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Cracow’s Legendary Shul

R’ Isaac R’ Yeckels’ Shul, its History and its Legends

In his “Declaration to the Commonwealth of England,” written in the year 1656,1Declaration to the Common-wealth of England, by Rabbi Manashe Ben Israel, showing the motives of his coming into England, London 1656, Page 7. Rabbi Menashe ben Israel writes: “But yet a number of Iews2Jews. are found in the Kingdome of Poland, Prussia and Lethuania,3Lithuania. under which Monarchy they have the Jurisdiction to judge amongst themselves all causes, both Criminal and Civil; and also great and famous Academies of their own.  The chief Cities where the Nation liveth, are Lublin and Cracow, where there is a Iew, called Isaac Iecells, who built a Synagogue, which stood him in one hundred thousand Francs,4“The name was first applied to a gold coin minted by King John II of France in 1360, which bore on one face the Latin legend Johannes Dei gratia Francorum rex (“John, by the grace of God, king of the Franks”).” Brittanica. and is worth many tons of gold.5The value of a single ton of gold today has a value of around $38M! There is in this place such infinite number of Iews; that although the Cosaques6Cossacks. in the late warres7Wars. have killed of them above one hundred and fourescore8Fourscore, is an old term for 80. thousand; yet it is sustained that there are yet at this day as unnumerable as those were that came out of Egypt.  In that Kingdome the whole Negotiation is in the hand of the Iews, the rest of the Christians are either all Noble-men, or Rustiques and kept as slaves.”

R’ Menashe dedicates fourteen lines of his petition to a description of the glory of the Jewish community in seventeenth century Poland, following the the 1648 massacres, (known as Gezeiros Tach V’Tat).  Of those, almost two full lines are devoted to the R’ Isaac R’ Yeckel’s Shul and the astronomical amount of money spent to build it.

Who was this R’‭ ‬Isaac R’‭ ‬Yeckel’s‭? ‬And what is the story of the shul he built‭, ‬which still stands in modern-day Cracow‭?‬9Address: Izaak Synagogue , Kupa 18, 31-057 Kraków, Poland.

The Legend

‭ ‬The saying goes that‭ ‬“behind every great man is a great woman‭,‬”‭ ‬and indeed‭, ‬according to a famous legend‭, ‬it was Mrs‭.  ‬Breindel‭, ‬Isaac’s wife‭, ‬who encouraged him to build this‭ ‬shul‭.  ‬One night‭, ‬a Jew from Cracow named Isaac‭, ‬the son of Yeckel‭, ‬dreamed of a voice telling him that under the bridge in Prague‭, ‬there is a treasure waiting to be found‭.  ‬In those days‭, ‬there was only one bridge in Prague‭, ‬the famous Charles Bridge‭, ‬which connected the city of Prague to the royal palace‭.  ‬Isaac didn’t pay any attention to this strange dream‭, ‬but it repeated itself night after night‭, ‬“Under the bridge in Prague‭, ‬there is a treasure to be found‭, ‬go and grab it‭!‬”‭ ‬

Finally one day‭, ‬Isaac thought to himself‭, ‬“Since I have a need to travel to Prague‭, ‬I might as well check out the bridge‭;‬”‭ ‬And so he did‭, ‬spending an entire day exploring the bridge‭, ‬and where exactly to begin searching for this treasure‭.  ‬Suddenly‭, ‬a royal guard called out to him‭, ‬“Stop‭! ‬Who goes there‭?‬”‭ ‬He began questioning Isaac about his strange behavior‭, ‬suspecting him of being a spy‭. 

“I’ve been watching you all day long‭.  ‬What are you looking for‭, ‬stranger‭?‬”

Isaac was quick to defend himself‭, ‬“Nothing really‭, ‬sir‭.  ‬I’m just looking for a treasure‭.‬”

“Treasure‭!? ‬What makes you look here‭, ‬of all places‭, ‬for a treasure‭?‬”

“Well‭, ‬I’ll be quite honest‭, ‬although you will probably find it funny‭.  ‬I’ve been having these dreams telling me there’s a treasure to be found here‭!‬”

“Ha‭, ‬ha‭, ‬ha‭! ‬You’re not serious‭, ‬now‭, ‬are you‭, ‬man‭? ‬Listen here‭, ‬I had a dream‭, ‬too‭, ‬that in the city of Cracow there lives a Jew‭, ‬by the name of‭ ‬Isaac Yeckel’s and that under his fireplace‭, ‬there’s a treasure buried‭! ‬Do you think I’m enough of a fool to actually travel there and and look for it‭?‬”

