Topped with a Star of David, the tall chair found by the eastern wall has been reserved for the chief rabbis of Prague throughout the history of the synagogue.
Prague’s Jewish community was permitted a banner in the 15th century as a symbol of its autonomy. The copy hanging above the bimah replicates a 1716 original, featuring a Jewish hat within a six-pointed star and bearing the legend “Shema Yisroel”.
Twelve narrow windows, evoking the 12 tribes of Israel, line the perimeter walls, which are unadorned save for the abbreviation of biblical verses. Two central pillars are modelled on the façade columns of the Temple of Jerusalem.
Behind the curtain on the eastern wall are the Torah scrolls, which are kept in the holy ark. The tympanum features foliage and grape motifs, which are also found in the nearby Convent of St Agnes, and date from the synagogue’s construction in the late 13th century.
The biblical inscription “Revere God and observe His commandments! For this applies to all mankind” admonished worshippers as they were entering and leaving the synagogue.
To avoid forming the sign of the cross, a fifth rib was added to the nave’s vaulting, which is decorated with vine leaves and ivy.
Women were not permitted in the nave of the synagogue, but sat in the vestibule. Narrow openings in the wall allowed them to follow the services being conducted within.
A pulpit stands on this dais in the centre. From here the rabbi reads the Torah and performs wedding ceremonies.
Adjacent to the synagogue stands the Jewish Town Hall. The hands of the clock on the façade run anticlockwise – or clockwise if you read Hebrew.
Legend has it that Rabbi Judah Loew stashed the remains of the Golem he had created under the synagogue’s large saddle roof.
Prague’s Jews have suffered anti-Semitic behaviour almost since their arrival in the 10th century. Zealous Christians destroyed an early settlement in what is now Malá Strana. Such pogroms were not uncommon – the most infamous is the Passover slaughter of 1389, in which rioters killed more than 3,000 Jews, including those who had taken refuge in the Old-New Synagogue. But there were also high points. Prominent Jews, notably Rabbi Loew and Mordechai Maisel, enjoyed influence in the court of Rudolf II; Charles VI recognized the community’s autonomy in 1716; his descendant Joseph II ended many discriminatory measures; and in the late 19th century Jews were active in the National Revival. However, anti-Semitism still lurked. In 1899, Leopold Hilsner was accused of ritual murder; his legal counsel was Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, future president of independent Czechoslovakia. Although the interwar years were a golden age for Czech Jews, among them Franz Kafka, the 1938 Munich Agreement paved the way for Hitler to take possession of Czech lands, and the Jews were restricted to a ghetto before being deported to Nazi concentration camps. Synagogues were turned into archives for looted Jewish artifacts. Hitler reportedly even planned to create a museum of the Jews as an extinct race in Josefov. By the end of the war nearly 80,000 Jews from Bohemia and Moravia had died in the Holocaust.
1. Eliezer ben Elijah Ashkenazi (1512–85)
2. Judah Loew ben Bezalel (c. 1520–1609)
3. Mordechai Maisel (1528–1601)
4. Mordechai ben Abraham Jaffe (1530–1612)
5. Ephraim Solomon ben Aaron of Luntshits (1550–1619)
6. Joseph Solomon Delmedigo (1591–1655)
7. David ben Abraham Oppenheim (1664–1736)
8. Yechezkel ben Yehuda Landau (1713–93)
9. Solomon Judah Lieb Rapoport (1790–1867)
10. Efraim Karol Sidon (b. 1942)