become a popular tourist destination in recent years, with visitors coming to experience the unique culture and traditions of the Haredi community. The neighborhood is known for its narrow streets, historic buildings, and traditional dress.

In addition to tourism, Meah Shearim has a thriving economy with many small businesses and shops. The neighborhood is home to several kosher restaurants, bakeries, and grocery stores, as well as shops selling traditional Jewish clothing and religious items.

Overall, Meah Shearim remains an important cultural and religious center in Jerusalem, attracting both residents and visitors who are interested in experiencing the rich history and traditions of the Haredi Jewish community.