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Notes from New North London Learning, Autumn 2005

The Rough Guide To Jewish Europe: Prague

Richard Goldstein

There's a handout that went with this full of information, which I'm not going to type up. I also didn't type up anything I knew already, from my recent visit to Prague and tootling around its Jewish Museum sites. But that still leaves quite a bit.

Jews have been in Prague from the beginning. Prague Castle was founded in 870, and the first mention of a Jew visiting Prague is Ibrahim ibn Yacoub, a Arabian slave trader, in 908.

Old Town Square

The architecture of the Old Town Square tells us things about how Christians looked upon Jews.

In the crypt of Great Tyn Cathedral is buried an eleven-year-old Jew called Shimon Abbiles. How did this happen? Jews were billetted in non-Jewish quarters after a fire in the seventeenth (?) century. This boy was impressed by the Gentile world and wanted to convert. His father Lazar ran after him and beat him to death. The Jews buried him in the Jewish cemetery. When the Christians found out, they hanged, drew and quartered the father, and reinterred Shimon in the church. For years this was a symbol of oppression of the Jews.

In the time of Jan Hus, when the Church has divisions within itself, it always looks to a scapegoat, which as often as not was the Jews.

The most famous landmark in the Old Town Square is the Astronomical Clock. The four figures on the sides of the clock were put up in the seventeenth century to be symbols of Prague society. The Grim Reaper rings his bell and turns to take the Infidel, who turns away. The other two figures are Vanity and Greed. The latter had long peyos and so forth until 1945 (when, with post-Holocaust sensibilities, this was felt no longer to be acceptable).

Jewish Quarter

In mediaeval times, there was a common pattern to the location of the Jewish quarter in European cities: as close as they could get to the king. ([livejournal.com profile] livredor and I had this pointed out to us when we visited Norwich, too.) This was because the Jews were the king's property, and looked to him for protection both from the Church, and from financial opportunism by traders. There was, however, a cost to this of course, and it took the form of taxes.

The Jewish Town Hall has a kosher restaurant, the only one that was allowed to function during the Communist period.

On the Charles Bridge is a crucifix with golden Hebrew letters reading קדוש קדוש קדוש ה׳ צבאות (Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of Hosts) (Isaiah 6:3). There's a seventeenth-century plaque there explaining the story, about how a Jew had been caught spitting at a crucifix and in penance the entire Jewish community had to first raise the money for and then make these golden letters—which, of course, being attached to a crucifix are a humiliation to the Jews.

There's also another, modern, plaque, in Czech, Hebrew and English, giving a version freer of mediaeval antisemitic prejudice. And Sabina, from Czech Marom, informed me that the charges were trumped up, the authorities using antisemitism to unite the recently forcibly re-Catholicised country.

The real story, according to the speaker, is this: 22 years earlier Aron Lichtenstadt was one of the corrupt officials the Maharal was talking about (above). Elias Backhoffen took on the role of the Maharal in fighting them. Lichtenstadt intercepted an innocuous business letter of his and sent it to the authorities telling them it was in code. The code was never broken because of course it did not exist, but it still got Backhoffen into trouble, as described above. Twenty-one years later he [Lichtenstadt, presumably] was excommunicated.

As I wrote in my blog report on Prague, when I got to look at this statute, the י and half the final ה of the Tetragrammaton were missing. I said that whilst I was certain Chabad would not have been responsible for this disfigurement, I wouldn't be at all surprised if they have been lobbying the municipal authorities to argue against repairing it. I put this to the speaker, and he told me that Chabad were responsible for removing these letters. How they halachically justified destroying the Tetragrammaton, though, I don't know.


The Altneushul is the oldest functioning synagogue in Europe. It's been open since 1270 except for six years during the Nazi period (and the last eight months since a fistfight broke out between the traditional community and the Lubavitch <rolls eyes>).

There is a midrash that when the Temple was destroyed and its stones lay scattered around Jerusalem, G-d sent down a whirlwind which picked them up and scattered them across the earth, and everywhere one landed a shul was built. There is a tradition that twelve hundred years later, one was found in Prague.

Another founding myth: in Hebrew על תנאי al tnai means "on condition": The shul was built on the condition that the Moshiach had not yet come; when he came the shul would be transported to Israel along with the congregation.

However, the real reason for its naming is more prosaic. It was originally the New Synagogue, as distinct from the Old. When, centuries later another synagogue was built, the New Synagogue was renamed the Old New Synagogue.

Note the descending steps on entry into the shul: because there was a law saying no synagogue could be higher than any church.

There is an enclosure on the way in. It was used for three purposes: as a geniza, to collect taxes from the Jews (it was the safest place to keep them, being the only stone building in the Jewish quarter). Also, as a prison. (It's barely a yard across!) Now all mediaeval Jewish communities wanted to be let alone by the Gentiles. In Prague there was unprecedented autonomy—as exemplified by the Jewish Town Hall (built in 1568—the only secular building in the Jewish quarter [!?]), and they even had their own police force (genuinely so—not a Judenrat). There were Talmudic debates in mediaeval Prague as to whether the prisoners should be counted as part of a minyan. (Answer, of course: they should.)

Banner in the shul—granted to the Jews by the king. (Which?)

The Magen David [star of David] in the middle was not a Jewish symbol in post-Biblical times. This wa the first time thereafter it was taken on as a Jewish symbol. Inside the star was the Jewish hat. Certain Jews were given the privilege of trading in the Castle, but had to wear a distinctive hat. The Jews turned this on its head and regarded it with pride.

In 1389, a pogrom was inflicted on the community. The Jews gathered in the synagogues for safety. Nearly two thirds of the community was slaughtered in this pogrom. Avigdor Kara spent months walking the streets gathering the bones of his friends to bury, yet he still retained his faith that the Moshiach could come:

More than one father killed his own son, and more than one mother slew the very child she had carried in her womb, to thus spare it from being forced to abjure the faith of its ancestors. It was, as was written, a sacrifice of innocents, of innocent lambs... And so fell our community leader, a man honoured by all. And so fell the rabbi, a rare sage and benefactor, along with his brother and his only son. Let us remember him, along with his God! ... Too many tell to be named: young men and women, old men and babes in arms... They even demolished the cemetery, the place of eternal freedom where the bones of my ancestors lie at rest... So much torment has engulfed us—yet we have not forgotten the name of God! ... The days of hope must come! Injustice and desolation must be driven out! Let us return together from exile and... let the prophecy of Isaiah, our constant, come to pass: "For my salvation is near to come, and my favour is to be reviled."

In this pogrom the Old Synagogue was destroyed; the land remained empty there until 1503. Some Sephardim who had escaped from Spain came there. That's not why the Spanish Synagogue was later built there in that style; the sumptuous Moorish style of the Spanish Synagogue was simply because it was in fashion in the nineteenth century.

The legend שיילת above the window is an abbreviation of שויתי ה׳ לנגד תמיד.

Circular window: when the sun rays hit the Bimah in the morning, that meant it was time for שחרית [the Morning Service].

Why do Cathedral Shuls look like cathedrals? The answer is because Jews weren't builders in the Middle Ages: they had to go to the cathedral builders to build them!

Why are all the chandeliers in the shul all different? In mediaeval times the majority of international trade was done on rivers, and was done by Jews. The only people who had contact between different places were Jews—they knew exactly where they were going to go, because they would go to the Jewish Quarter and be welcomed. There was a custom that when travellers came to Prague they would donate something to the shul, and thus the chandeliers came. One of them has a two-headed eagle—symbol of the Habsburg empire—donated by the Vienna community.

The women's section is not so much a symbol of oppression as the metre-thick walls separating it from the main shul suggests. In fact, there is evidence that there were women's services held there. This is not authenticated, and the Orthodox world denies it strongly.

The Altneushul is the only shul in the world where Psalms 92 and 93 (מזמור שיר ליום השבת and ה׳ מלך גאות לבש) are said twice in the קבלת שבת [Friday night] service. This relates to the golem story [how, it does not say here].

Klausen Shul

Mordechai Maisels was a Jewish philanthropist without equal. In 1564, he built a plot of land, and built a mikva [ritual bath], yeshiva [religious seminary] and synagogue. In 1573, the Emperor decided he felt like going through the Jewish Quarter. The Jewish community came out en masse to greet him. Maisels decided to commemorate the visit by building a synagogue.

The Maharal (Rabbi Yehuda Loewe) was the Chief Rabbi of Bohemia and Moravia. Maisels asked him to be the Rosh Yeshiva [head] of his new yeshiva. It was expected he would turn it down; to everyone's surprise he accepted. Why did he accept and come to Prague? He decided he wanted to change the face of Jewish communities across Europe forever, and by becoming Rosh Yeshiva could effect radical change.

First, he made the tuition free. (The communical authorities were not happy about this!) Secondly, the yeshiva was not going to ordain rabbis. The Maharal coined the term תורה לשמה [learning Torah for its own sake]. Thirdly, rather than simply learning משנה and גמרה [Mishna and Gemara, the components of the Talmud], he put the emphasis on תורה [Torah]. You had to know the תורה backward before you could go on to Talmud.

Until this point people learned by pilpul—going into texts in extreme detail and trying to work out every last connotation. He decided that what was important was the ethical meaning of the text—the message in broad brushstrokes.

The Maharal said the Jewish community's leadership was corrupt and immoral. He became a people's rabbi.

In some countries, and in some communities, they have turned justice into wormwood. They have set up ignorant men as authorities, men who know not the meaning of justice and law. It has reached a point where those who are qualified, the real scholars, see with their own eyes the perversion of justife... and they are helpless even in redressing the cause of an orphan or a widow... The true sages have no opportunity to correct the evil conditions of this generation, for those in power tell them, "you are not our Av Bet Din that we need to be obliged to listen to you." It is indeed more difficult to bear their yoke than the yoke of the gentiles... Yet I say that one who fears the Lord must take heed unto himself not to stand before such men in judgement... For whoever brings a case for judgement before a judge who was appointed only because of this wealth sets up idols of silver and idols of gold in place of God.

In the last few years, it has been uncovered that the Maharal was a Zionist! He is talking here about nation-states, something which did not really exist in Europe at that time!

To the question: "If... the Divine Presence is indeed with Israel in exile... why does Israel spend most of its days in this world undergoing oppression and expulsions?" The Maharal replies that "this world is not the portion of Israel," hence, it is to the advantage of the Jews to be removed from its benefits.

The exile expresses itself in three ways: ... (i) uprooting from the natural locality: every nation has a country specifically its own, and separation from one's country and of dwelling beyond it deleteriously affects the natural order; (ii) Loss of political independence and subjection to aliens—"For the subjection of one nation to another does not accord with the proper order of reality, for it is the right of each nation to be free"; (iii) The dispersion—every nation is a distinct entity and in the absence of a territorial centre it loses unity; it is not "a complete compact nation" (Netzach Yisrael ch. 1). However, every departure from the natural order is but a passing phenomenon—hence the conviction of, and faith in, the messianic redemption which will inevitably come about and remedy the anomaly of exile.

The Ark in the Klausen Synagogue dates back to 1696. What is inscribed around it: "For instruction shall come forth from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem". "Moses... teaching...heritage of the congregation of the Jacob": Learning and instruction where what they valued.

There is no bimah in the middle of the Klausen Synagogue. This is central to Orthodoxy; one of the first Reform innovations was to put the שליח ציבור [leader of the prayers] at the front, praying on behalf of the It became a Reform shul in the nineteenth century.

One of the middle of the windows has the Tetragrammaton in the middle. Orthodoxy does not do that, lest the glass smash. [As the Divine Name, once written, cannot be destroyed.] [Jesmond Shul, in Newcastle, where I was barmitzvah'd, had a ה׳ in its stained glass windows.]

Maisels Synagogue

Maisels also paved the Jewish Quarter, and paid 90% of the king's taxes; he became mayor, and minister of finance to Maximilian II. When he retired he asked permission to build his own synagogue, for his family; when he died he bequeathed it to the community.

Nowadays it's egregiously Reform: On the outside are the Ten Commandments with Roman letters: no Hebrew!

Spanish Synagogue

This was built in 1867—the year Jews were emancipated in the (new) Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Why is the entrance on the side? The Archbishop of Prague wasn't happy about the congregants at the neighbouring Church being polluted by Jews, and insisted on the entrance being moved.

The shul was Reform, but not as hard-core as German Reform. The sermon was in German, not Yiddish, but some of the service remained in Hebrew.

The Jews had an identity crisis: newly being emancipated, where did they belong? With the Hapsburgs who had just emancipated them, or with the surrounding Czechs, who hated the empire and wanted to be independent. And then a third choice came along: Zionism. Before emancipation, this question never existed. The community of the Spanish Synagogue chose to go with the Hapsburgs—possibly not the wisest choice, in the long run.

Pinkas Shul

R. Israel Pinkas, in the eleventh century, has a dead monkey crash through his window. He discovers gold coins coming out of his mouth, and finds the carcase is full of them. The next day he discovers the Jewish goldsmith had lost a lot of gold. Turns out he'd got a monkey he'd trained to bite gold to test its purity; the monkey ate too much gold and died. His servants thought they'd play a joke on R. Pinkas and throw it through his window. [Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, evidently!] The goldsmith was so mortified he told Pinkas to keep the money. Pinkas chose to use it in building a synagogue.

In sixteenth century the Horowitz family took over the synagogue.

Diego <someone-or-other> [probably the Crypto-Jew Diego Peres in 1532] declared himself a messiah; had himself circumcised and called himself ?? ?? [Solomon Molcho, if Diego Peres]. The community fell for it. Whoever-it-was was caught by the Inquisition and the community fell into depression.

The synagogue is famous now for having the names of all Czech victims of the Holocaust written on its walls. When Israel emerged as an ally of America, the communist countries turned against Israel. The communist countries rewrote the history of the Holocaust; whitewashed it as a fight against fascism—and whitewashed the shul too. Vaclav Havel authorised the rewriting of the names.

Old Jewish Cemetery

David Ganz, in the Renaissance, wrote the first Jewish history book since Josephus. Until then Jews recorded their history through kinnot [lamentation hymns], etc. At the end he writes an apology for writing the book; he says it's not like Torah, etc; little children could write a book like that. But of course, he started a fashion.

But precisely because nothing in this book of mine has consequences for the laws of purity and impurity, or what is prohibited or permitted, I was impelled to write, and the Lord God knows that it is not my intent to glorify myself or boast about it, for even little schoolchildren could compose a book like this. And I have not written it for the great scholars who are filled with Torah like pomegranates, but only for ordinary householders, immature styudents like myself.

—David Gans, introduction to Zemach David, Prague 1592

Various symbolic features are visible on the tombstones; these include:

  • hands (cohen: performs the priestly blessing)
  • jug (levite; washes the cohanim'shands)
  • Broken tree = child
  • Grapes: symbol of fertility: someone who had a lot of children
  • Crown. I.e. of the Torah.
  • Wolf (Zeev)
  • Star (David)
  • Lion (Yehudah, Aryeh, Leib)
  • Deer (Naftali)
  • Bear (Dov Beer)
  • Fish (Ephraim. Why?)
  • Scissors (a tailor)
  • Lancet (a doctor)
  • Mortar
  • Musical instruments


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