Introduction

The Altneu (Old-New) Synagogue is the world's oldest functioning Synagogue, built around the year 1270. Situated in the centre of the Old Jewish Town of Prague (Josefov), it is one of the most famous Synagogues in the world, and was the sight of the bloodiest fighting during the Prague Pogrom of 1389

Altneu

One of the great mysteries of the Synagogue is its name, why is it called Altneu, meaning Old-New? There are three stories as to where the name came from, one down to legend, one to popular nomenclature and one due to ideology.

The popular story is that there was already an 'Alt' (Old) Synagogue, so when it was constructed, it became the 'Neu'(New) Synagogue. After its construction, a number of other Synagogues were built, some of which also became known as Neu, and so, in order to distinguish, the previously New Synagogue became the Old-New (Altneu) Synagogue.

The ideological reasoning says that the name comes from the Hebrew phrase 'Al Tnai', meaning 'On Condition'. The idea is that the Synagogue will be there in Prague on the condition that the Mashiach (Messiah) has not yet come. Once the Mashiach comes, every Jew will go to live in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel, not to be confused with Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel). On that day, the stones of the Synagogue will arise, and be transported to Eretz Yisrael to be rebuilt in the same fashion. This story shows a lot about the Jewish community of Prague, it shows a strong Messianic quality, and a strong Zionist quality.

The story which is due to legend says that when the foundations for the Synagogue were being carved out, the remains of an ancient Synagogue were uncovered. In order to preserve the history of the site, the Stones of the old synagogue were incorporated into the building of the new Synagogue, thus making it Old-New. This story, unfortunately, is almost certain to be false.

Architecture

The Altneu was built in a time when Jews were not allowed to join any of the tradesmen's guilds, which means that the architect of the Altneu was not Jewish, and, since this is a religious building, the architect would probably have been an architect of Churches and Cathedrals. This explains why the interior looks rather Cathedral like, although there is one main difference. Cathedrals and Churches typically have three naves, as another mnemonic for the Holy Trinity. Clearly this would not have been palatable for a Synagogue, so the Altneu Synagogue has two naves instead, although whether this is to represent the male and female aspects of HaShem, or just to differentiate it from a Church is unknown.

Upon entering the Synagogue, one is forced to walk down a number of steps. This circumvents an old Church law declaring that no Jewish building may be higher than a Church. Thus the foundations of the Altneu are sunken. As an interesting aside, this has also regularly evoked the passage: "From the depths I call to thee"1.

There are a number of vaults in the entrance to the Synagogue. These serve three purposes:

  • Geniza - One they become unusable, documents and books containing the name of G-d may not be destroyed, but must be either buried or placed in a designated compartment or room, called a Geniza.
  • Tax collection - The Jewish community, at different points in time, were held in such high regard that they were able to organize their own internal taxes. Since the Altneu was the only stone building in Josefov at the time, this was the safest place to store the monies generated by taxes.
  • Prison - Since the Jews had their own set of laws, in Prague they maintained their own prison in the vaults of the Altneu.

Decoration

The synagogue contains a number of objects of interest, such as the chair used by the most famous of the synagogue's Rabbis: Maharal. There are also a number of other interesting aspects to the shul.

The Banner

The Jews tended to have a good relationship with the King throughout Europe, due to their financial capabilities, and Prague was no different. In 1357, the Emperor Charles IV granted the Jewish community a flag. This was a large step, because a flag was a symbol of autonomy and counter-culture. The flag was a large red banner, which can be seen at the following website:

  • http://www.aig6.cz/fotky/P16.jpg

The flag was repaired and restored "During the reign of the Emperor Ferdinand"2, and again in 1716, and contains two key symbols: the Star of David and the Jew Hat. Due to the decree by the Vatican's Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, Jews were forced to wear a distinguishing mark. In Prague, this took the form of the `Jew Hat', which was a conical yellow felt hat(an illustration can be found at this address: http://www.friends-partners.org/partners/beyond-the-pale/images/11-3.gif). Over time, however, this became a source of pride for the Jews, because it was seen as a sign of their relationship with the Emperor, and as a unifier for their community.

The Star of David is the more interesting of the two, since this is the first occurrence of the symbol in a Jewish context. Never before had the Star of David been a Jewish symbol.

The Inscriptions

There are a number of inscriptions on the walls of the Synagogue. These are:

  • Shviti HaShem LeNegdi Tamid - I put G-d in front of me always3.
  • Da Lifnei (Mi)Atem Omdim - Know before who you stand4.
  • Gadol HaOneh Amen Yoter Min HaMevarach - Greater is he who answers 'Amen' than he who makes the blessing5.
  • Sur Meirah V'Aseh Tov - Shun evil and do good6.
  • Ach Tov L'Yisrael Selah - And so He will be good until forever for eternity7.
  • HaShem Echad U'Shmo Echad - The Lord is One and His name One8.
  • Ki Bachar HaShem B'Tzion L'Moshav - For G-d has chosen Zion, He has desired it for His seat9.

The inscriptions are the initials of the Hebrew words, and they are there to inspire the person praying, and to remind them why they are there, lest their minds wander!

  1. Tehillim(Psalms), 130:1
  2. Official decree on behalf of Emperor Charles VI, 1716
  3. Tehillim(Psalms), 16:8
  4. Talmud Bavli(Babylonian Talmud), Berachot 28b
  5. Talmud Bavli(Babylonian Talmud), Berachot 53b
  6. Tehillim(Psalms), 27:37
  7. Appears to have been written for this inscription, a correction would be welcome!
  8. Zecharia, 13:9
  9. Tehillim(Psalms), 132:13

Sources

  • Jewish Europe, Jeremy Leigh
  • The Jew in the Medieval World, Jacob R Marcus

WaldemarExkul says: Two other things you might want to mention: 1. the Czech name (Staronová synagóga); 2. another deviation from cathedral architecture--the vaulted ceilings have five ribs instead of the usual (and cruciform) four.

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