Bizarre Jewish Monuments in Prague

The Statue of Jesus on the Charles Bridge

In and of itself, this is a bit of an eye catcher. The statue consists of two parts: The older is a statue of Jesus on the Cross, fashioned from dark metal. The newer part is gold lettering, added some time later in 1696, surrounding Jesus’ head, proclaiming ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the lord of the hosts’. So why is this statue bizarre? Well, the lettering isn’t in Czech, it isn’t in Latin, it isn’t in German. It’s written like this:

קדוש קדוש קדוש השם צבאות

Pictures of the statue can be found at these addresses:

  • It’s in Hebrew. The question to be asked is, why? In order to answer that, we need to take a look at where the text is from. Jews are commanded to pray three times a day. Once in the morning, in a service called Shacharit, which comes from the word Shachar meaning dawn, once in the afternoon in a service called Mincha and once in the evening in a service which, depending on your tradition, is either called Maariv or Arvit, both of which come from the word Erev meaning evening. In each service, the holiest section of the prayers is a set of passages called the Amidah. In the morning and afternoon services, this is repeated by the reader after each member of the congregation has said it personally. The holiest part of the readers repetition of the Amidah is a section called Kedusha, which is named after the second passage in the section, which, not coincidentally, is the passage which is inscribed around the head of the statue of Jesus*. Given that this is done in the late 17th century, well before the birth of the Jews for Jesus movement, the presence of one of the most central and most devotional prayers in the Jewish liturgy above the head of Jesus is clearly meant as an insult to the Jewish community.

    There are two stories as to the origin of the letters. One is the accepted version, which is inscribed in a plaque next to the statue, and the other is the real version.

    Version 1:

    1696: Elias Balkoffen was a Court Jew who spent his days trading in Prague Castle. Every day, he left his home in the Jewish Ghetto of Josefov, walked across the Charles Bridge and up to the castle. Due to the decree by the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, Jews were forced to wear a distinguishing mark. In Prague, this took the form of the ‘Jew hat’, which was a conical yellow felt hat(an illustration can be found at this address: Balkoffen spent his days trading successfully, but being racially abused, and one day it got too much for him. As he walked home across the Charles Bridge, he saw the statue of Jesus on his left as he walked across. After a day of being racially abused by his Christian colleagues, and now being confronted by this Christian symbol as he walked home, he spat on the ground. A mob formed and chased him back to Josefov. The Jews let him in and then barred the doors to the town. The Christian townsfolk then demanded that Balkoffen be sent out to face trial for the desecration of the statue of Jesus. The Jewish community refused to let him be put on trial, and eventually a deal was hammered out, and the Jewish community had a large fine placed upon it, the proceeds of which went to inscribing the golden letters on the very same statue of Jesus.

    Version 2:

    1674: Aron Lichtenstatd was the head of the Jewish community of Bohemia. He was a nasty character, corrupt and selfish. The noted trader, Elias Balkoffen, spoke out against him. Lichtenstatd saw Balkoffen as a threat, and hatched a plan to intercept a letter sent by Balkoffen to a business contact in Vienna. The letter was itself benign, but Lichtenstatd presented it to the Christian authorities, and declared that it was a blasphemous letter written in code, denouncing Jesus. Balkoffen was immediately thrown in jail. The court convened for a show trial to prove his guilt, but they were unable to break the alleged ‘code’. They sat in deliberation for 22 years, and finally, in 1696, Balkoffen was pronounced guilty, forced into exile, and the Jewish community fined heavily. The proceeds of the fine were spent on the golden lettering.

    We then fast forward to the 1940’s. The Nazis have invaded Czechoslovakia, proclaiming it the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and placing it under the rule of Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich. He triumphantly rolls into Prague, takes up residence at Prague castle, and demands that all Jewish symbols outside of Josefov be taken down, including the golden lettering on the statue.

    After the fall of Nazism, Communism came to Czechoslovakia. After the fall of Communism, a group of academics decided to replace the lettering around the statue, which had been lying in storage, in order to preserve the history of the town. Unfortunately, since none of the scholars were Jewish, the letter א of the word צבאות was placed upside down. With the exception of some of the letters of G-d’s name which have fallen off, this is how the statue looks today. A reminder of the medieval attitudes of the city, a memorial to those who were killed, lately a big symbol for Jews for Jesus and other Messianic groups, and a truly bizarre Jewish site.

    *Tiefling Says: The Kedusha is also known as the Sanctus and is now an established Christian prayer as well.

    The Statue of Maharal outside the town hall

    Rabbi Yehudah Loew ben Bezalel, (also known as our teacher, the Rabbi Loew, Moreinu Ha Rav Loew, or Maharal) was a great influence on the history of the Jewish community in Prague. I’m not going to cover his life in great detail, as that is a subject for other nodes, but I will tell the story of how he died.

    Maharal and the Rose

    Late in his life, he knew that he was dying, and he found a passage in the books of law which said that whilst a person was learning Torah, they could not die. For three days and three nights, Maharal learnt without stopping, thus preserving his life for that period of time. After three days and three nights, his granddaughter, who was at the time a very young girl, brought the great sage a rose. As Maharal bent down to pick up the rose, he stopped learning, and the angel of death came upon him.

    In 1910, the Prague civic authorities decided to erect statues to the town historical heroes, and they decided that Maharal was such a big influence on the history of the town that they should erect a statue to him as well. The statue was erected in a fit of liberalism and is prominently displayed outside a civic building. It was NOT intended to be an anti-Semitic statue, but unfortunately, two parts of the statue are somewhat less than flattering.

    Take a look at the statue at this address:

  • On the right hand side of the statue (from our point of view), we can just about see a depiction of Maharal’s granddaughter, the same one that gave him the rose. But, whereas in the story she is a little girl, on the statue she has been transformed into a lithe, naked woman!

    We all went to schools where there were playground insults, and what was the playground stereotype of Jews? Big nose. If you are Jewish, you must have a big nose. The fact that I don’t certainly confused a number of people at my school for several years!

    Look again at the statue of Maharal. Look at the size of his nose, that’s an enormous Schnoz! You could drive a bus up those nostrils!

    The spirit of the statue is something for Prague to be proud of, the content is a more interesting discussion, but it certainly is a bizarre Jewish site.


  • Jewish Europe touring notes by Richard Goldstein
  • Jewish Europe touring notes by Jeremy Leigh