The Maisel Synagogue in Prague’s Jewish Town

By Tracy A. Burns

The construction of the Maisel Synagogue

maisel-synagogue1During Emperor Rudolf II’s reign in the 16th century, the Jewish Town thrived culturally and economically as Jews experienced more freedom in Czech society. Mordechai ben Samuel Maisel, the wealthy Jewish Town mayor, funded the construction of many public buildings, including the Jewish Town Hall, a poorhouse, and a hospital. He also was responsible for extending the Old Jewish Cemetery. From 1590 to 1592 he had his own private place of worship – the Maisel Synagogue – built thanks to architect Juda Tzoref de Herz. Emperor Rudolf II gave Maisel the right to construct the three-nave synagogue on August 13, 1591, though he had started building it in 1590. The sacral building was consecrated on August 30, 1592. The largest synagogue in the district, the Maisel’s house of prayer was erected with 20 pillars and featured a huge main nave.

The decoration of the Maisel Synagogue

The Renaissance building with some Gothic features was ornate and contained many Torah mantles and synagogue curtains. The sacral edifice boasted a copy of the banner given to the Old-New Synagogue when Emperor Charles IV recognized their independence. For almost 100 years people who entered the Maisel Synagogue were awestruck by its ornamentation and size.

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The fire and the reconstructions

Then came the fire of 1689. The dancing flames engulfed the synagogue and destroyed it. The vault caved in. Only 14 pillars and the external walls remained. It was reconstructed in 1692 and again in the early 19th century, but the appearance of the synagogue today harkens back to the Neo-Gothic style popular at the turn of the 20th century. From 1895 to 1905 much of the Jewish Town was demolished or remodeled. The Maisel Synagogue is only one-third of the original length because it is six pillars short of 20. The reconstructed nave was built according to the original architectural plan. Side aisles and upper floor galleries were intact. Stained glass was added to the windows, and stucco ribs adorn the vaulting. The Holy Ark on the eastern wall is also in Neo-Gothic style. Flanking the ark are 16th-century Torah curtains, the oldest in Prague. The tympanum of the Ark features pinnacles and tablets of the Decalogue. The main entrance was transferred from the east to the west façade, and a large vestibule was built. The Ten Commandments can be seen on the Neo-Gothic façade along with the Star of David and a symbol of the unique hat that Jews had to wear whenever they left the ghetto in the 15th century.

From World War II to restorations later in the 20th century

During World War II the Maisel Synagogue was the storage place for some 6,000 valuable pieces that the Nazis wanted to install in their museum dedicated to the extinct Jewish race after the war. In 1955 it became the property of the Jewish Museum.  The house of prayer underwent some restoration from 1963 to 1964, and a year later an exhibition of silver used in synagogues in Bohemia and Moravia was launched there. The exhibition lasted until 1988. Major reconstruction took place in 1994 and 1995.

The current exposition

The current exposition traces 1,000 years of Jewish history in Bohemia and Moravia from the 10th century to 1780, the end of Empress Maria Theresa’s reign on the Habsburg throne. The intriguing texts explain that Jews came to the Czech lands during the Great Moravian Empire of the ninth century and settled there during the 10th century. They mostly worked as moneylenders. The ruler gave them autonomy, and they paid high taxes. Visitors also learn about the tragic event of the late 11th century – the First Crusade that massacred many Jews.

From the 13th century to the 18th century

During the 13th century Bohemian king Premysl Otakar II gave Jews privileges. They moved to towns in the 13th century, but the burghers did not welcome them. Just the opposite. They were the competition. They could only work as moneylenders and experienced anti-Jewish sentiment. At the beginning of the 13th century, Jews had to wear a badge to differentiate them from Christians. Tourists will also read about the ransacking of Jewish homes in 1422 and the expulsion of Jews from Bavaria (1422) and Jihlava, Moravia (1425). Visitors will learn that Jews were exiled twice during Emperor Ferdinand I’s reign. Jews were expelled once again during Empress Maria Theresa’s tenure on the throne, in 1744 but allowed to return in 1748. Many internal religious disputes erupted in the 1750s.

Highlights of the exposition

Hebrew manuscripts from the Middle Ages, an impressive collection of silver, remarkable Torah mantles, and beautiful synagogue curtains are featured in the displays. The exhibit of silver used in synagogues includes a Levite laver and basin made in 1702. A silver Torah shield goes back to 1790 while a silver Torah pointer dates from the late 18th century. A Torah Crown is silver, from 1783. The emblem of the Jewish Shoemakers’ Guild consists of a large boot with four figures seated at a table on top. It hails from 1715. A parchment dated October 16, 1755, serves as a confirmation of Empress Maria Theresa’s privileges to Czech Jews. A richly decorated red Torah mantle hails from the middle of the 18th century. Other sections of the exposition include descriptions of banners and the emblem of the Prague Jewish Town, which was the shield of David enclosing a Jewish hat.

More features of the exposition

In the area devoted to ceremonial processions of Prague Jews, visitors learn that on September 30, 1490, Jews took part in their first procession. It was held on Old Town Square in honor of the crowning of Vladislav Jagellon as the Hungarian king. Synagogue curtains of velvet and silk satin are embroidered with metal threads and date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. Tourists are enlightened about visionary Solomon Molcho, who declared himself the Messiah and was burned at the stake in 1532. His banner and robe from 1530 are on display. A steel grille from the almemor of the now destroyed Zigeuner Synagogue hails from 1750. Some anti-Semitic documents show how Jews were negatively portrayed.  The life and work of Jewish scholars and rabbis from the 12th to 18th century is another highlight of the show.  The exemplary works of Rabbi Loew in the 16th century are on display, too.  Even one of Rabbi Loew’s silver-gilt cups is part of the exposition.

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