Prague is the new Paris. A bustling metropolis in the heart of the Continent, a rich history spanning two millennia of prominence, dozens of notable landmarks, and friendly warm natives, combine to give Prague a greater overall tourist experience than the one offered in Paris, the most visited city in Europe. Add weather that rarely creeps above seventy five degrees, the historic sites all being within a one mile radius, a Czech koruna that is at a wonderful disadvantage to the dollar, and cafes that serve the best goulash in the world, and you allow Prague to pull ahead with a comfortable margin.
But for the Jewish tourist, Prague offers something not found anywhere else in the world; a glimpse into Jewish life as it progressed through nine hundred years of continuous history. You can pray in the world’s oldest active synagogue built in 1270, you can visit a cemetery where generations of Jewish deceased were buried literally on top of one another, and you can visit synagogues from the 15th, 16th, 17th, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. In the Jewish Museum you can see holy ark covers from the fifteenth century, the clothing of a false messiah executed in the sixteenth century, Jewish guild emblems from the seventeenth, banners carried at royal processions in the eighteenth, a machzor from the nineteenth, and drawings made by children under Nazi rule in the darkest moments of the twentieth century.
A few years ago, I was fortunate to have a seventeen hour layover in Prague. It was just long enough to run around like a possessed soul, see all the major Jewish sights, have a hurried lunch at an outdoor kosher café, see most of the prominent non-Jewish sights, have a reflective drink at another outdoor café, and head back to the airport.
I started my day with morning prayers in the High Synagogue built in 1568, and still used every day.
Interior of Hoch Shul
I concluded it with afternoon and evening services in the Altneuschule, built in 1270, and presided over by Jewish greats such as the “Maharal,” Rabbi Yehuda Lowy (1520-1609), and the “Nodeh BiYehudah” Rabbi Yechezkel Landau (1713-1793). When praying in synagogues with such an illustrious provenance, one can’t help but wonder about the thousands of people who prayed in that same spot, and the millions of prayers that line the ancient walls around them. What were their thoughts as they prayed? What tunes did they use for Lecha Dodi? How did they accommodate so many people in such a snug space? What were the sermons about?
Exterior of Altneushule built in 1270
Immediately following morning services, I joined with seven or eight native Prague Jews as they drank coffee and listened to someone teach a mishna in Czech. I didn’t understand their language, but I understood what they were saying. There is a universal language of Jewish learning that knows no linguistic boundaries.
From there I set out on my mad dash around the city. I visited the Maisel shul, built in 1590 and then rebuilt in 1689 after a devastating fire. It is today part of the Jewish Museum complex and has had the benches exchanged for display cases. It contains thousands of relics and Judaica, all with explanations in multiple languages that help the visitor visualize Jewish Prague throughout the ages.
Exterior of the Maisel Shul
- Interior of Maisel Shul
The Pinkas Synagogue, my next stop, was first built in 1479, and is also now part of the Jewish Museum. Here too, all the benches have been removed, and only the ark, bimah, and striking vaulted Renaissance ceilings remain as they once were. The walls have been covered with the names of the 80,000 Jews of Prague murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust. Ironically, the fact that we can visit all these sites today is actually due to a Nazi plan to leave one city’s Jewish sites standing as a monument to the race they would exterminate. The names on the walls remind us that we may be able to see the building, but we will never see the families of the 80,000 people who used to attend those synagogues.
Interior of Pinkas Synagogue
After that, I went to the Klausen Synagogue, built in the sixteenth century, and then rebuilt in 1689 and 1880. It was the largest of the synagogues in the Jewish ghetto, despite the word Klausen meaning small. Today it is also a museum. No benches, but lots of display cases depicting “Jewish traditions and customs.” One can familiarize theselves with Jewish family customs, Jewish weddings, Jewish Shabbat feasts etc. through these displays. It is just outside the Prague Jewish cemetery, a cemetery unlike any other Jewish cemetery in the world. The Jews were not allowed to buy more land to expand it, so they resorted to burying the newly deceased over those already interred there. The result is a crowded jumble of crooked tombstones falling all over each other, giving it a most surreal appearance.
Interior of Klausen Synagogue
Prague Jewish Cemetery
My next stop, the Spanish Synagogue is comparatively young, being completed in 1868. It is one of the most visually arresting synagogues in the world, with every inch of the walls covered in elaborate Islamic-style polychrome and gilded patterns, some painted and some carved or molded. But here too, it has been converted into a museum and concert hall, and has not been a place of worship since World War II.
Exterior and Interior of Spanish Synagogue
Then there is the Jubilee Synagogue, the baby of Prague’s great historical synagogues, built in 1906, and the synagogue I almost missed. Years ago, someone emailed me a slideshow with pictures of this synagogue, and I remembered hoping to see it in person one day. Being outside of the ghetto area, this stunning synagogue doesn’t get nearly the same number of visitors as the other ones, and I barely made it myself, not realizing it was in Prague. Thinking I had seen all the Jewish sights, I went on to see Prague Castle (the largest castle complex in the world!), the King Charles bridge, and other notable tourist sites. But as soon as I noticed a picture of it in a small book on Jewish Prague I bought at the museum, I spared no effort in getting there. I was lucky to get there just a few minutes before closing, and was amply rewarded with the experience of entering the most beautiful synagogue I have ever seen. Saying a few Psalms in one of G-d’s most glorious houses was a great way to crown a day full of ancient synagogues.
Exterior and interior of Jubilee Synagogue
As the day drew to a close, I sat down at a café facing the massive Old Town Square, bustling with both tourists and locals, to have a quiet drink and watch the living Prague parade past me. After moving for ten hours almost non-stop, it was a welcome respite, and a moment for contemplation.
Old Town Square
One thing had been bothering me all day and now it came roaring back into my consciousness. It hurt me that so many of the magnificent synagogues I had seen were no longer houses of worship, no longer places where Jews connected to G-d, but instead museums, showcasing Torah scrolls, Kiddush cups, meggilot, Shabbat clothes, synagogue tapestries, ketuba documents and everything in between. What had once held fire and passion now held academic curiosity. The walls that used to hear fervent cries of “Holy, Holy, Holy is G-d…” now sit by silently, listening to calls of, “Wow look at that Kiddush cup from 1643!”
But there might be something even worse than buildings that used to house fire and passion and are now mere showcases of what they once held. That would be human beings that once had fire and passion and now are mere showcases of what they once had. People who still have all the relics, the silver Kiddush cup, the tallit, the megillot, and the menorah, but who don’t have any of the connection those things are supposed to engender. People who go to services, and may even read the siddur and mouth the words “Holy, Holy, Holy is G-d…” but in their minds are thinking, “Wow, look at that necklace on Julie!”
What percentage of our Judaism is connection and what percentage is museum? Have we perhaps removed the benches, and filled our place of worship with beautiful menorahs, leather bound machzorim, and a silver seder plate? Do we do things because we feel them or because that is the way we’ve been doing them for the past few decades, centuries, or millenia? Is it real or relic?
We are about to enter the High Holidays, and this is something we are all going to struggle with, each person on their level. Are we going to be able to really focus fully on what we’re saying, on what we’re doing, or is it just going to be a beautiful tradition preserved from our ancestors and performed by us? Are we going to even go to services, or are we going to rely on that Star of David hanging from our neck to represent our connection to the Judaism we tell people is very important to us?
This Rosh Hashanah let’s take a few minutes to look carefully at our lives. Let’s congratulate ourselves for those places and times where we truly are connecting with Something bigger than ourselves. And when we come to those places where rote has taken over, let’s try to push some benches back in. Let’s connect. Let’s move out the showcases and bring in some fire!
Parsha Dvar Torah
This week’s portion, Ki Savo, begins with the laws of the First Fruits (Bikkurim), which require a farmer to take the first ripened fruits of his produce to the Temple and present them to the Kohen. There, the farmer would declare his gratitude for G-d’s guiding hand throughout Jewish history, from our inception as a people until that very moment.
The Daas Zekeinim commentary raises a question regarding the placement of this commandment at this juncture in the Torah. Immediately preceding this commandment is the commandment to eradicate Amalek (Devarim 25:17-19). What is the inherent lesson in placing the commandment of First Fruits immediately after the commandment regarding Amalek? The answer can be found in the nature of Amalek’s attack against the Jewish people as they left Egypt.
Upon hearing of the miracles in Egypt, the nations of the world greatly feared G-d and the Jewish people. No one dared lift a finger against the Jews. When Amalek attacked, he knew he would lose. However, winning was not his goal. His goal was to show the world that the Jews did not enjoy any special Divine protection and that their fate was subject to the same variables as other nations.
In recounting the battle with Amalek, the Torah states: “Remember what Amalek did to you… that he happened upon you on the way… and he struck… when you were faint and exhausted, and he did not fear G-d.” (Devarim 25:17 -18) The Hebrew translation of the word “happened” implies just that – a chance occurrence which is done with no planning or forethought. (See Rashi, Devarim 25:18)
A close reading of the verses, however, shows that Amalek’s attack was anything but “chance.” His army knew when, where and who to strike, and exactly why they were going to war. Why, then, does the Torah use the term “happened” to describe Amalek’s tactics? The answer is that Amalek’s raison d’être was to convince the world that everything that happens is by chance, with no Divine guidance behind the scenes.
The idea of a higher power controlling the destiny of individuals and nations was an anathema to Amalek. Instead, he believed that everything that happens in the world is random and not predestined – no Creator, no G-d guiding current events, and no G-d with knowledge of right and wrong. Even when one nation attacks another, it is just happenstance, rather than part of a Divine plan.
This is why the commandment of Bikkurim, the First Fruits, appears immediately after the commandment to destroy Amalek. Bikkurim is a mitzvah that ingrains in us a sense of gratitude to G-d as the source of everything we have been given – our nation, our history, our land – even the fruits of our own labor.
After working on his field for an entire season, day in and day out, a farmer could very well feel that the success of his crops belongs wholly to his hard work, rather than as a result of any assistance from Above. Instead, the farmer declares his understanding that G-d is not only the driver at the helm of Jewish history, but also the source of his own personal bounty. In so doing, he strengthens the awareness of G-d’s presence in the world and adds another nail in Amalek’s coffin.
The following anecdote illustrates this point: An American news reporter once asked David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, how it was possible for the fledgling Jewish state to have any realistic hope of surviving, let alone thriving, amidst a sea of hostile enemies. In response, Ben Gurion simply stated: “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.”
We live in a time when the news media, academia and society in general are all collaborating to create a tremendous sense of doubt regarding Jewish values, the role of the Jewish people in the world, and even our own history as a people. Reflecting on the many blessings G-d has brought and continues to bring to us, both as individuals and as a nation, is a powerful tool to dispel such doubts and replace them with a sense of hope and inspiration for the future.
This week’s Parsha begins with the mitzvah of bikurim, the offering of the first fruit. When a farmer would notice the first of his crops begin to bloom (specifically the seven fruits with which Israel is praised; wheat, barley, grape, pomegranates, figs, olives, and dates), he would tie a string around it. When they would mature, he would bring them to Jerusalem and give it to the Kohen in the Temple. He would say a paragraph describing the Jewish people’s history of difficulties, and would then go on to enumerate his blessings – the fact that he is bringing his crops to the Temple, in his land, undisturbed by the world. This was meant to underscore the elation a Jew should feel at this juncture. At a time when we might be most tempted to take full credit for something (when our crops finally grow in after months of hard work), this mitzvah helps us recognize that our bounty is a gift from G-d.
The next portion deals with the confession of the tithes. We are not always so up to date on our required tithes, so, once every three years, there is a commandment to take any tithes that we were supposed to have distributed already, and GET THEM OUT! This is done on Erev Pesach, after the three years are over. After making sure that all our tithes are distributed to the proper destinations, (some go to the Levite, some to the poor, and some to yourself to be eaten in Jerusalem), you confess to G-d, saying that you have taken care of all your obligations, and asking G-d to He look down with favor onto His nation and bless us with continued largess and beneficiation.
It is at this point that Moshe tells the Jews that G-d has chosen us to be His treasured Chosen People. When we walk in the path G-d has set for us, that designation will be recognized by the whole world. (I think you can figure out the flip side of that coin. So if you are wondering how to stem Anti-Semitism, or how to bolster the world opinion of Israel and the Jews, don’t go marching in Washington. March down the corridors of self-introspection, and see what you can do to help the world understand that we are the Chosen Nation!)
After that, Moshe tells the people that when they enter Israel, they should proceed directly to two mountains called Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival There, six tribes should ascend each of the mountains, leaving the elder Levites in the valley along with the Ark of G-d. The Levites should then face Mount Gerizim and proclaim a blessing (e.g. Blessed is he who judges the widow, orphan, and poor person with righteousness), to which all the Jews should answer with a thundering Amen! Then, the Levites should face Mount Eival, and give the inverse of the blessing in the form of a curse (e.g. Cursed is he who perverts the judgment of the widow, the orphan or the poor), and everyone should answer Amen! Most of the 12 blessings and curses dealt with matters that could be done secretly (moving a boundary in the middle of the night, giving someone bad advice, forbidden sexual relations, and so forth). This was the Jews’ way of saying, as they established their homeland, that they as a society abhor furtive and underhanded crimes.
The last portion of this Parsha contains the strongest admonition Moshe ever gave the Jews. In it, he detailed for them the incredible blessing that they can bring to themselves if they keep the Torah, but also the terrible destruction that will come as a result of us cutting ourselves from our Source. In it, we find something fascinating. Moshe says that all the hardships we encounter will be come upon us, “Since you did not serve Ad-noy, your G-d, with joy and goodheartedness” (Deut. 28:47). It is clear that G-d doesn’t want us to simply serve Him – this is not Wal-Mart – G-d wants us to serve Him with joy and goodheartedness! He wants us to be enthused by the practices we keep, He wants us to be elated in our prayers, and ecstatic to be in His service!
So, I’m going to sign off, because I am sure there is somewhere you have to ecstatically rush off to!
Quote of the Week: Circumstances are the rulers of the weak; but they are the instruments of the wise. – Samuel Loven
Random Fact of the Week: A tree planted near a streetlight will keep its leaves longer into the fall than other trees.
Funny Line of the Week: My short-term memory is not as sharp as it used to be. Also, my short-term memory’s not as sharp as it used to be.
Have a Peachy Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham