The Old – New Synagogue in Prague is one of the most valuable Jewish historical buildings in Europe. It is the oldest European synagogue still serving its purpose and one of the oldest ones in the world. It was built in the 13 th century and there are various legends about it, including the legend of Prague monster Golem.
Continuous divine services since the 13 th century
The Old – New Synagogue is situated in Josefov, the former Prague Jewish Town, which was demolished in the 19 th century and only several historical buildings were kept. The synagogue was built in the second half of the 13 th century and it became the center of Jewish community in Prague. Divine services are held there continually since it was built, with an exception of the years of Nazi occupation in 1942 – 1945.
Legend about the origin of Old – New Synagogue
An old legend says, that the Old – New Synagogue was built of stones from the Second Temple in Jerusalem demolished in 70 A.D. The stones were allegedly brought to Prague by angels. They said, that they have to be given back to Jerusalem when a new temple will be built there after the Messiah will arrive. That is a possible origin of the name of the synagogue: its German name “Altneu” could be a distortion of the Hebrew word “altnai”, meaning “provisional, conditioned”.
Another possibility is that the synagogue was originally called “New” to differ from an old one, not preserved. After years, when other new synagogues were built around and this one was already old, the name changed to the “Old – New Synagogue”.
Architecture of the Old – New Synagogue
It is a valuable Gothic building. There are two big pillars inside, holding the ribbed vault. In the middle of the synagogue there is a rostrum, from which the speeches are held. It is surrounded by a Gothic grille. There is a historical flag of the Prague Jewish community above with a symbol of the Jewish ghetto. It is probably from 1716, although some theories say it was given to Jews already in the 14 th century by Emperor Charles IV. Another possibility is that it is an award for helping to defend Prague in the Thirty Years´ War.
Women were permitted to enter the Old – New Synagogue only on their wedding day. An annex building for women was added to the synagogue later. They could only look into the main hall through small windows.
Legend about Golem of Prague
The legend of Prague Golem is connected to the Old – New Synagogue. Golem was a monster made of clay by Rabi Jehud Löwa ben Bezalel in the 16 th century. He was created to defend Jews and help them in bad times. Golem looked like a human being and could be made alive by a piece of parchment with secret symbols given into his mouth. Golem later became aggressive and violent and had to be stopped by Rabi Löwa and made “dead” again. According to the legend, there are still remains of the Golem monster kept in the Old – New Synagogue garret and he can be “awaken” again when needed.
There are regular divine services held in the Old – New Synagogue nowadays, as well as Jewish weddings and other religious ceremonies.