The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague – “Beth Chaim” (House of Life) – is the second oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe. It is situated in Josefov, the former Prague Jewish Town, among old synagogues and other sights. The cemetery was founded in the 15 th century, the oldest existing gravestone is dated 23 rd April 1439. You can see gravestones from various historical periods there: long black Gothic ones, marble stones from the 16 th century, typical Renaissance decoration, mighty Baroque gravestones, and some of the Rococo ones.
Gravestones at the Old Jewish Cemetery
About 20 000 gravestones seem to be pressed to each other and variously inclined. It is because of the lack of space in the Old Jewish Cemetery: during the centuries, the graves had to be put one on another, somewhere even in twelve layers.
It is forbidden to picture dead people in the Jewish faith, so there are various symbols on the graves to indicate who is buried there. For example, the musicians´ graves are adorned with a violin, scissors indicate a tailor, a crown belongs to the erudite men and so on. An animal symbol mostly signifies the dead man´s surname (e.g. a lion on the Rabi Loew´s grave).
Legend about Golem
One of the most visited graves in the Old Jewish Cemetery is the Rabi Jehuda Loew Ben Bezalel ´s grave. He worked and taught in Prague at the turn of the 17 th century. A legend says, that he created the famous Golem then: a monster made of clay, which stood on the Jews´ side in bad times, but later became violent and had to be destroyed. Another interesting grave is the grave of Mordechai Maisel, the mayor of the Prague Jewish Town during the same period.
You can see pieces of paper with wishes written on them, weighed down by little stones at some of the graves. It is an old habit to leave it there, because it is believed, that the dead can fulfill your wish. But beware, the stone has to be brought from the place where you live. Picking up a stone from the graveyard, or even from another grave, can be seen as a disrespect by the dead.
The last person was buried in the Old Jewish Cemetery in 1787. Ever since, the Jews have been buried in the new graveyard in Prague quarter Zizkov. You can find the Prague Old Jewish Cemetery in between Brehova, Maiselova and Siroka streets, the nearest underground station is Staromestska.