30 January 2019

The Synagogues of Prague,
2, The High Synagogue

The High Synagogue (left) faces onto Red Lane (Červená ulice), between Maiselova Street and Paris Street in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

During my visit to Prague last week, I visited about half-a-dozen or so of the surviving 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 High Synagogue, dating from the 16th century synagogue, was financed by Mordechai Maisel, and was finished in 1568, the same year as the Jewish Town Hall. It was probably named the High Synagogue because the house of prayer was located on the first floor rather than the ground floor of the building.

This synagogue was probably modelled after the High Synagogue in Kraków, which was built in 1556. The house was designed in the Renaissance style by the architect Pancratius Roder, and the supervising builder was a master named Rada.

It was designed as a preaching place for councillors of Jewish Town Hall. Originally, it was accessible only from the first floor of the Jewish town hall and served for assemblies of the senior members of the ghetto, the religious community and perhaps sittings of the rabbinical courts.

The bimah in the centre was surrounded by seats, the stucco ceiling had Gothic ribbed vaulting and Mordechai Maisel donated Torah scrolls and silver tools to the synagogue.

However, the original synagogue was destroyed in the great fire of Prague in 1689. It was rebuilt in 1690 to designs by the architect Pavel Ignác Bayer, who also designed the women’s gallery. The Aron-ha-kodesh or holy ark, where the Torah scrolls are kept, was adapted in 1691 in the style of contemporary Baroque altars.

The burned roof trusses were repaired after another fire in 1754.

The synagogue was rebuilt by JM Wertmüller in 1883, when the façade was simplified and given a modern appearance.

When the streets of the Old Jewish Town were being cleared and rebuilt in the early 20th century, the eastern front of the High Synagogue was covered up, a new entrance was made from Red Lane (Červená ulice), and the whole synagogue was overshadowed by the large corner house with towers between Maiselova Street and Paris Street. Only the north front of the synagogue, facing Červená Lane remained open. This house was designed by the architects Richard Klenka of Vlastimil and Frantisek Weyr, and it is often seen as part of the High Synagogue.

Other adaptations of the High Synagogue were made in the 1960s and the 1970s. A permanent exhibition of synagogue textiles from the Jewish Museum collection was installed here in 1982.

The High Synagogue was returned to the Prague Jewish Community in 1994, and it was restored and refurnished as a house of prayer in 1995.

The Jewish Town Hall was built beside the Old New Synagogue on the corner of Maiselova Street and Červená Ulice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Jewish Town Hall was built beside the Old New Synagogue on the corner of Maiselova Street and Červená Ulice, and was the main meeting house of the local Jewish community.

The first references to the Jewish town hall date from 1541. After a fire it was rebuilt in 1577-1586 in the Renaissance style, with funding from the Mayor of the Jewish town, Mordechai Maisel. It acquired its rococo façade in the 18th century.

The building is best known for its two clocks, one on a tower with Roman numeral markings, the other, lower clock has Hebrew numerals in the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, beginning with aleph and continuing counter-clockwise around the clock dial.

Today, this building is the centre of the Jewish Community of Prague and the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, and the seat of the Chief Rabbinate of Prague and the Czech Republic. However, the building is closed to the public.

The clock with Hebrew numerals in the letters of the Hebrew alphabet (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Previously: The Old-New Synagogue.

Next: The Maisel Synagogue.

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