Symbols in the Old Jewish Cemetery of Prague
Dating from the late 16th century, tombstones in Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery bear a variety of symbols.
Some of these, such as the hands of the Kohanes or the pitcher of the Levites, continue today. You’ll often see them in American Jewish cemeteries.
But there are others you would be likely to only see in Prague.
Some symbols reflect either the first name or surname of the deceased, such as a flower for Raizel,
a wolf for Zev or Wolf,
a lion for Yehuda or Aryeh or Leib,
a deer for Naftali, Zvi or Hirsch,
a bear for Dov or Baer,
a fish for Ephraim, Karp, or Fishel,
a mouse for Maisel,
or a rooster for Hahn.
One popular symbol is that of a bunch of grapes, signifying a long and fruitful life.
Because the cemetery had a roped path for tourists, I did not have access to all the symbols I’ve seen documented. These include:
- Pigeons, doves, and other birds
- Griffins and fabled winged animals
- Venetian lions
- Occupation symbols such as scissors, mortar, book, harp, and violin
Symbols were also often combined for first and last name. For example, the grave of David Gans combines the Star of David with a goose.
My husband and I were in Prague at the end of May. As our Uncle is President of Mercaz USA, VP of Mercaz Olami, Past President of Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations as well as many other important Jewish Organizations, we were fortunate enough to have Rabbi Ron Hoffberg of Prague as our personal tour guide. As I was reading your article, I did see you recommended having a Kosher Meal at the King David located in the Jewish Quarter. This is certainly the most advertised “Kosher” restaurant in Prague, however their Kashrut practices have been under scrutiny and there are no Rabbi’s in Prague that use or recommend them. I would use the term “kosher style” in print for the future.
Thanks for the clarification, Denise.
In the 17th century, Barbara, was Prague a city state? or part of the German city states, or part of Austria-Hungary. I’m looking at a map, and trying to imagine. Great to see these photos, and even though it is quite far south from Lithuania, still I imagine that Asser Levy’s home and the world he travelled through as he crossed Europe throughout his life looked much like this.
Terrific to have your reports. Dorothy
In the 17th century, I believe Prague was a city in the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Empire. Prague was a mecca of Jewish life – as were several other European cities, of course. I have more reports, coming, so please stay tuned!
The Prague-unique Jewish cemetery symbols are fascinating. The writer in me can’t help but imagine them functioning as clues in family mystery.
Shirley, I have to say that taking a class in Jewish Studies in Prague was such an amazing experience. To be in the company of the executive director of the Jewish Federation for the Czech Republic and his multidisciplinary approach – a combination of lecture, field trip, guest speakers (two Terezin survivors), and films – was the highlight of my month in the program. I would highly recommend the program for any The Whole Megillah reader. I did lose Internet connection while there, so please stay tuned to post-trip reports about the New Jewish Cemetery, Terezin, Franz Kafka and more.
Barbara: I would like to use the photograph you have in this article. It is the tombstone listed as: Ephraim, Karp, or Fishel
Please tell me more about how you want to use the photograph. Thanks, Barbara
I found another photograph that I prefer. So, thanks anyway for answering my email.