The tradition of Aleppo Jews


Rabbis and officials from the Great synagogue of Aleppo at the beginning of the 20th Century

The tradition of many Jewish families from Aleppo (=Halab), Syria, is to light an extra candle in addition to the regular candles that we all light in Hanukka. Thus, the first night of Hanukka the Jews from the communities of Aleppo light three candles: 1. One regular Hanukka candle. 2. The auxiliary-candle or shamash 3. One additional candle. Tonight, the fourth night of Hanukka, they would light four candles, the Shamash and one additional candle, and so on.

Not all Jews from Aleppo follow this tradition, only those families who trace their origins to Spain. Why?  When the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 (or from Portugal in 1497) they escaped to different destinations. Some of them arrived to Italy, Turkey and Greece. Others, to North Africa: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Many also came to Erets Israel and Syria. In most of the cities these refugees from Spain (called since then “Sepharadim”) came, there were already well established local Jewish communities from a long time ago. The Sephardim integrated into the existing communities. But still, they kept their ancient customs and culture for centuries. In many cases, the Sephardim became the majority, or the dominant minority, and gradually the local Jews (known in Arab countries as musta’arabim) absorbed the customs of the Spanish Jews and considered themselves as “Sepharadim”, even though their ancestors were never in Spain.  In the Jewish community of Istanbul, Turkey, or Salonica in Greece, the cities where most Spanish refugees arrived, they continued speaking ancient Spanish or Ladino, almost to this day.
For several decades after the expulsion from Spain, many Sephardic families arrived in Syria directly from Spain or after spending some time in Italy, Turkey, Egypt or Israel. The famous Spanish traveler, Captain Domingo de Toral (1598-1640), wrote in his memoirs “Relations of Captain Domingo de Toral and Valdés” that when he visited Aleppo, Syria, in 1634 he found there to his surprise “More than 800 families of  Castilian-speaking Jews.”

But, why those families who came to Aleppo from Spain adopted the custom of lighting an extra candle?

Sephardic Jews who arrived in Aleppo considered that having reached their new destination was nothing short of a miracle. Those Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal, probably about 250,000 Jews, were exposed to all kinds of dangers when traveling, especially in the sea. Firstly, because at the sea, they were totally helpless, with nothing and no one to protect them, at the mercy of the captains of small ships and their crew, who only wanted to keep for themselves the few possessions that these refugees brought with them. Embarking on a trip to the sea was an open invitation to all kinds of abuses. Many Jews were drown into the sea (see below), or in the best case, sold as slaves. And if the captain of the ship miraculously fulfilled his promise and tried to take them to their destination, travelers still risked being attacked by pirates, suffering starvation, being exposed to storms that could sink their fragile ships, and, the worst, the ever present threat of diseases and epidemics. All these tribulations claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Yehudim. Remember the story of Rabbi Isaac Caro? (See here). He left Portugal to Israel. He never reached Israel, and he eventually ended up in Turkey. In that terrible journey, he lost his entire family, wife and children, all except for one daughter …

Having arrived safely in Aleppo, probably in Hanukka time, these families decided to recall their story and thank God for their miraculous salvation. And to do that, they decided to light an additional candle each night of Hanukka.

It is worth noting that whereas for virtually all Mitsvot it is forbidden to do something extra or add an additional element (for example, is not allowed to place five tsitsiot in a tallit, etc.) the amount of candles we light on Hanukka has a minimum number:  one candle per night, but there is no maximum number of candles we are allowed to light.




In 1290 the Jews were expelled from England. Lord Edward Coke wrote:  “The captain and crew of one of the largest ships assigned to deport the Jews conceived a dastardly plot to get rid of all its passengers (a particularly wealthy group of Jews with some extremely valuable luggage. Once all the Jews were aboard, the ship duly set sail down the Thames. However, as it was nearing the mouth of the river, at Queensborough, the Captain dropped anchor, leaving the ship to bob about until it was low tide. At last, when the craft was embedded upon the sands, the captain announced he was going to take a stroll and invited his Jewish passengers to accompany him, saying the air would do them good. The Jews, who thought they must be ashore and suspecting nothing, gladly accepted the captain’s kind invitation and disembarked in high spirits. They spent many happy hours amusing themselves on the sands, and were enjoying themselves so much that they failed to notice either that the tide had begun to come back in, or that the captain had quietly tiptoed back to the ship. By the time they realized what was happening, and the grave danger they were in, the tide was coming in thick and fast. But it was too late. When they ran back to the ship calling out to be helped back on board, the villainous captain refused, laughing loudly and calling down to them; ‘Don’t ask me for help, ask your prophet Moses; if he could get your forefathers across the Red Sea, he’s bound to be able to help you out of this!’ And without another word he left them to the mercy of the waves. Each and every one of them was drowned.”