14 Fascinating Facts About Prague’s Altneuschul
On the Historic “Old-New Synagogue”
First published on chabad.org
The Altneuschul in Prague is one of the oldest functioning shuls in the world. What do we know about this historical place of worship?
1. Its Paradoxical Name
The Yiddish term alt-neu means “old–new.” Why the odd name? Although not common today, this nickname was quite common in Europe. One need look no further than Nikolsburg (Mikulov), a mere three-hour drive from Prague, for a synagogue with the same name. What does it mean?
When the Jews of a town realized that their shul was too small and it was time to build a second one, the original shul became known as the “Old Shul” while the new shul was called the “New Shul.”
What happened when a third shul was built?
The Old Shul stayed the Old Shul, and the third shul became the New Shul. The second shul, the older new shul, automatically became known as the Old-New Shul.
Indeed the Altnueschul wasn’t the oldest shul in town, as Prague had its own “Alte shul,” which, as its name implies, was much older than the Altneuschul. In 1867 it was torn down, however, and the Spanish Synagogue (which currently functions as a museum) was built in its place, rendering the Altneuschul the actual “alte shul.”
What was the third shul, which gave the Altneuschul its name? It is most likely the Pinchas Shul or perhaps the Meisel Shul (the Pinchas Shul was a private family shul, and originally in a private home). Even though it was neither the oldest nor the most modern synagogue, the Altneuschul was and remains the most prominent synagogue in the city.1Pri Megadim, Orach Chayim, Eshel Avraham 263:24.
2. Its Age
From its gothic architecture, one may assume that the building was erected in the 13th century, making it more than 750 years old.
3. Its Structure
Although the building may look like it was built all at once, that is not the case. The western room, now designated as the women’s section, was built first, in the 13th century. In the 14th century, the main sanctuary was built. A century thereafter, the right hallway was added. This is where the current entrance is. Only in the 18th century was the left wing (which is currently closed to visitors) built.
4. Its Holy Walls
Although the interior walls today are simply painted, they weren’t always. For many years no one dared to touch the walls with any tools. Some did try to give the walls a fresh coat of paint, but sadly, one after another they mysteriously died. After that, the walls were left untouched.2Friedrich Korn, Der Judischer Gil Blas, Fries 1834, pages 20–23.
On its southern wall, we still find that the last coat of paint the shul received was more than 400 years ago, in 1618—less than 10 years after the passing of the Maharal of Prague, the synagogue’s famed rabbi!
5. Coded Inscriptions
Above the heads of the worshippers, several “codes” are inscribed on the walls. They are actually acronyms for famous Hebrew phrases.
On the mizrach (eastern) wall we find: שייל״ת, דלמא”ע, which represents the phrases שִׁ׳וִּיתִי י״י לְ׳נֶגְדִּי תָ׳מִיד (I place G-d before me, always)3Psalms 16:8. and דַּ׳ע לִ׳פְנֵי מִ׳י אַ׳תָּה ע׳וֹמֵד (Know before Whom you stand).4Midrash Rabbi Eliezer, Orchot Chayim §20.
On the western wall: גה”א ימ”ה and סמו”ט אטלי”ס , alluding to גָּ׳דוֹל הָ׳עוֹנֶה אָ׳מֵן, י׳וֹתֵר מִ׳ן הַ׳מְבָרֵךְ (He who answers ‘amen’ is greater than the one who utters the blessing),5Berachot 53b. ס׳וּר מֵ׳רָע וַ׳עֲשֵׂה ט׳וֹב (Turn away from evil and do good)6Psalms 34:15. and אַ׳ךְ ט׳וֹב לְ׳יִשְׂרָאֵל ס’לה (Only good for Israel,7Psalms 73:1. forever).
6. Its Candelabras
The shul has quite a few dark brass candelabras, which hang low in comparison to its very tall ceilings. When the candelabras were lit with hundreds of candles to honor Shabbat or Jewish holidays, their flames looked like swimming stars under its tall, darkened ceilings and walls.8Friedrich Korn, Der Judischer Gil Blas, Fries 1834, pages 20–23
7. Its Attic
Today the attic is empty. It has been thoroughly cleaned out. But it once contained collections of antique items which used to belong to Prague’s rabbis, including the remains of the famous clay Golem of Prague,9Friedrich Korn, Der Judischer Gil Blas, Fries 1834, pages 20–23 created by the Maharal.10Eyewitness Account of the Noda BeYehuda, given over by Rabbi Yosef Shaul Natansohn, author of Sho’el UMeishiv; see Megillat Yuchasin, Warsaw 1864.
