Aleppo's Great Synagogue and Mashiah
I'll admit that there are a lot of holes in my theory, but just hear me out on this one and you can be the judge. I expect refutations, but before they come, please keep an open mind.
Times of Israel:
In the midst of the immense destruction reported in Aleppo, Syria, lies one of Judaism’s most important historic buildings — the Great Synagogue of Aleppo, the fate of which is currently unknown.
This week, reports emerged that the 12th-century Ummayad mosque in Aleppo, used as a base by government troops, was badly damaged. The Citadel, the fortress that dominates the Old City, has also been harmed. A large fire consumed swaths of the medieval souks. But there has been no news of the Great Synagogue, a structure that dates back 1,500 years and was as recently as two decades ago the world’s oldest continually functioning Jewish house of prayer. For the Jews of Aleppo, it was the traditional center of communal life and a symbol of their unique continuity in this Syrian city.
The oldest part of the Great Synagogue, a basilica, dates to the 5th or 6th centuries CE, when the city was under Byzantine rule. Jews are thought to have been in Aleppo for 800 years or more by that time. Local traditions claimed the building’s foundations had actually been laid by Yoav, King David’s general, who captured Aleppo — known in Hebrew as Aram Tzova — in an episode briefly mentioned in the Bible.
Over the years, the synagogue was expanded several times. It was repaired after a Mongol invasion and massacre, and again after a later earthquake devastated the city. Beginning in the 14th century, the synagogue housed the Aleppo Codex, the most accurate copy of the Hebrew Bible and Judaism’s most important manuscript.
The synagogue, with its dark grottoes, interlocking chambers, seven arks of the Torah, and sunlit courtyard where prayers were held in summer was the scene of many of the stories and legends recounted by local Jews. One of the more popular ones involved a mythical snake which lived inside a walled-off niche known as the “Sealed Ark,” and which was said to emerge to protect the community in times of danger.
After the United Nations vote on November 29, 1947, to partition Palestine, mobs in Aleppo attacked the Jewish community. The rioters burned stores, schools, homes, and 18 synagogues, according to contemporary reports. The Great Synagogue was torched. The Aleppo Codex disappeared, resurfacing mysteriously in Jerusalem ten years later. The riot marked the beginning of the end for Aleppo’s Jews, who began fleeing Syria for Israel or the West. Most were gone by the mid-1950s, part of a great exodus of Jews from Islamic countries in those years. The synagogue fell further into disrepair.
It was renovated in the 1970s with the help of Aleppo Jews abroad, and remained in sporadic use until the Assad regime allowed the last Jews to emigrate to the US in the early 1990s.
See also Wikipedia, which has some slight variations regarding when it was first used and when it was last renovated.
Sanhedrin 98a (Daf|Text|English):
שאלו תלמידיו את רבי יוסי בן קיסמא אימתי בן דוד בא אמר מתיירא אני שמא תבקשו ממני אות אמרו לו אין אנו מבקשין ממך אות א"ל לכשיפול השער הזה ויבנה ויפול ויבנה ויפול ואין מספיקין לבנותו עד שבן דוד בא אמרו לו רבינו תן לנו אות אמר להם ולא כך אמרתם לי שאין אתם מבקשין ממני אות אמרו לו ואף על פי כן אמר להם אם כך יהפכו מי מערת פמייס לדם ונהפכו לדםThe disciples of R. Jose b. Kisma asked him, 'When will the Messiah come?' — He answered, 'I fear lest ye demand a sign of me [that my answer is correct].' They assured him, 'We will demand no sign of you.' So he answered them, 'When this gate falls down, is rebuilt, falls again, and is again rebuilt, and then falls a third time, before it can be rebuilt the son of David will come.' They said to him, 'Master, give us a sign.' He protested, 'Did ye not assure me that ye would not demand a sign?' They replied, 'Even so, [we desire one].' He said to them. 'if so, let the waters of the grotto of Paneas turn into blood;' and they turned into blood.
Rashi on the Daf says that Ribbi Yosi was in Rome (רומי). Some (see all the commentaries cited by Hashem1.net) interpret that to mean "little Rome", which is a town in the Galilee. (BTW, in another post, Hashem1.net says that the Gra's statement regarding the Hurvah Synagogue reminds him of this gemara.)
Very interestingly, if you look at the Ein Yaakov, the girsa of Rashi is that R' Yosi Ben Kisma was in Aram (Syria) when he made this statement! (Perhaps even Aram Tzova - Aleppo.) And all the commentaries that follow (Maharsha and Rif) say the same! Although it's very likely to be a censor's doing - as many references to Edom are switched to say "Aram" - nevertheless, it's interesting that references to Romi on the right column of that page in the Ein Yaakov are left intact as "Romi". (ויש לישב - I can see some reasons why there is a difference, but it still seems strange why these were left intact.)
Perhaps, one could also say that the אות that he told them - that the water of Banyas will turn to blood - only makes sense if he was traveling from the north like from Aleppo to Israel. He first passed through Aleppo and pointed out this gate. While there, he mentioned that the אות would be known when they travel to Israel, in which they would be passing through Banyas - and that's when they checked the אות to see if it is true and it was. The gemara then talks about his deathbed, so since he was buried in Meron (see picture here), he was traveling south the whole time. Perhaps.
Now, the article above says that the synagogue was already destroyed 3 times: by an earthquake (in 1138?), by the Mongols in 1400, and by the Arabs in 1947. However, Wikipedia doesn't mention the earthquake as a cause of the synagogue's destruction. The Times of Israel article mentions "a later earthquake", which implies after the Mongols, so not the one in 1138, but when? It's confusing. If I can be so bold, I want to say that the earthquake doesn't count anyways because לכשיפול implies falling into some other nation's hands while being damaged - earthquakes not included. This means that all we care about is that it fell in 1400, was rebuilt, fell again in 1947, and was rebuilt.
Of course, Ribbi Yosi was standing in the Tannaic period, and saying that a certain gate will fall, so if it wasn't built until the fifth century at the earliest, how could he be referring to this gate? Perhaps, we could say that he wasn't pointing to the actual gate, but to the foundation that Yoav set up, as per the tradition, and referring to a future gate that will be built there.
The gemara's words "ואין מספיקין לבנותו" is better translated as "we will not get an opportunity to build it". This seems very likely nowadays as:
Currently (as of 2012), no Jews live in Aleppo.If all this is true and Ribbi Yossi Ben Kisma was standing in Aleppo (and I'll admit that it's a bit of a stretch, but plausible), then if the Syrian rebels or the Syrian army destroy the building again (which may have already happened), we should expect Mashiah soon.