Old-New Synagogue – Prague, Czech Republic
Built in around 1270, this is the oldest surviving synagogue in Europe and one of the earliest Gothic buildings in Prague. The synagogue has survived fires, slum clearances in the 19th century, and several Jewish pogroms. Residents of the city’s Jewish Quarter (Josefov) have often had to seek refuge within its walls and today it is the religious center for Prague’s Jewish community. It was called the New Synagogue until another synagogue was built nearby — this was later destroyed.
This Gothic hall, with its distinctive crenellated gable, has been a house of prayer for over 700 years. Its twin-nave has a ribbed, vaulted ceiling. To avoid the sign of the cross, a fifth rib was added (five-rib vaulting) and decorated with vine leaves, symbolizing the fertility of the land, and ivy. In a two-story building the women’s gallery would be upstairs, but here it is located in the vestibule. The number 12 is a recurring feature throughout the synagogue, probably in reference to the 12 tribes of Israel.
THE JEWISH GHETTO
The Old-New Synagogue stands in Josefov, once Prague’s Jewish Ghetto. The area is named after Emperor Josef II, who partially relaxed the discrimination against Jews during his reign in the 18th century. For centuries, Prague’s Jews had suffered from oppressive laws — in the 16th century, they had to wear a yellow circle as a mark of shame. In the 1890s, the ghetto slums were razed, but a handful of buildings survived, including the Jewish Town Hall and a number of synagogues. During World War II, the Nazis occupied Prague and almost two-thirds of the city’s Jewish population perished in the Holocaust, mainly in Terezin concentration camp, situated northwest of Prague.
The Old-New Synagogue is one of three synagogues in Prague where services are held today. Admonishing worshipers on their way into the synagogue are the following words inscribed on the entrance portal: “Revere God and observe his commandments! For this applies to all mankind.” Inside, men and women are segregated for religious rituals. Services are held in the main prayer hall and are reserved for men only; those attending must keep their heads covered. Women may follow the rituals from the adjacent women’s gallery, where they can stand and watch through small slot windows. In the center of the hall is the bima, similar to a wrought-iron cage, with a lectern from which the Torah is read daily (cantor’s platform)/ Above this is a red Jewish Standard, a copy of the 1716 original.
The historic banner of Prague’s Jews is decorated with the Star of David and within it the hat that had to be worn by Jews in the 14th century.
These formed part of the 18th-century extensions built to allow women a view of the service
The tympanum above the door in the south vestibule is decorated with clusters of grapes and vine leaves growing on twisted branches.
This, and its lectern, are surrounded by a wrought-iron Gothic grill .
Located above the Ark, this is decorated with 13th-century leaf carvings.
This shrine is the holiest place in the synagogue and holds the sacred scrolls of the Torah.
The glow from the bronze chandeliers provides light for worshipers using the seats lining the walls.
Rabbi Low’s Chair
A Star of David marks the chair of Chief Rabbi Low, placed where the distinguished 16th-century scholar used to sit
Two massive octagonal pillars inside the hall support the five-rib vaults.
RABBI LOW AND THE GOLEM
The great scholar Rabbi Low was director of the Talmudic school (which studied the Torah) in the late 16th century. According to legend, he made a being, the Golem, from clay and brought it to life by placing a magic stone tablet in its mouth. The Golem went berserk, so the rabbi removed the tablet and hid the creature in the Old-New Synagogue’s rafters.
OLD JEWISH CEMETERY
Near the Old-New Synagogue is the Old Jewish Cemetery. For more than 300 years, this was the only burial ground permitted for Jews. More than 100,000 people are estimated to be buried here. The oldest gravestone dates from 1439, and the last burial was in 1787.
1200s: Work starts on build in g the New Synagogue.
1700s: Construction of the women’s gallery on the western and northern sides of the synagogue.
1883: The architect Joseph Mocker begins renovation work on the building.
1992: The Historic Center of Prague becomes a UNESCO World Heritage Site.