The Eternal City is the oldest home of Jews in Europe. There were Jews in Rome way before Christianity ever started; neither Ashkenazim (German and East European Jewry) nor Sephardim (Spanish and Portuguese Jewry), since neither of these two main groups of European Jewry yet existed.
After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, the ritual changed completely. Sacrifices were abolished and substituted with prayer. The prayer, according to tradition, originated in two different locations, the Land of Israel and Babylon. Both traditions are based on a common formula, the Sedar Rav Amram, composed in Babylon during the 9th century BCE. As time passed and with continuous migration, different Jewish communities scattered throughout the world, setting down their own minhag (liturgies) with variations on the main text, additional minhag and original forms of recitation.
The Italian minhag are known as minhag kahal kadosh Italiani (“from the sacred community of the Italians”), minhag lo’ez or lo’azim (“from those who speak a foreign tongue”) or minhag bnei Roma (“from the children of Rome”). Its origins are the closest to the Land of Israel.
During the time when the Roman Jews were forced in the ghetto, this is minhag (liturgy) was recited in only three scòle, in the Scòla Tempio, in the Scòla Nova and in the Scòla Siciliana. With very little changes, it is recited today in Tempio Maggiore – The Great Synagogue.
After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Portugal, and Sicily in 1492, the Spanish Jews brought their own minhag—which originated in Babylon together with the North African, Provencal and Yemenite rites.
The Jewish Museum of Rome narrates a fascinating and lesser-known story about the five beitey haknesset (synagogues, also called scòle) during the time when the Jews of Rome were forced into an enclosure known as the Ghetto.
The Scòla was the primary structure of this community, the central nucleus around which the Jews gathered: it was simultaneously a place of prayer and study, a meetinghouse, a religious, cultural and an administrative center, able to meet every need of the community.
Paul IV Carafa (Gian Pietro Carafa, 1476-1559) in 1555 with the papal bull "Cum nimis absurdum" allowed the Jews to use only one building as a synagogue, within what was called "the menagerie of the Jews".
In reality, this was not possible, since the Jews came from very different places and cultures. In addition to the local Jews, there were also those who over the centuries had been ordered to move to the city from different centers of the Papal state or from other realms. Moreover, there were other Jews who immigrated from afar, such as from Spain, Portugal, and Sicily after the expulsion in 1492.
The Jewish Museum of Rome explains how the Jews managed to adhere to the papal provision contained in the "Cum nimis absurdum" by having five different synagogues or Scòle, all placed in a single building, connected to each other by stairs and corridors. In each Scòla it was possible to follow a different rite, their name indicated the geographical origin of the Jews who frequented it. These were: Tempio (for the Jews of Rome), Nova (for those coming from the Papal State), Catalana (for Jews from Catalonia), Castigliana (Jews from Castile) and Siciliana (for those who had been expelled from the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies).
What is lesser known is that before the establishment of the ghetto, there were also others scòle, including a French and an Aragonese, but because there was not enough room (space) for all of them, those with smaller numbers were aggregated to the larger one. In addition, a small Scòla Portaleone was closed when the ghetto was formed in 1555 then reopened a quarter century later to remain in operation until 1735. It was revealed, thanks to scholarly work conducted by the Historical Archives of the Jewish Community of Rome (ASCER), that this sixth scòla was located in a small square corresponding to Monte Savello, immediately after the door near the Quattro Capi bridge. It was this small scòla that the Jews of Rome apparently used on many occasions during the plague of 1656.
Piazza delle Cinque Scòle
The name of the piazza delle Cinque Scòle (square of the five schools-synagogues) originates from the building that was located in that area, where these five scòle congregated under a single roof.
The external façade of the building, as can be seen in a few images that remain and on display in the Jewish Museum, contained a clock tower on top and a neoclassical aedicule supported by four marble columns built in 1835. This important building was a place for prayer, almost hidden among the other buildings in the ghetto, in times of oppression and still performs the same task even in the era of freedom. And it is for this very reason, at the end of the nineteenth century during the first years after the emancipation, the Jews in Rome began discussions about constructing a new synagogue.
The Jewish Community wanted to replace the Ghetto’s ancient “five in one” synagogue building (Cinque Scòle) with a monumental one. After the demolition of the old ghetto neighbourhood, along with the economic crises caused by the collapse of the old building, a heated debate opened-up within the community on this topic. It was between those who would have wanted to build in different points of the city two medium-sized synagogues and those who were pressing to build a large synagogue in the area of the old quarter. The two-synagogue position was clearly in the minority, as demonstrated by the referendum held in 1896 among the members of the community, which gave a landslide victory to the supporters for a single place.
They wanted a solemn, imposing structure, clearly visible from the outside. And they wanted it right exactly in the area where their ancestors had been forced to live for more than three centuries under harsh Papal authority.
As shown in the video and photographs in Room six of the Jewish Museum, the laying of the first stone came in June 1901. From that moment, the whole Jewish community was involved in raising funds, from poor to rich, for the expenses necessary to build a TempioMaggiore (Great Synagogue) that would live up to the community’s expectations.
The community intended to reserve an oratory for the Spanish rite what was in Rome at least since the arrival of the Jews expelled during the Inquisition of 1492. In 1932 the Spanish Synagogue was placed inside the Great Synagogue monumental building. In 1948 it was embellished with the marble furnishings belonging to part of the Cinque Scòle, thus recreating the ghetto’s ancient cinque scòle (five synagogues) atmosphere with their splendid colored marbles and textile fabrics.
The current Jewish community supports and promotes both the Jewish Museum of Rome and the Historical Archive of the Jewish Community of Rome’s (ASCER) mission of historical preservation and education. Their educators and scholars offer specific insights into the Jewish culture, religion and traditions which others not from the community will less easily be able to provide.
1849 – 1871: The Jews of Rome Between Segregation and Emancipation. Edited by Francesco Leone and Giorgia Calò. Gangemie Editore spa, Roma 2021. Exhibition catalogue.
Claudio Procaccia, Material and cultural life of the Jews of Rome in the Risorgimento era, (1848-1870), 105-113.
Historical Archives of The Jewish Community of Rome (ASCER).
Stefano Caviglia, La Storia Delle Cinque Scole Di Roma (The Story of the Five Synagogues of Rome) by Shalom Magazine, 11/16/2021.
Daniela Di Castro, Treasures Of The Jewish Museum Of Rome: Guide To The Museum And Its Collections, Araldo De Luca Editore, Rome 2010; reprinted 2016.