Rabbi Moshe Alsheich was born in Turkey in 1508. He moved to Tsfat and was ordained as a rabbi by Rabbi Yoseph Karo. Upon Rabbi Karo’s passing, Rabbi Alsheich replaced him as head of the Tsfat Beit Din. Alsheich opened a yeshiva where he taught, most notably, Chaim Vital, who later became the foremost pupil of Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, the Ari. In 1578, after plagues of typhoid and hunger struck Tsfat, Rabbi Alsheich moved to Damascus. There he published his most famous work, Torat Moshe, which is now known as the “Holy Alsheich .” He returned to Tsfat where he died in 1600 and was buried in Tsfat’s old cemetery. Rabbi Alsheich was one of the few Rabbis distinguished with the addition of the word Kodesh (Holy) to the end of his name. He was known for his sermons and Torah commentaries. The Ari often traveled to hear Rabbi Alsheich’s sermons. However, much to Rabbi Alsheich’s disappointment and frustration, the Ari refused to teach Rabbi Alsheich the secrets of Kabbalah or to take him on as a pupil
The Alsheich Synagogue is the only structure in Tsfat that survived the 1759 and 1837 earthquakes and has remained intact since it was built in the 16th century by Jews who fled Spain. It survived the 1837 quake thanks to a renovation carried out shortly before the earthquake in which arches and beams were built in the sanctuary. The arches are a Samarkand style of building of the Jews of Bukhara. An inscription on the facade of the building attests to the renovation. The inscription mentions three people: the builder, Ya’acov Peleggi, philanthropist Yehezkel Reuven Menashe, and the intermediary, Rabbi Ya’acov Anavti, the rabbi of Damascus at the time. After the renovation, the synagogue was renamed “Knesset Yehezkel,” in honor of the philanthropist.
The synagogue was also called “The Synagogue of the Ba’alei Teshuva” (penitent Jews). In the synagogue is a Torah scroll cover bearing an inscription from the year 1434: “for the synagogue of the Ba’alei Teshuva.” It was speculated that this phrase refers to the Conversos - Spanish Jews who converted to Christianity during the Inquisition and returned to Judaism after fleeing from Spain. Another name the synagogue is known by is Kenis el Istambulia– the Synagogue of the Jews from Istanbul. This is also an allusion to the Ba’alei Teshuva of the 15th and 16th centuries.
The synagogue was built in the style of Sephardic synagogues of the 16th century. It lacks a women’s section due to the express wishes of Alsheich. Local legend has it that the lack of a space for women to pray in the sanctuary is the real reason the synagogue survived the earthquakes.
For almost half a millennium, the synagogue also never had bathroom facilities on the premises. Rabbi Alsheich firmly opposed such facilities that process human excrement within close proximity to the house of prayer and learning. After two failed attempts to build a bathroom, one was finally completed in the outer courtyard. According to legend, all three of the builders died shortly after finishing their work