Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague

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Thousands of gravestones are crammed into the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague.

Old Jewish Cemetery is one of the most important Jewish historical monuments in Prague. It served its purpose from the first half of 15th century till 1786. Renowned personalities of the local Jewish community were buried here; among them rabbi Jehuda Liva ben Becalel – Maharal (ca. 1526–1609), businessman Mordecai Maisel (1528–1601), historian David Gans (ca. 1541–1613) and rabbi David Oppenheim (1664–1736). Today the cemetery is administered by the Jewish Museum in Prague.


Lion – herald on gravestone of Hendl Bashevi.
Some gravestones about 1900;
Stereoscopy as colord postcard No. 782 by Knackstedt & Näther, Hamburg

The Old Jewish Cemetery is not the first Jewish cemetery in Prague – its predecessor was so-called „Jewish Garden“ located in the area of present New Town of Prague. This cemetery was closed by order of King Wladislav II Jagello in 1478 because of complaints of Prague citizens. Later it disappeared under the streets of New Town. We know that the history of the Old Cemetery started before that, but the exact date when it was founded is unknown. The only clue is the oldest gravestone in the cemetery from 1439 which belongs to rabbi and poet Avigdor Kara.

Since the end of the first half of 15th century, there is a continual time line marked by gravestones. The last of them comes from 1787, although three years before that the enlightened sovereign Emperor Josef II banned burials inside the city walls out of hygienic reasons. Later Prague Jews used a cemetery in Žižkov, founded in the 17th century because of plague epidemic.

During more than three centuries of functioning, the cemetery continually struggled with the lack of space. Piety and respect for the deceased ancestors does not allow the Jews to abolish old graves. Only occasionally the Jewish Community was allowed to purchase grounds to expand the cemetery and so many times it had to gain space in other ways; if necessary, new layer of soil was heaped up on the available area – at certain places the number of layers reaches the number of twelve. Thanks to this solution the old graves remained intact. Their gravestones were either laid over to protect them or elevated to the surface. Therefore one can see today on the cemetery so many gravestones laid out so densely.


There are two kinds of Jewish burial monuments (in Hebrew matzevot) – the older is a slab of wood or stone, basically rectangular, but with various endings at the top. Tumba (in Hebrew ohel – tent) appears later, in baroque times. It is generally more representative than matzevah and resembles a little house. Such tumbas commemorate on the cemetery for example Maharal or Mordecai Maisel.[1] Tumbas do not contain the remains; they are buried underneath in ground.

The oldest gravestones on Old Jewish cemetery are plain, yet very soon the number of ornaments (pilasters, volutes, false portals, etc.) began to increase. Most decorated gravestones come from 17th century. However, on every gravestone there are Hebrew letters that inform about the name of the deceased person and the date of his or her death or burial. Copious praise of deceased' virtues appears beside brief eulogy ("of blessed memory") in Renaissance time. From 16th century the gravestones characterize the deceased also through various symbols, hinting at the life, character, name or profession of the people (see the tables below for details).[2]

Religious Characteristics Personal Qualities

Hexagram (Magen David)



A good reputation

A pair of blessing hands

Cohen, a descendant of temple priests

Wine grapes

Fertility, a good, prosperous life

A jug and a bowl

Levite, a descendant of temple helpers of Cohens

Name or By-name





Arye, Leib or Yehudah (see Gn 49,9)


Tzipora, Feigele or Taubele




Naftali (Gn 49, 29). Tzvi or Hirsch



Harp or Violin



Yissachar, Dov or Beer





Zeev or Benjamin (Gn 49,27)






David or Menahem





Important people[edit]

This list follows the numbering of the plan on the right.

Orientation plan of the Old Jewish Cemetery of Prague
  1. A small gravestone with triangular ending and engraved symbols of Magen David and a goose belongs to David Gans (1541–1613), a contemporary of Maharal and other famous Jewish personalities of 16th century, a mathematician, astronomer, geographer and historian, whose chronicle Cemah David includes also Czech history.
  2. A gravestone of Gersonides – Mordecai Katz ben Gershom (died 1592) and his son Betzalel (d. 1589) – marks the place of eternal rest of important Prague Jewish printers. One of their works, Prague hagadah, was known throughout Europe.
  3. A tumba with a hexagram on the top of the front wall, which refers to name David, belongs to rabbi David Oppenheim (1664–1736). His book collection constitutes an important part of the Hebrew section of Bodleian Library in Oxford.
  4. A plain rectangular gravestone of rabbi and poet Avigdor Kara (died 1439) is the oldest on the cemetery. His elegy which describes a great pogrom of the Prague Ghetto in 1389 is still recited on Yom Kippur in Old-New Synagogue.
  5. A high rectangular gravestone commemorates Aharon Meshulam Horowitz (d. ca. 1545), the richest Jew of his time, who initiated building Pinkas Synagogue.
  6. On the hill Nephele (nephele is a miscarriage in Hebrew) were buried children who died before the age of one month. Remains and gravestones found during construction of modern Prague were transferred to this place, too.
  7. The oldest tumba on the cemetery belongs to a businessman, benefactor and renowned public person of the ghetto Mordecai Maisel (1528–1601). He built a synagogue in the Jewish quarter which is named after him.
  8. Rabbi Judah Löw ben Betzalel (1512–1609) and his wife rest under another tumba, decorated with symbols of a lion and wine grapes. Rabbi Judah, also called Maharal, wrote numerous religious and philosophical treatises. His name is also connected with legends; a legend about Golem is the most famous.
  9. A tumba belonging to Hendl Bashevi (died 1628) is probably the most representative on the cemetery. The lions seated on the gables of the tumba do not symbolize the name Judah; they carry the coat of arms which got Hendl's husband Jacob Bashevi. He was the first Jew in Habsburg Empire who got a title of nobility. A grave of this successful businessman cannot, however, be found on Prague Cemetery, because he died and was buried in Mladá Boleslav.
  10. The last tumba to be mentioned covers the grave of Joseph Solomon Delmedigo (1591–1655), a physician and a remarkable scholar who worked in many scientific fields and lived in many places in Europe, Asia and Africa.


  1. ^ Pěkný, Tomáš (2001). Historie Židů v Čechách a na Moravě. Praha: Sefer. p. 593. 
  2. ^ Starý židovský hřbitov v Praze. Praha: Pražská informační služba. 2000. pp. 4–5. 
  • PAŘÍK, Arno a Vlastimila HAMÁČKOVÁ, Pražské židovské hřbitovy = Prague Jewish Cemeteries = Prager jüdische Friedhöfe, Praha: Židovské muzeum v Praze, 2008.

Coordinates: 50°05′23″N 14°25′02″E / 50.08972°N 14.41722°E / 50.08972; 14.41722