Our first Shabbat home after the Czech Republic trip. Last two Shabbatot we were in Prague, and attended services at the oldest synagogue in Europe, the Altneuschul (Old-New Shul), which dates from 1270.
It was awesome to be there, and especially to feel the presence of the Maharal, the great rabbi of Prague from the 16th century. The power of his spirit made a great impression on me. He is most famous for making the Golem of Prague, and other miracles that helped protect the Jews at that time. But his spirit is so strong that one can feel it today, especially in the shul itself and at his grave in the old Jewish cemetery. I already wrote about visiting the grave and praying for blessing for my family and for the music I have been given. Now I want to write about the synagogue.
When one enters the stone structure from the street, there are several steps down to the level of the floor, so that the ceiling is higher than it appears from the outside (like some split level houses). There is an elevated bema in the center, where the Torah is read in the main sanctuary. But during the rest of the service, the Hazzan or prayer leader chants from a special place near the ark (where the Torah’s are kept), facing Jerusalem. The place of the prayer leader is not elevated, but is actually lower than the rest of the floor—recessed about 8 inches. So the leader is standing at a lower level than the congregation. I thought of the need for the leader to approach the prayers with humility, especially when representing the congregation, and loved the architectural reminder.
Above the lectern, where the prayer book is placed, there is a silver-framed mizrach (Eastern wall plaque) with the four-letter holy name of God and some other mystical writings. In small letters under the tetragrammaton is the word “Tamid” which means always. This is a reference to Psalm 16:8, “Shiviti HaShem l’negdi tamid” which means “I place God in front of me always.” The first letters of the words of that phrase are also written on the wall next to the ark, directly in front of the prayer leader.
The women’s section is behind and to the side of the main sanctuary, separated from it by thick walls, which were originally outside walls of the structure. There are small windows from which to view the sanctuary. The entire space felt very holy, even the separated women’s section. But after the service I went into the sanctuary to see what it was like there.
Of course, I was immediately drawn to the spot of the prayer leader. I had the chutzpah to stand there for a few minutes! I was overwhelmed by the holy energy in that spot. I imagined the Maharal himself standing there, leading the congregation, praying with his intensity and devotion, and perhaps gazing at the mizrach with the Holy Name and the reminder, tamid, “always.” I felt him whispering to me, to all of us, “Remember, always, keep the Holy Presence before you, always, constantly remind yourself, place a sign with the Holy Name in front of you, imagine the sign when you are away from it, always. See the letters of the Holy Name, the letters that represent the holiness of Being, tamid, always, always.”
And the most special thing is I felt his strength coming with the thought—an encouraging strength, that somehow he would help me to remember. I felt I had been privileged to meet him in this synagogue, in that cemetery, in the Jewish section of Prague, and that because of that encounter, I could now draw on his strength to remind me, to point me towards the Holy One, as a blessing to help me in good endeavors. Even here, across the ocean, in South Carolina, or wherever I may be. May it be so. And may you receive this strength as well.