Isaac looks at this guard‭, ‬and thinks to himself‭, ‬“It looks as though the treasure wasn’t buried at all‭; ‬the treasure was this royal guard himself‭!‬”

He immediately returned to Cracow‭, ‬where he started to dig in the basement of his house‭, ‬next to the fireplace‭.  ‬After digging steadily for some time‭, ‬lo and behold‭, ‬a treasure chest filled with gold coins appeared before his eyes‭!‬

Once the initial shock and ecstasy had worn off‭, ‬Isaac asked his wife Breindel‭, ‬what they ought to do with their newfound riches‭.  ‬She replied‭, ‬“Isaac‭, ‬you should build a new shul with this treasure‭!‬”10. As heard from the Bobover Rebbe, Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam Zt”l.

Eden Hotel

The house of R’‭ ‬Isaac still stands until today in Cracow‭, ‬right across from the‭ ‬shul‭ ‬he built‭, ‬and it’s called Eden Hotel‭.  ‬Upon a visit there‭, ‬I inspected the basement of this building‭, ‬and the ground floor is‭, ‬in fact‭, ‬much lower than the bottom part of the fireplace‭, ‬which gives the impression that the floor was dug down at some point after the house was built‭. 

The Struggle

On Wednesday 30‭ ‬April 1638‭, ‬R’‭ ‬Isaac received the necessary permit from the royal court to build a shul‭, ‬and it reads as follows‭:‬11A History of the Jews in Cracow and Kazimierz, 1304–1868, Vol I, The hebrew University Magnes Press, Jerusalem 2002. Page 199.

Vladislaus IV, king of Poland, declares with this manuscript, to whom it may concern, that some of our counselors, asked us in the name of Isaac Jakubowicz, the infidel, leader of the Jews of Cracow, to establish according to the Jewish law, and to build from ground up, a synagogue in the quarter, next to the Jews-Road, in the outskirts of Kazimierz, nearby Cracow.  Between the houses and the buildings, that is, close to the road, meaning, the Jewish Quarter of Cracow, behind the stone built houses found in the quarter.  We succeeded to their request from our counselors, and we give permission with this document, to establish anew, to erect and build such a synagogue in the quarter, meaning on the plot, nearby Jews Road, according to the principle, that it should be permitted for the above mentioned and to the other Jews to conduct in this synagogue, all Jewish rituals and ceremonies, with absolutely no resistance and objection, and that everybody should be able to visit and to gather therein.

We wish that this synagogue which will be built by Isaac Jakubowicz should enjoy and benefit from all special liberties and rights, as their public and private houses.  To certify this fact, we instructed to intensify this manuscript, which is signed with our signature, and stamped with the royal stamp.

Given in Warsaw, 30 April, 1638, in the sixth year of our regnum here in Poland, and Sweden.

Vladislaus Rex

The work commenced immediately after receiving the letter and continued without problems until they reached the roof‭, ‬at which point trouble began‭.  ‬Marcina Kłoczyńskiego‭, ‬priest of the Corpus Christi Basilica Church‭,‬‭12The Corpus Christi Basilica (Polish: Bazylika Bożego Ciała) located in the Kazimierz district of Kraków, Poland, is a Gothic church founded by King Casimir III the Great in 1335. (Wikipedia). ‬approached the bishop of Cracow‭, ‬Jakub Zadzik‭, ‬who responded with the following letter‭:‬13A History of the Jews in Cracow, page 200.

Very honored gentleman,

Isaac, the leader of the Jews in Cracow, approached us with a claim, that your honor, restricts him from building a synagogue, nearby a built synagogue, with the permission received from his majesty the king.  I would like to know the reasoning from your honor for this act, so I can explain this matter to the Jews.  Especially as they live in a separate town, in there, they organize their heretic prayers, therefore they shouldn’t offend our church, therefore I’m waiting to hear from your honor, and I bless him with good health from the respected Lord….

Given in Warsaw, 25 May 1640,

Jakub Zadzik, Bishop of Cracow.

