History of construction
The building of the Central Sofia Synagogue is rightly described as the pride of the Bulgarian Jewish community. It is one of the three largest Sephardic (Spanish-Jewish) synagogues in Europe and the largest on the Balkan Peninsula.
In the early 20th century, the Jewish community of Sofia (lead by rabbi Dr. Ehrenpreis and president of the community Ezra Sol) collected donations and invited the Viennese architect Friedrich Grünanger to prepare a project for the Synagogue. You can see the names of the 10 "top contributors" to the left on the wall after entering. In just 4 years, the architect managed to organize and complete the construction. Tombstones from an old Jewish cemetery were used to build the base of the Synagogue.
The value of its construction amounts to 437 000 golden leva.
The building of the Central Sofia Synagogue was built on the old site of another one known with the Hebrew name “Ahava ve Chesed” (Love and Goodness), whose last rabbi was Mossonaci Uziel, that existed earlier. The new synagogue was built in the Spanish-Moorish style with elements of Viennese secession. In accordance with the Bulgarian traditions for the Sephardic synagogues, there is a large yard before the entrance. The synagogue was built according to a rectangular plan with a central dome and a narthex /antechamber/. The main sanctuary is octagonal, with four semi-domes at the pointed corners and with rectangular spaces between them. All of them are separated from the sanctuary with arches that serve as props of the female ward.
The altar ("aron hakodesh") is on a white marble pedestal surrounded by exquisite handrails. The main prayer room has 1 170 seats, and above it is an octagonal dome, which houses a huge chandelier. This room has a diameter of 20 meters and its total height is 31 meters. It was designed to harmonize with the four small domes over the corrugated corners and the eight small towers with domed roofs. The interior was richly decorated with multicolored Venetian mosaics, Carrera marble columns, and many ornamental carvings and wall elements. The chairs are made of Slavonian oak from the forests of Serbia. The author strictly adhered to the Jewish law and tradition. No human faces are depicted, and the ceiling is so painted as to symbolize the heavens. In the floor of the central and southern paths, there are built-in metal grilles under which the winter heating system was located. Warm air from the ignited furnace came out of there. Before entering the Synagogue, two towers can be seen on the roof, these are the floor heating chimneys.
The facade of the Synagogue is eclectic - a combination of Moorish and Venetian style. The building is located on 659 square meters and the total built-up area is of 1000 m2. The height of the dome from the inside is 23 m and the diameter is 19 m. The total height of the Synagogue from the sidewalk to the top of the dome is 31 m. The room’s acoustics is superb.
In his book in Ladino (Old Spanish) "Notas Históricas" (Historical Notes), the historian Avraam Tadjer describes the opening of the Synagogue as follows: "The ninth of September 1909 will be a historical day for Bulgarian Jews. On that day, the Sofia Synagogue was opened. This is not only a great celebration for the Jews from the capital, but also a day when the prestige of the Bulgarian Jews was erected. With the opening of the Sofia Synagogue, the respect for the Jewish community and the whole of the Bulgarian Jewry grew enormously. All shops were closed as on a holiday, and the whole Bulgarian population greeted the children of Israel on the occasion of the festive opening of the Synagogue."
The opening took place in the presence of the Bulgarian King Ferdinand, his wife Eleonore, Prime Minister Malinov, Metropolitan Partenii, various ministers and diplomats.
During the Second World War, Sofia and other cities were bombed. On 13 April 1944, a bomb fell in the northeastern corner of the Synagogue, but it did not explode. The corner sustained some damage and due to the vibrations caused by the bomb, the beautiful colored stained glass windows have been broken. Prof. Gredi Assa stained a stained glass over the balcony as a reminder of the event.
During socialism in 1982, the Minister of Culture tried to transform the Synagogue into a concert hall. The leaders of the synagogue showed courage and resisted, and the government complied with the refusal. The synagogue was declared a cultural monument of national importance in 1956.
The Synagogue Today
Today, because the Jewish community in Sofia is small, the balcony is not used. Theologies are carried out in the big salon only during the great Jewish feasts and events. There are about 400 seats in it; the left half is for women, and the right one for men. Daily prayers are carried out in a small prayer room (Midrash) to the right of the entrance.
Architect Grünanger has embedded in the synagogue Jewish symbols mainly based on the number 8. Eight is a number with an important symbolic meaning in Judaism. On the eighth day a baby boy is circumcised, he gets a name and becomes a member of the community. The flame of the candlesticks also burned for eight days in the Temple after its re-consecration at the end of the Maccabees' push against the ruling Seleucid dynasty in 168 BC.
The first symbol is located in the central chandelier. The latter is made of brass, in Vienna, after a design by Friedrich Grünanger. Its weight is 1700 kg. There are around 400 six-star stars on its periphery, and there is a smaller chandelier in the center and a circle of lamps around it. Every lamp in the circle and the small chandelier in the center repeat the shape of the large chandelier. The number of lamps in the periphery of the large and small chandelier, as well as the circle of lamps, is eight. All the lamps hanging from the balcony are small copies of the large chandelier. The top part of the chandeliers and the small lamps are in the shape of a crown. The crown is the symbolic representation of the Torah (the Pentateuch).
The second symbol with the number 8 is in the Venetian mosaic floor. The used ornament is an octagon star in the center of which is an eight-leaf flower.