The settlement of Jews in Bohemia, particularly in Prague, marked the establishment of one of the most important centers of Judaism and Jewish culture in the European world.
The origin of the Jews of Bohemia is shrouded in myth and legend. A Czech legend relates that in the eighth century, the mythological Bohemian princess Libuse had a vision of a new people who were about to come to the land bringing the Czechs good luck, and soon after the Jews arrived. Jews were allowed to stay in Prague because they helped the Christian Czechs defend against attacks by the pagans. Another legend states that the Jews came to the Carpathian Mountains after the destruction of the temple in 70. Historians believe the Jews of Bohemia descended from the Cumans and Quadi, but that they did so in the tenth century.
There is only a small amount of precise documentation concerning the arrival of the Jews, and only in the thirteenth century does a history of the Jews in Bohemia emerge in writing. However, in 965, Ibrahim bin Jakub, a Jewish merchant and diplomat from Spain who was traveling in Prague, described Bohemian Jews as essential to the city’s life and economy. Documents indicate that in Prague the Jews lived north of the old town square and perhaps in other regions of the city alongside Christian merchants, which was convenient for local markets. Historians also speculate that Bohemian Jews were involved in trade with Germany, the East, the Byzantine Empire, and Kievan Rus.
Jews also settled in two suburbs of Prague, one near Prague castle and the second in the south near Vyšehrad castle. In the tenth century, Jews were probably masters of the royal mint. In 1142, fire destroyed Prague castle, forcing Jews to move to the famous Jewish quarter on the right bank of the Vltava River, also near the Altschule (old school) synagogue and cemetery. In the 1170’, Prince Sobolev gave the Jews legal status equivalent to other foreigners in Bohemia; however, this was soon lost as the Church conducted a campaign against the European Jews, which reduced their status.
The Crusades, which began in 1095, brought anti-Semitism to central Europe. In that year, a pogrom broke out in Prague, killing many Jews and forcing others to convert to Christianity. The medieval chronicler Cosmas of Prague (1045?-1125) described the experience of the Jews in Bohemia and Moravia during this time period.
In 1215, reflecting the beginning of change in the European economy from feudalism to commercial capitalism, the Fourth Lateran Council
In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Czech kings gave permission to the Jews to live in other towns. However, in the second half of the fourteenth century, anti-Semitic backlashes occurred as local authorities tried to wrest control of the Jews from the kings. Local authorities and priests accused Jews of blasphemy and desecration of the sacred host. Recalling the era of the Crusades, crowds incited by the accusations attacked Jews, killing many and once more forcing many to convert to Christianity. Especially because of the Hussite wars of the 1420’, the situation worsened. Although the community remained vibrant in succeeding centuries, many areas, especially in Moravia, were closed to them, and they faced new restrictions.
The history of the Jews of the Czech Republic, especially in Prague, has attracted much interest and sparked curiosity throughout the ages. The Hebrew folktale of the golem, the poetic jumble of the ancient cemetery, and the writings of Franz Kafka are just part of the myth and history of the Bohemian Jews.
The famous old cemetery with its twelve thousand graves and gravestone crowns standing one upon the other in a confined space dates back to the fifteenth century. It includes the graves of Rabbi Judah Loew, the reputed creator of the golem legend. There are several versions of the legend, but, according to one, Rabbi Loew made a giant out of clay and branches and brought it to life by placing the forbidden name of god under its tongue in order to forever combat and protect against anti-Semitic pogroms in Prague.