The Old-New Synagogue in Prague

Altneuschul in Jewish quarter of Prague

The Old-New Synagogue on Maiselova Street in Josefov, the old Jewish quarter of Prague, is the oldest synagogue in Europe that is still in use as a house of prayer. The photo above shows the Synagogue. Notice the two small windows on the roof of the gable; they are called "eyelid windows."

In 2000 when I visited Josefov, it was the religious center for the Orthodox Jews in Prague, so it had no museum displays inside. (There are two other synagogues still in use in Prague - the High Synagogue just across the alley from the Old-New Synagogue and the Jerusalem Synagogue.)

This synagogue got its strange name, Altneuschul, which is German for old-new-school because at the time that it was completed in 1275, it was the Neuschul or New Synagogue, but by the 16th century when other new synagogues were built in Prague, it became the Altneuschul or Old-New Synagogue.

The architectural style is early Gothic because at the time that the synagogue was built, Bohemia was dominated by the Germans of the Holy Roman Empire. In those days, the Jews were not allowed to be architects, so this building was designed by Christian builders, believed to be the same architects who designed the Franciscan St. Agnes Convent.

Old-New Synagogue in Prague

In the photograph above you can see the sawtooth gable, which is constructed of brick, on the top of the one-story building.

The interior of the main hall has a vaulted ceiling like those typically seen in a Christian church. It is the only medieval hall with this type of architecture still in existence. The ceiling has six vault compartments supported by two octagonal pillars. The unique design of the ceiling vaults has five ribs.

The Old-New Synagogue is a single story building, so the women's galley is not upstairs, as is customary. Instead, there are side corridors where the women stand to view the services through narrow slits in the wall. In Orthodox Synagogues, the men and women are segregated and only the men are allowed in the main hall.

In the center of the main hall of the Old-New Synagogue is the bimah, which is like an elaborate wrought iron cage. Above the bimah hangs a remnant of a red flag with the Star of David, the Jewish symbol. In 1357, Charles IV, the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire at the time, allowed the Jews of Prague to have their own city flag. Another tattered red banner hangs next to the Jewish flag. This was a gift from Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III to the Jews for their help in stopping an invasion by the Swedes in 1648 at the tail end of the Thirty Years War. On the east wall is the Holy Ark which contains the Torah scrolls.

This is the synagogue which Franz Kafka, the famous writer, attended when he lived in Prague; his bar mitzvah was held in the Old-New Synagogue. On the west wall of the main hall, there is a glass case shaped like the two stone tablets on which Moses chiseled the ten commandants. The case is filled with tiny light bulbs which light up on the anniversary of someone's death if the relatives have paid for this feature. One of the lights is for Franz Kafka.

Men who enter the Old-New Synagogue as tourists are required to cover their heads and paper hats are provided. Women do not need any type of head cover.

The rear of the building is on the tree-lined Parizska street which extends south to the Old Town square. From Parizska street, you must descend some steps down to the alley between the Old-New Synagogue and the Old Town Hall because the streets were raised after the Old-New Synagogue was built. From the front, it is not obvious that the synagogue is below street level.

Rear view of the Old Synagogue from Parizska street shows it is below street level