30 April 2023

Morning prayers in Easter
with USPG: (22) 30 April 2023

The Old-New Synagogue or ‘Altneuschul’ dates from 1270 and is the oldest landmark in the Jewish town in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

We are almost half-way through the season of Easter, and today is the Fourth Sunday of Easter (30 April 2023). As the booklet for the midday Eucharist in Lichfield Cathedral reminded me last week: ‘The Great Fifty Days of Eastertide form a single festival period in which the tone of joy created at the Easter Vigil is sustained through the following seven weeks, and the Church celebrates the gloriously risen Christ’.

Later this morning I hope to be present at the Parish Eucharist in Holy Trinity Church, Old Wolverton. But, before this day gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection. Following our visit to Prague earlier this month, I am reflecting each morning this week in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a synagogue in Prague;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The Aron haKodesh or Ark where the Torah scrolls are kept is in the middle of the east wall of the Old-New Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Old-New Synagogue or Altneuschul, Prague:

During our visit to Prague earlier this month, I visited the seven surviving, working synagogues in Prague, including the six remaining synagogues in Josefov, the Jewish Quarter in the Old Town in the Czech capital.

Despite World War II, most of the significant historical Jewish buildings in Prague were saved from destruction, and they form the best-preserved complex of historical Jewish monuments in the whole of Europe.

The Jewish Quarter has six synagogues, as well as the Jewish Ceremonial Hall and the Old Jewish Cemetery, the most remarkable of its kind in Europe.

The Old-New Synagogue or Altneuschul is the oldest landmark in the Jewish town in Prague, and the main house of prayer for the Jewish community in Prague to this day. It was built in the 13th century in the early Gothic style and is the oldest preserved and oldest active synagogue in Central Europe.

The Old New Synagogue was completed in 1270 in the Gothic style, and it is one of Prague’s first gothic buildings. A still older Prague synagogue, known as the Old Synagogue, was demolished in 1867 and replaced by the Spanish Synagogue.

The synagogue was originally called the New and Great Shul or Synagogue. But after other synagogues were established in the ghetto in the late 16th century, it became known as the Old-New Synagogue.

Another explanation says the name comes from the Hebrew עַל תְּנַאי (al tnay), which means ‘on condition’ and sounds identical to the Yiddish alt-nay or ‘old-new.’

According to legend, angels brought stones from the Temple in Jerusalem to build the synagogue in Prague – ‘on condition’ that they are to be returned when the Temple in Jerusalem is rebuilt and the stones are needed.

Nine steps lead from the street down into a vestibule, from which a door opens into a double-nave area with six vaulted bays. This double-nave system was most likely adapted by the synagogue’s Christian architects from the plans of monasteries and chapels. It has been suggested that the synagogue was built by the same workshop that completed the nearby compound of Saint Agnes’s Convent.

The moulding on the tympanum of the synagogue’s entryway has a design that incorporates 12 vines and 12 bunches of grapes, representing the 12 tribes of Israel. Two large pillars aligned east to west in the middle of the room each support the interior corner of four bays. The bays have two narrow Gothic windows on the sides, for a total of 12, again representing the 12 tribes.

The narrow windows are probably responsible for many older descriptions of the building as being dark. It is now lit brightly with several electric chandeliers.

The vaulting on the six bays has five ribs instead of the typical four or six. It has been suggested that this was an attempt to avoid associations with the Christian cross. However, many scholars dispute this theory, pointing to synagogues that have four-part ribs and to Christian buildings that have the unusual five rib design.

The almemor or bimah from which the Torah scrolls are read is located between the two pillars. The base of the bimah repeats the 12-vine motif found on the tympanum. The Aron haKodesh or the Ark where the Torah scrolls are kept is in the middle of the eastern wall. There are five steps leading up to the Ark and two round stained glass windows on each side above it. A lectern in front of the ark has a square well a few inches below the main floor for the service leader to stand in.

The stone pews along the longer walls have been preserved from the original mediaeval furnishings of the synagogue.

The 12 lancet windows in the synagogue – five each on the south and north wall and two on the west wall – are said to have inspired worshippers to compare the building with Solomon’s Temple.

The synagogue follows Orthodox custom, with separate seating for men and women during prayer services. Women sit in an outer room with small windows looking into the main sanctuary. The framework of the roof, the gable, and the party wall date from the Middle Ages.

An unusual feature in the nave of this synagogue is a large red flag near the west pillar. In the centre of the flag is a Star of David and in the centre of the star is a hat in the style typically worn by Jews of the 15th century. Both the hat and star, forming the emblem of the Jewish community in Prague, are stitched in gold. In gold stitching too is the text of Shema Yisrael, the basic Jewish confession of faith.

The synagogue was restored by the architect Joseph Mocker in 1883.

Local lore says the body of the Golem, created by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, rests in the attic which is the genizah or storage space for worn-out Hebrew-language religious book and papers is kept.

A legend is told of a Nazi agent during World War II broaching the genizah, but who died instead. The Gestapo never entered the synagogue attic during World War II, and the building was spared during the Nazi destruction of synagogues.

The lowest three meters of the stairs leading to the attic from the outside have been removed and the attic is not open to the general public. But it is said no trace of the Golem was found when the attic was renovated in 1883, or when it was explored in 2014.

The bimah from which the Torah scrolls are read in the Old-New Synagogue or ‘Altneuschul’ in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

John 10: 1-10 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 1 ‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.’ 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

7 So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’

The vaulting on the six bays in the Old-New Synagogue has five ribs instead of the typical four or six (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘The Work of Bollobhpur Mission Hospital.’ This theme is introduced today by USPG’s Regional Manager for Asia and the Middle East, Davidson Solanki, who reflects on the work of Bollobhpur Mission Hospital, Bangladesh, for International Midwives’ Day this week:

‘Bollobhpur Mission Hospital is administered by the Church of Bangladesh as part of its health ministry. The hospital is situated in rural Bangladesh, serving residents of the village communities living near the border with India. At the hospital, young women and men train to be midwives, nurses and laboratory technicians.

‘The students participating in this training all come from a similar socioeconomic background, with 35 per cent of residents in the local area living below the poverty line. Their training at Bollobhpur Mission Hospital means that they can now earn more money elsewhere, in turn allowing them to better support their families.

‘Bollobhpur Mission Hospital also provides a community health programme, which consists of four outstation village clinics and a team of six community health workers who visit villages in areas near to the hospital. The village clinics are staffed by experienced midwives who are supported by teams of student midwives, who take on this role as part of their training.

‘USPG feels privileged to partner with the Church of Bangladesh in supporting their health ministry through Bollobhpur Mission Hospital and their community nurses and midwives.’

The USPG Prayer invites us to pray this morning (Sunday 30 April 2023, the Fourth Sunday of Easter):

God, our midwife,
deliver us from harm
and bring to birth in us
all that is life-giving.
Shepherd our longings
and make us one in Christ.


Almighty God,
whose Son Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life
raise us, who trust in him,
from the death of sin to the life of righteousness,
that we may seek those things which are above,
where he reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion:

Merciful Father,
you gave your Son Jesus Christ to be the good shepherd,
and in his love for us to lay down his life and rise again:
keep us always under his protection,
and give us grace to follow in his steps;
through Jesus Christ our Lord..

Women sit in an outer room with small windows looking into the main sanctuary in the Old-New Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Legend says the Golem rests in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

No comments: