Old Jewish Cemetery in Josefov

Narrow walkway with Pinkas Synagogue in the background

The entrance to the Old Jewish Cemetery in the Josefov ghetto in Prague is through the courtyard in front of the Pinkas Synagogue and the exit is near the door to the Klausen Synagogue. The cemetery opens at 9:00 a.m. and it is best to get there early since this is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Prague.

Men are required to cover their heads before entering the cemetery. Any kind of head gear is fine, including baseball caps, and paper hats are provided for those with bare heads. If you want to visit the Old Cemetery, but not the synagogues, you can buy a single ticket, which is good only for admission to the cemetery, at any of the ticket booths located at the synagogues.

No photography is allowed in any of the synagogues, but photographs of the cemetery are permitted. In the picture above, you can see some of the more elaborate tombstones with inscriptions in Hebrew, detailing the lives of the more prominent Jews buried here. Ropes along the walkway prevent the hordes of tourists from tromping through the jumbled tombstones.

Many well-known Jews are buried in the Old Jewish Cemetery, but the famous writer Franz Kafka is not one of them. The Old Jewish Cemetery was closed in 1787, almost a century before Kafka was born in 1883. Kafka died at the age of 40 in 1924 and is buried alongside his parents, both of whom outlived him, in the New Jewish Cemetery in the district of Zizkov in Prague.

The most famous grave in the Old Cemetery is undoubtedly that of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, whose tombstone faces the path that you see to the right in the photograph above, and is shown in the photograph below. You can see a bit of the path on the extreme left of the photograph. In the background you can see the Ceremonial Hall which is near the exit of the Cemetery. The Renaissance tomb of Mordechai Maisel, who built the Maisel Synagogue, is about ten meters to the southwest of the Rabbi's grave.

Tombstone of Rabbi Judah Loew (1525 - 1609)

Rabbi Loew (sometimes spelled Löw) is revered as the legendary creator of the "golem" which is the Jewish version of the Frankenstein monster, although golem stories predate Frankenstein, going as far back as the 5th century. Rabbi Loew lived in the 16th century but the legend of his creation of a monster from the mud of the Vltava river in Prague only dates back to the 18th century when the story was first told.

Yossel, as the golem was called, came to life when the Rabbi placed a shem in its mouth. (A shem is a tablet with a Hebrew inscription.) Yossel is said to have aided Rabbi Loew in his struggle with the anti-Semites in the court of Rudolf II, the Hapsburg Emperor who was then the ruler over what is now the Czech Republic, but was at that time part of the Austrian empire.

In his book "The Golem," Elie Wiesel wrote that Rabbi Loew was called "the Maharal" which means "most venerated teacher and rabbi." Wiesel wrote that the Maharal and Emperor Rudolf II met on the Charles Bridge in 1583 and the king invited him to his court, which he had just moved from Vienna to Prague. They became friends and Rabbi Loew became a Hofbefreiter Jude or "Court Jew." He was frequently able to intercede on behalf of the Jews who were being routinely persecuted at that time.

Legend has it that the golem finally ran amok and the Rabbi had to interrupt his Sabbath service in the Synagogue to deal with it. His congregation kept repeating the verse in the psalm that they had been reciting until the Rabbi returned. To this day, at the Old-New Synagogue, a line in the Sabbath service is repeated in memory of this event.

The end of the golem came when the Rabbi removed the shem from its mouth; he allegedly carried the remains of the golem to the attic of the Old-New Synagogue where they supposedly reside to this day. After visiting the grave of Rabbi Loew, tourists can buy a golem statue from one of the souvenir stands along the street where they exit the cemetery.