Kłoczyńskiego’s explained his reasons for seeking to halt construction of the‭ ‬shul‭ ‬in his response letter‭, ‬dated 30‭ ‬June 1640‭, ‬writing that‭ ‬“that street on which Isaac builds his synagogue‭, ‬borders with a street inhabited by Christians‭, ‬and it could happen that priests‭ ‬would pass the synagogue with most holy sacrament‭!‬”

Zadzik agreed to consider the issue raised by Kłoczyńskiego‭, ‬and in the interim‭, ‬halted the continued construction of the shul‭.  ‬On August 8‭, ‬1640‭, ‬Zadzik notifies Kłoczyńskiego that he would be sending down an auditor to evaluate the situation‭.‬

Image Information:
Title: Portrait of a Man
Artist: Govert Flinck (1615–1660)
Date: 1637
Collection: Mauritshuis
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Note: Between 9 April 1902 and 11 April 1902 : purchased by F.  Kleinberger Gallery, Paris, at the sale of the collection of Léon Mniszech at Paul Chevallier, Paris, lot no.  110, for FFR 27,000 (as ‘Portrait de Menasseh ben Israel.
Image Information:
Title: Narrow alley in the jewish district, Krakow
Notes: The white building at the end of the alley, is the eastern wall of R’ Isaac R’ Yeckeles’ Shul. 
The green building at the corner on the right, is said to be the house of R’ Isaac R’ Yeckeles.
Image Information:
Title: Equestrian portrait of Prince Władysław Zygmunt Waza on the background of the Khotyn battle.
Author: Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) or his workshop
Date: circa 1624
Collection: Wawel Royal Castle
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Image Information:
Title: Gravestone of R’ Isaac R’ Yeckeles
Date: 21 June 2012
Location: Rema Cemetery, Krakow
Image Information:
Description: Interior of the R’ Isaac R’ Yeckeles’shul
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Just Dessert

What happened next is not known‭, ‬only that in 1644‭, ‬R’‭ ‬Isaac inaugurated the‭ ‬Shul‭ ‬with great pomp‭.  ‬Engraved on it are the words‭ ‬Shnas Kodesh‭, ‬which means that the inauguration took place in the Jewish year 404‭.‬

The‭ ‬Chanukas Habayis‭ ‬was set for Shabbos‭, ‬and in the‭ ‬pinkas‭, ‬the official register of the Jewish community of Cracow‭, ‬the following story is reported to have taken place at the‭ ‬Chanukas HaBayis‭:‬14HaMaggid, 1858, issue 12, page 47.

In the year 1644 when the leader R’ Isaac R’ Yeckeles completed the erection of the building of the shul, which he dedicated to Hashem, Dukes and Ministers came to see the beauty of it, and the holy vessels therein.  At the time, there gathered a mix of people, villains and scoundrels who plotted to do away with the Jews, and to plunder their possessions, since they were told that all Jewish dwellings are filled with golden treasures without end.

So it was on the day of the chanukas habayis of this shul and its very first Shabbos, when all the leaders of the community had gathered to pray in the shul, which was full from end to end, that a Christian fellow entered the shul and pushed his way up to the place where R’ Isaac was standing, right across from the aron hakodesh.  He approached R’ Isaac and whispered into his ear the plans of these villains and then promptly went on his way.  R’ Isaac was seized with a violent trembling, his face blanched like that of a dead man.  The people around him saw the sight and wondered what had happened to him.

After the prayers they approached him and asked what had happened.  When he repeated to them what he had just been told, a panic befell the people.  They rushed to the house of the rav15Most probably the Tosfos Yom Tov. to ask for advice on how to deal with the situation. 

The rav calmed them down, and spoke softly to them.  He called for the elders of the community, and said to them: “Do not be frightened, as Hashem is with us.  I will command, and you shall do, and you will be saved from your enemies.

On Motzei Shabbos, the doors of the city walls shall be securely closed.  Once the doors are closed, the night watch should march on the wall, up and down, and no one should exit his house.  Choose for yourselves twenty-six mighty men, who are known to be capable men, and they shall each dress themselves with a kittel, tallis and tachrichim, like dead men, with bats in their hands, and lit candles on their heads.  At midnight, they should climb up the wall behind the cemetery.  When the fiends will see them from afar, they will think that the dead have risen up from their graves to take revenge for their brethren, on their enemies, and a fear will fall upon them, and they will retreat.  But have trust in Hashem, and now go home in peace, calm down, and relax.”

Whatever the rav told them would happen, is exactly what actually transpired.  When the twenty-six mighty men saw them retreating, they pursued them until the Vistula River.  Many of the enemies drowned in the river, and the rest fled for their lives.  The mighty men returned in peace, and by morning the whole city of Cracow was abuzz with excitement over their victory.

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