The Old Jewish Cemetery of Prague
Part of the Jewish Museum in Prague
U Staré školy 1
110 00 Prague 1
Telephone: +420 222 749 211
Founded: in the first half of the 15th century
Oldest surviving monument: 1439
Size: Approximately 2.5 acres
Number of interments: Perhaps up to 100,000 lie beneath 12,000 tombstones
Open: Every day except Saturdays and Jewish holidays. Winter from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Summer from 9 a.m. until 6.
Admission: Adults – 200 CZK, under 15s and students – 140 CZK, children under 6 are free.
Jews first came to Prague as free traders in the 10th century. They settled along the trade routes below Vysehrad Castle, where they lived peacefully until Christian Crusaders destroyed their settlement in 1096-1098. Afraid to lose the money generated by the Jewish traders, Prague’s nobility invited them to shift their homes into the city’s Old Town. This area became the first ghetto, three centuries before the word was coined in Venice.
Medieval Christians believed that Jews had killed Christ and continued to use Christian blood in their rituals. The “Passover lamb” was considered a euphemism for Christ and it was widely imagined that unless Jews were locked behind ghetto walls at night, Christian infants would end up on Passover plates.
As the Middle Ages melted into the Renaissance, interest in the Kabbalah swelled amongst both Christians and Jews in Prague. In this atmosphere, Rabbi Loew (pronounced Lurve) became chief rabbi of the ghetto in 1597. History records that he was once summoned to the palace by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who funded research into the alchemical transformation of lead into gold. (This was the same period of time that Queen Elizabeth consulted astrologist John Dee about similar matters. Dee later came to study in Prague, purportedly with Loew.)
Legends sprang up around Rabbi Loew, said to be one of only four men, post-Adam, to see the Garden of Eden. While there, he was granted the shem, the secret name of God, which can create life.
This came in handy when the ghetto was once again menaced. (The menace varies according to the storyteller, though it’s always rooted in Christian bigotry.) The Rabbi and two apprentices created a champion out of the muddy banks of the Vltava River. This artificial man served faithfully, protecting the Jews from slander and worse, until something went wrong one night and Loew had to rip the shem — variously a clay tablet or a scrap of paper — from behind the golem’s teeth.
Founded in 1478, the Beth-Chaim (Hebrew for House of Life) served as the only Jewish graveyard in Prague for three centuries. Penned in by buildings on every side, the Old Jewish Cemetery could only increase in height. 12,000 surviving tombstones totter over the graves of an estimated 20,000-100,000 people. The ground consists of twelve layers of graves.
The most visited of these belongs to Rabbi Yehudah Loew ben Bezalel (1512-1609). Rather than a tablet marker, Loew has a tomb of pink stone, guarded by lions. When I visited, pebbles, coins, and folded scraps of white paper covered its every flat surface.
I’ve read several explanations of the custom of placing pebbles on graves. The simplest appeared in Mystical Stonescapes by Freema Gottlieb: “Vegetation fades, but stones are as close as matter gets to Eternity.” Old Bohemian and Moravian Jewish Cemeteries by Ehl, Parik, and Fiedler traces the ritual back to when the Hebrews wandered in the desert after Moses led them out of Egypt. Anyone who fell during that forty-year trek was buried along the wayside. Travelers who passed those graves added a rock as a way of keeping the burial mound inviolable.
While the Nazis demolished many Jewish graveyards, this one — and Loew’s tomb — was spared as part of a museum dedicated to the extinct race. The beauty of the place must have touched some Nazi soul. Now overseen by the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Czech Republic, the graveyard welcomes 10,000 visitors each year. Most bring pebbles in their pockets for Rabbi Loew.
The Jewish Museum of Prague visitor information
The Jewish Cemeteries of Prague
The New Jewish Cemetery of Prague
Books I’ve reviewed that reference Jewish gravestones: