The Old-New Synagogue in Prague is the oldest and most historic Synagogue in Europe. Inaugurated in 1270, the Altneuschul or Old New Synagogue is the oldest continually active synagogue in all of Europe.
Below is a circa 1900 Czech postcard showing a bird’s eye view of this famous Synagogue. All buildings in the complex are visible as are the well-kept tree-lined streets and buildings of the surrounding Jewish Quarter of Old Prague.
The Old-New Synagogue is the oldest site of Prague’s Jewish Town and the oldest extant synagogue in Europe. It has been the main synagogue of the Prague Jewish community for more than 700 years.
Built in the last third of the thirteenth century by stone-masons from the royal workshop who were working on the nearby Convent of St. Agnes, it is testimony to the important status of the then Jewish community of Prague.
Originally called the New or Great Shul, it was not until the establishment of other synagogues in the late 16th century that it came to be known as the Old-New (Altneuschul).
Legend has it, however, that its foundation stones were brought by angels from the destroyed Temple of Jerusalem “on condition” (Heb. Al-tenai) of their return upon restoration of the Temple.
The Old-New Synagogue enjoyed tremendous respect in Prague’s Jewish Town and in Jewish communities abroad. It also became enveloped in numerous legends and tales.
According to one legend, the synagogue was protected against fire in the ghetto by the wings of angels transformed into doves, which is why it has remained miraculously intact to this day.
Another legend has it that the attic of the synagogue is home to the remains of the Golem, the artificial creature made of clay that was animated by the Rabbi Loew in order to protect the Prague community.
The Old-New Synagogue is the oldest surviving synagogue with a medieval double-nave. It is a rectangular structure with a large saddle roof and Gothic gables, the thick outer walls of which are supported by buttresses.
The main building is surrounded on three sides by low annexes which serve as a vestibule and women’s sections; the latter are connected to the main hall only by narrow apertures in the walls, which enable women to hear the services.
In accordance with tradition and as a sign of humility, the floor level of the hall and main nave is several degrees below the surrounding terrain.
Two early Baroque money boxes in the vestibule were used for collecting Jewish taxes from the entire kingdom.
The interior of the Old-New Synagogue is arched by six bays of five-ribbed vaulting on two large octagonal pillars.
The twelve narrow pointed windows correspond in number to the tribes of Israel. The stone brackets and shaft capitals feature sculptural ornamentation of plant motifs, dominated by vine-leaf motifs.
Of greatest artistic value is the decoration of the tympanum above the Torah ark and the vault keystones. Due to the similarity of the stone ornamentation to that of other early Gothic buildings in Bohemia, the foundation of the synagogue can be dated back to around 1270.
In the center of the main hall is a raised platform (bimah or almemar) which is separated from the surrounding space by a late-Gothic grille. The Torah scrolls are kept in the holy ark (aron ha-kodesh) in the eastern wall of the synagogue, facing Jerusalem.
The ark is covered by an embroidered curtain (parokhet) and valance (kapporet), which are adorned with symbols that recall the Temple of Jerusalem.
In front of the ark hangs the “eternal light” (ner tamid), and to the right is the cantor’s desk (amud), from which he leads the service.
To this day, the Old-New Synagogue has retained the original seating arrangement around the perimeter of the main hall, which corresponds to the usual layout in other synagogues of its time.
Recently uncovered frames of the niches, which were once used for the storage of prayer books and requisites, can be seen in the perimeter walls.
The main room is lit by numerous bronze chandeliers, dating from the 16th to the 18th centuries, and brass reflectors hung on the walls. The interior decoration of the Old-New Synagogue is complemented by a high banner, which symbolizes the important status of the Prague Jewish community.
In use since the late 15th century, it was restored to its present form by Emperor Charles VI in 1716. The center of the banner features the six-pointed Star of David with a Jewish hat, which was the official symbol of the Prague Jewish community from the 15th century onwards.
The text of the Jewish faith, Shemah Yisroel, is inscribed along the edges of the flag. The Old-New Synagogue was always the main synagogue of Prague’s Jewish community.
Rabbis who were active here in the 16th century included Eliezer Ashkenazi, Mordecai ben Abraham Jaffe, Judah ben Bezalel (the great Rabbi Loew) and his most important pupil Jom Tov Lipmannn Heller, who was known for his outstanding commentaries on the Mishnah.
Among the later rabbis who were active here were Ezekiel Landau, a great authority on traditional rabbinic learning, and Solomon Judah Leib Rapoport, a prominent representative of the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah).
To pass from the entrance hall into the main hall of the synagogue one goes through one of the oldest entrances in Prague. The Old-New Synagogue is the only Synagogue in Prague where services still take place.
You may also be interested in The Legend of The Golem which we wrote about here.
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