The “Sephardic Jerusalem” is known around the world for the beauty of its synagogues and its Jewish quarter. The memory of the community has remained vivid in Toledo; historians have from the thirteenth and fourteenth century onward been able to supply fairly precise information about the location and history of the city’s Jewish community. Toledo is a city of great historical and artistic importance and is listed here as a World Heritage Site. At the time of its greatest splendor, just before 1391, Toledo had ten synagogues and five to seven yeshivot. In 1492 there were five grand synagogues, two of which survive: the Tránsito, now the Sephardic Museum, and Santa María la Blanca. The quarter can be reached through a gate. One of the many entrances is the gate Puerta de Assulca, which has in its vicinity in flea market where oil, butter, chickpeas, lentils and everything necessary for daily life are sold. Then it enters the streets, adarves (dead-end streets) and squares of the quarter. The main street is called Calle del Mármol and connects the Jewish quarter with the rest of the city. There is a market, places to pray, public baths, bread ovens, palaces and a wall. Near the Tagus river is the neighborhood Barrio del Degolladero, so named because here was the designated place for the ritual slaughter (shechitah) of beef-cattle. In the neighborhood Barrio de Hamazelt the richest Jewish families lived and in the street known today as San Juan de Dios, lived the best known Jew of Toledo: Samuel ha-Levi. He was the treasurer of the king Peter of Castile and ordered the building of a big synagogue, that later was known as the "Synagogue of el Tránsito". And as in all the Jewish houses, features a mezuzah containing passages from Deuteronomy affixed to its door-post. Two Jewish places of worship are preserved today (both as museums), Santa María la Blanca (formerly the Synagogue of Ibn Shushan) and El Tránsito. In a bygone age, every Friday before sunset, a rabbi sounded the shofar (a goat's horn) three times announcing the arrival of the Sabbath.
Samuel ben Meir Ha-Levi Abulafia was a public figure, the treasurer of king Pedro I "the Cruel" of Castile and founder of the Synagogue of El Transito in Toledo, Spain. He was a member of the powerful Abulafia family, who provided leadership to the Jewish community of Toledo and Castile more generally since around 1200. Samuel's parents died of plague shortly after arriving in Toledo. Subsequently, he worked as an administrator to the Portuguese knight Juan Alfonso de Alburquerque, but soon became recognized enough to achieve employment at the court of Pedro I of Castile, first as camarero mayor (chamberlain), later as almojarife (treasurer), and as oídor (judge). His employment came to an end when the enemies of Pedro I, led by Henry of Trastámara, organized a pogrom against the Toledan Jewry, enabling them to assume possession of the royal treasures. The king, accompanied by Samuel Ha-Levi, marched to Toro to demand the return of his belongings. Following this, Samuel Ha-Levi supported the King in reclaiming Toledo for the crown, and in the establishment of a peace treaty with the Portuguese at Évora in 1358. In Toledo, he lived in the palace that is today the Museo de El Greco, and with the considerable riches bestowed upon him by his employer he founded the Synagogue of El Transito between 1355 and 1357. The building, still around today, was one of ten synagogues serving Toledo's large Jewish population. The building is architecturally exquisite and has features in common with the Muslim architecture of King Pedro's palace in Seville and the Alhambra palaces in Granada, even including inscriptions in Arabic as well as Hebrew. Its construction was opposed by the Catholic church, but King Pedro permitted it. The King was constantly criticized by his rivals for his permissive stance towards Jews, compelling him to turn against Samuel, having him incarcerated and tortured on suspicion of embezzlement in 1360. He died under duress of torture. The prominence of Samuel Ha-Levi Abulafia at Pedro's court is cited as evidence of his supposed pro-Jewish sentiment, but Don Samuel's success did not necessarily reflect the general experience of the Spanish Jewry in this period which was often marked by discrimination and pogroms. Even Samuel's career showed that the opportunities for Jews were restricted to certain offices and positions whereas other forms of advancement were denied to them.
Rightly regarded as a true city within a city, the madinat al-Yahud, or city of the Jews, constitutes a broad urban space which occupies almost ten percent of walled Toledo. The Jewish quarter of Toledo is divided into different districts, each corresppnding to the different stages of expansion, creating an intricate maze that needs to be marked out in order to gain a real overview of how the Jews of Toledo acted and they lived for at least eleven centuries. Although the oldest written documents date their presence back to the 4th century, in the context of the Roman Toletum, the Sephardi goes further back and relates the Jews to the very mythical origin of the city, deeming it likely that the first Jews arrive in the Iberian Península at the time of the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles in the 8th to 6th centuries B.C.
The Sephardic Museum in Toledo, Spain, housed in the former Convent of the Knights of Calatrava is attached to the Transito Synagogue. It hosts many vestiges of Jewish culture in Spain.The Sephardic Museum displays historical, religious, and customs of the Jewish past in Spain, as well as Sephardic Jews, the descendants of the Jews who lived in the Iberian Peninsula until 1492.
The Transito Synagogue (Synagogue of El Tránsito), also known as the Synagogue of Samuel ha-Levi or Halevi, is a historic synagogue, church, and Sephardic museum in Toledo, Spain. It was built as an annex of the palace of Samuel ha-Levi Abulafia, treasurer to King Peter of Castile, in 1357. The synagogue was converted into a church after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. It was briefly used as military barracks during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s. It became a museum in 1910. Today it is formally known as the Sephardi Museum. The building is known for its rich stucco decoration, its Mudejar style, and its women's gallery. The synagogue was built in around 1357, under the patronage of Samuel ha-Levi Abulafia. His family had served the Castilian kings for several generations and included kabbalists and Torah scholars such as Meir and Todros Abulafia, as well as another Todros Abulafia who was one of the last poets to write in the Arab-influenced style favored by Jewish poets in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Spain. The synagogue was connected to Samuel ha-Levi Abulafia's house by a private gate and was intended as a private house of worship. It also served as a center for Jewish religious education, known as a yesibah or a yeshiva. Some scholars suggest that Peter of Castile assented to the construction of the synagogue as a token of appreciation for ha-Levi Abulafia’s service as councillor and treasurer to the king. Peter may also have allowed it to compensate the Jews of Toledo for destruction that had occurred in 1348, during anti-Jewish pogroms that accompanied the arrival of the Black Death. Samuel ha-Levi eventually fell out of favor with the king and was executed in 1360. After the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, the synagogue was converted to a church. It was given to the Order of Calatrava by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. The Order is said to have converted the building into a church serving a priory dedicated to Saint Benedict. It was from its time as a church that the building acquired the name “El Tránsito,” which refers to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. In the 17th century the church's name changed to Nuestra Señora del Tránsito: the name derives from a painting by Juan Correa de Vivar housed there which depicted the Transit of the Virgin.
The monastery of San Juan de los Reyes began to be built in 1477 by order of Queen Isabel the Catholic to commemorate her victory at the battle of Toro in 1476. Its monumental presence right in the heart of the Jewish quarter as a royal symbol for the Catholic Monarchs. The Catholic Monarchs were initially the only source of refuge for the Jewish communities before the persecutions which occurred in the late 15th century, yet they were the ones who signed the Decree of expulsion of 1492, thereby putting a permanent end to a long period of cohabitation between Jews, Moslems and Christians. The convent's austerity contrasts with the grandiosity of the church, adorned by spacious large windows, arches and Gothic pinnacles, on whose walls the chains of the Christian convicts which had hung there since 1494 when the Catholic Monarchs recovered them after the conquest of Granada. The church was built to house the dynastic pantheon of Queen Isabel the Catholic dedicated to St.John the Evangelist. Finally, the monarchs changed their mind after the conquest of Granada, and they are buried in the Royal Chapel of the cathedral of this city. The convent was practically destroyed in the war of Independence and was only partly rebuilt, with the second cloister disappearing according to historicist criteria of the 19th century, leaving no distinction between the old and the restored one, the best example of which is the gargoyles of the cloister.