8. Its Flag
In the shul, one can find a huge oddly-shaped flag.
Many years ago, the Jewish Community of Prague helped the king fight against an enemy. In recognition of their service, the king granted them the right to fly their own flag. Over time, it became moldy. Then in 1716, the Jews held a grand parade to honor the birth of a crown prince in the royal court. To honor the occasion a new flag was created. 11See “The Grand Parade,” Kankan issue 4.
Near the bimah, a staff almost the height of the shul stands, on which hangs a replica of the 1716 flag. Its inscription reads (translated from Hebrew):
“In the year 117, which is 1357, Emperor Charles IV granted the Jewish community the right to raise its own flag. This was renewed in honor of Emperor Charles VI with the birth of his son, Archduke Leopold, in the year 1716.”
9. Its Seating Arrangement
Today, we expect that most seats in a synagogue face the front (east). This was not always the case. In the Altneuschul, the rabbi and other elders sit facing the community, with the rest of the seats arranged around the walls, and surrounding the almemor/bima structure (see next fact).
10. Its Almemor
The almemor is the enclosed platform which houses the bimah. One ascends via the left rear corner and descends from the right rear corner.
11. Its Organ
One of the most well-known features of the Altneuschul was its organ. This is not the same organs that appeared in churches and some non-orthodox temples of that era. Rather, the small positive organ was part of an ensemble, used every Friday afternoon (before the onset of Shabbat) for Prague’s traditional musical Kabbalat Shabbat.
12. Psalm 92 Was Said Twice
The Altneuschul had the unique custom to say Mizmor Shir LeYom HaShabbat (Psalm 92) twice (instead of once) on Friday eve. This tradition developed from two different customs:
- At the turn of the 16th century, the custom to begin Friday night services with this Psalm spread through Ashkenaz communities.12Machzor Hadrat Kodesh, Venice 1559, Minhagim, p. 325b. See Magen Avraham 132:2 and 261:13.
- Later, the Kabbalistically-inspired Kabbalat Shabbat was introduced. It concludes with this same Psalm, which was accompanied by the musical ensemble.
These two customs were fused together to create the Alneuschul’s unique practice.
The first time the Psalm was recited, it was part of the pre-Shabbat service, accompanied by music, the congregants still dressed in their weekday clothes. The musicians would then stow away their instruments, and the congregants would go home and dress in their Shabbat finery. The women would light the Shabbat candles, and the congregants would return to shul for the evening service, which started with this Psalm13For a lengthy discussion about it, see “Kabalat Shabbat”, Kankan issues 4 and 5. once again.
13. The Permanently Unkosher Torah Scroll
In the Aron Kodesh of the Altneuschul, there was a Torah scroll that was never kosher to be used. This Torah scroll was commissioned in the times of Rabbi David Oppenheimer, chief rabbi of Prague in the early 18th century. Some young men in the community were not behaving properly and decided to donate to charity in an effort to find atonement for their misconduct. In time, the money accumulated and was used to commission a new Torah scroll, which was brought in with great pomp and celebration on Shabbat Shirah, 1728.
Alas, the very first week, a mistake was found and the Torah scroll had to be returned to the Aron Kodesh with its sash on the outside, indicating that it was not fit for use. Although they fixed it, mistakes were found continuously for the next few weeks. The scroll was, strangely enough, determined to be unfixable. When Rabbi Oppenheimer discovered its history, he forwarded the case to the Vaad Arba Aratzot (Council of Four Lands), who ruled that it was to be left as is inside the Aron Kodesh, never to be used.14See “A Hachnasat Sefer Torah 300 Years Ago,” Kankan issue 12.
14. Under Water
In 1501, less than 10 years after the Jewish expulsion from Spain, Prague faced its share of flash floods. The Altneuschul was flooded with so much water that Rosh Hashanah services couldn’t be held in the building.15A Hebrew Chronology from Prague c1615, §10.
Ninety-seven years later, in the times of the Maharal, the same thing happened. This time, the neighboring Pinchas Shul was flooded too, and they were both inaccessible for the following day.16A Hebrew Chronology from Prague c1615, §66. The Alneuschul was also affected by the 2002 European flood, in which the Vltava swept through the older parts of the city.