Old Jewish Cemetery: a Jumble of Gravestones
The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague contains more than 12,000 tombstones yet the total number of Jews buried here is over 100,000. Jewish burial grounds are sacred sites and must remain undisturbed in perpetuity so clearing graves is prohibited. The Old Jewish Cemetery sandwiched between streets in the Josefov district is quite small and could not be enlarged. That’s why the dead were buried in many layers on top of each other. The Old Jewish Cemetery is part of The Jewish Museum of Prague, Zidovske Muzeum v Praze. Even if you are not Jewish, a glimpse into Jewish history and rich tradition in the Old Jewish Cemetery and Museum of Prague is fascinating.
Old Jewish Cemetery
The Old Jewish Cemetery is a jumble of gravestones, it is as if time stood still. The oldest gravestone belongs to the poet Avigdor Kara who died in 1439, the year the cemetery was founded. The last burial here took place in 1787.
It is not just names on the headstones, there are also symbols showing the ancestral lineage of the dead. Two hands arranged for the Blessing are the sign of descendants of Aaron, the brother of the prophet Moses. The menorah symbolizes deep commitment to Judaism throughout the deceased’s entire life. A bookshelf indicates that the deceased was a scholar or a rabbi. Some tombstones do not have a chiseled text but show only symbols representing the profession: scales for a pharmacist or scissors for a tailor. Important people have their own tombs such as Mayor Maisel (who built the Maisel Synagogue) and Rabbi Judah Löw, the legendary creator of the Golem.
Photo: tomb of Mayor Maisel
12,000 Gravestones and 100,000 Deceased
For centuries, Jews were not allowed to bury their dead outside the ghetto. That is why in this relatively small cemetery the dead lie eleven layers deep. The headstones of those buried earlier were put back on the fresh dug soil. In the middle of the graveyard is a hill the burial place of nameless people who could not afford tombstones.
Tomb of Rabbi Low
The most famous tomb is of Rabbi Löw, who died in 1609, a great scholar who is said to have invented the golem, a giant of clay who watches over the safety of the Jews in the ghetto. After 1787, when the Old Jewish Cemetery was full, the Jews were also allowed to bury their dead outside the ghetto. They did so first in the Zizkov cemetery and then in the New Jewish Cemetery in the Vinohrady district.
Photo: tomb of Avigdor Kara with small stones on top of it
Notes and stones
You will see notes and stones on many graves. It is a Jewish custom to contact the spirits of the ancestors in this manner. The notes contain wishes to be fulfilled. There are several explanations for the stones. Some Jews believe that they will keep the soul down in this world whereas others think that they will prevent demons and golems from getting into the graves. Another explanation is the stones keep the notes in place and the wind will not blow them away. And lastly, stones last longer than flowers, beautiful as they are, in the end they will die.
Zizkov Jewish Cemetery
This cemetery is not as famous as the Old Jewish Cemetery. It lies at the foot of the Zizkov Television Tower. In 1787, when the cemetery in Josefov was full, the Jews buried their dead at Ziskov. When in 1890, this burial place was also full, the New Jewish Cemetery in Vinohrady took over. This is still the burial place for the Jewish community in Prague. More about Zizkov Jewish cemetery
U Stareho hrbitova 3, Josefov, Prague
Different types of tickets are available. The Prague Card gives you free entry to the Jewish Museum
The Old Jewish Cemetery is part of the Jewish Museum and open every day except Saturdays and Jewish holidays.
1 January to 29 March and 27 October to 31 December 09.00-16.30
31 March to 25 October 25, 09.00-18.00
photos Wiki Commons