The Bannai Synagogue was both named for and built on the grave of Rabbi Yossi Bannai, also known as Rabbi Yossi Saragossi. Rabbi Bannai was a Talmudic era sage whose wisdom and impeccable character demanded the respect of Jews and non-Jews alike. He studied under Rabbi Akiva and alongside Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. His grave is located under the second floor balcony women’s section and has accumulated hundreds of notes with prayers on them.
In 1538, the Bannai Synagogue became the site of the first semikha (rabbinic ordination) since the Babylonian academies of the fourth century. Ordination of that caliber provided rabbis with the authority to carry out Torah-based judgments and the mere notion was met with fiery opposition from Jerusalem's circle of rabbis. Rabbi Beirav, the then chief rabbi of Tsfat, made the decision to re-institute the semikha and in one historic moment at Bannai Synagogue, Rabbi Beirav was unanimously ordained by the rabbis of Tsfat. He then ordained his esteemed colleagues Rabbi Yosef Karo, Rabbi Moshe Metrani, Rabbi Moshe Galante, and Rabbi Moshe Cordovero. Opposition however did not abate and the semikha was discontinued after only 50 years.
The synagogue today is better known as “The Shul of Tzadik HaLavan” (The Synagogue of the White Saint). The name is derived from a legend from the Ottoman Empire in which an evil Sultan demanded that the Jews bring him hundreds of white roosters and failure to do so would result in death. The Jews, whose roosters were all brown, prayed at the grave of Rabbi Bannai. One night, Rabbi Bannai appeared to a Jew in his dream and told him that the Jews should bring all of their roosters to his grave. They did so and miraculously the roosters turned white. Upon seeing all the white roosters on his doorstep, the Sultan realized that the Jews were a special people and relaxed his cruel decrees.
The synagogue has an elevated bimah in the middle of the sanctuary and Elijah’s chair with a wooden crib for placing baby boys during their brit milot (male covenant ceremonies). A cushioned cement bench runs along the entire perimeter of the building.
The Lag B’Omer parade held by the Haredi community in Israel, in which Jews carry a Torah scroll from Tsfat to Mt. Meron via Jerusalem Street, originated at the Bannai Synagogue. The Torah they carry is kept in the synagogue.