The theme of the Hebrew Bible (Tanach, incorrectly The Old Testament) describes the relationship between Israelites (also called Hebrews) with God, as it was depicted in their history from the beginnings of time until the construction of the second temple (515 B.C.)
Judaism always approved a number of principles of Jewish belief but it never created an obligatory catechism. The Jewish belief has been defined in many different ways with many of them having a lot in common. It has some variations, though. The Jewish community divided itself into several branches during the last two hundreds of years. These groups understand the principles of the religion very differently. Most of the orthodox Jews usually state that the rules are unchangeable and compulsory, while the non-orthodox forms state that these rules are being formed in time and thus allow more variation in the belief of the individual.
The Jewish Religion
The Jewish religion is a traditional monotheistic religion coming from the Hebrew Bible (it corresponds with the Old Testament) and religious commentaries. According to the Old Testament, Jews are Abraham´s descendants, who left Mesopotamia and settled down in Canaan (now Israel) about 3800 years ago. They were driven out to Egypt, a productive grain area, where they were treated as slaves. This lasted for four hundreds years. Jews believe in one God, who created the world and themselves as his heritage and freed them from slavery. The departure of the Jews is called the exodus. One of the greatest Jewish prophets is Moses. He freed the Israelites from slavery and escorted them from Egypt. The land of their ancestors, Canaan, the Promised Land, was waiting for the Israelites at the end of the journey. The journey lasted for forty years and led across the Sinai desert. During this pilgrimage, Moses gave the Jews the tablets of testimony, it was a holy document summarised by the Ten Commandments. Judaism says that one day, the Messiah is going to come, who will gather the Jews in the Promised Land and who will rebuild the temple of Jerusalem with the tabernacle so as to place the desks with the Ten Commandments there.
Jewish priests are called rabbis and are responsible for spreading and explaining the principles of Judaism. They are meant to study two holy books – the Talmud and the Torah. These books are written either in Hebrew or in Aramaic. The Torah is kept in a scroll and it contains the first five chapters of the Hebrew Bible: the Five Books of Moses or Pentateuch, the creation of the world, the ancestors´ stories, the pact of God and Abraham, the Israelites´ stay in Egypt and their departure from slavery under Moses´ leadership, the Ten Commandments in the Sinai, the Israelites´ arrival in the Promised Land and many other stories are described in these documents. Besides these stories they include essential liturgical and legal principles and a few poetic passages. The Jewish canon comprises of the Torah, Book of Prophets, legends, historic records and prophecies. The third part of the Hebrew Bible is the Chronicles, containing various books of wisdom, poetry and other stories. The Torah is the most important book for the Jews. The Talmud explains how to keep the Jewish laws and how to understand them.
Jews celebrate their liturgies in synagogues. Various prayers, studies of sacred books and also family celebrations such as weddings or Bar and Bat Micvah (celebrations, when Jewish children enter the community of adults) take place there. The most important place in a synagogue is a decorated cupboard (tabernacle, Aron Ha-kodesh), where the scrolls of the Torah are kept. Women pray separated from men, they either sit on an elevated gallery or behind a screen or railings. While praying, Jewish men wear a tallit, a ceremonial shawl which covers their shoulders. They also wear a small cap called yarmulke or kipa. The list of Prague´s synagogues can be found in the part called Jewish Community Praha.
Orthodox Jews obey many rules concerning their everyday life, including dress code and food. For instance, they do not eat pork or shellfish. However, many Jews are not so orthodox and so do not stick to these rules strictly. While celebrating the liturgies, they all use Hebrew which is also the official language in Israel, the Jewish state. Jews have a very strongly developed sense for family and the laws which they obey. This sense draws them together wherever they live.
Religious communities of Jewish believers are scattered in many countries in all continents. The highest numbers of Jewish supporters nowadays live in the USA (there are several million of them). The traditional centre of Judaism is the city of Jerusalem which is the pilgrimage place for believers all over the world.
Contemporary Judaism in the Czech Republic
After the year 1989, the scale of Jewish spirituality had developed, although due to the small numbers of the Jewish population it does not reach the richness that is usual in some western countries. The centre of all Jewish groups undoubtedly remains the Federation of Jewish Communities (residing at Prague 1, Maiselova 10) and it gathers ten legally independent Czech and Moravian communities. The chairman of the federation is Jan Munk (born in 1946), also the director of the Ghetto Museum in Terezín. More than three thousand members claimed membership to the federation after 1989. The number of members remains steady, while the generations pass and their activities broaden. It is estimated that there are five times more Jews in the Czech Republic who do not contribute to the religious and cultural life of their community.
The members of Prague’s community form about a half of all the federation members. The Jewish community in Prague distributes a monthly magazine Rosh Chodesh, a bulletin of Jewish religious communities in the Czech lands and Slovakia (in the year 2004 it entered its 66th year). The long serving chairman of the community Jiří Daníček (the current editor of Rosh Chodesh magazine and a director of Sefer publishing house) was replaced by Tomáš Jelínek (born in 1968) in 2001. With the help of Lauder´s foundation, Prague´s community runs a kindergarten, a basic school Gur Arje and a grammar school Or Chadash. Concerning the high average age of its members, it also facilitates several social programmes (it cooperates with e.g. Charles Jordan Senior House). The liturgies of Prague´s community take place in the Old-New Synagogue and the Jubilee (Jerusalem) Synagogue. The Czech Association of Jewish Youth and other sports and culture organisations work within the framework of Prague´s Jewish community.
The Federation also shelters other organisations and associations such as a sports club Makkabi or the association of former concentration camp prisoners, it was Terezín´s initiative, and educates about the holocaust to coming generations. The Federation of Jewish communities founded Sefer publishing house and it takes part in running the Jewish Museum in Prague. The Educational and Cultural Centre of this museum holds a number of courses and lectures about the Jewish nation, its religion and nature. The museum director is Leo Pavlát (born in 1950).
The head of the Federation´s religious activities since 1992 is Prague´s rabbi Karol Efraim Sidon (born in 1942). He represents the orthodox branch of Judaism, though it has never been deeply rooted in our tradition. There are two more orthodox rabbis working in the Czech Republic. The American Rabbi Manis Barash leads Chabad, an independent and enthusiastic missionary group, which consolidates the orthodox groups in the Czech lands. They own a synagogue and they run a religious centre in Pařížská Street in Prague. Music and dance is typical of their liturgy as it is elsewhere in the world. The conservative Jews, mainly consisting of foreigners, formed their community Bejt Prague. Another American rabbi Ronald Hoffberg serves them all around the country. Bejt Prague uses the Spanish Synagogue for its liturgies.
Liberal Judaism is more deeply rooted than is Orthodoxy in the Czech tradition. The Bejt Simcha Community (the house of joy) with its informal leader Sylvia Wittmann revives the meaning of Jewish religious traditions and offers them to non-halakhic Jews, that means to those who feel themselves as Jews, though not born to a Jewish mother. The roots of this community led to informal meeting in the eighties of the last century, yet it was officially founded after the year 1989. Bejt Simcha regularly offers its service in Prague in their own space in Mánesova 8 but it has many supporters in other Czech and Moravian towns. It also runs the afternoon Jewish school Bejt Elend. In 2001 Bejt Simcha succeeded in establishing a lasting cooperation with the Israel rabbi Moshe Yehudai-Rimmera who lives in Great Britain, but often comes to the Czech Republic. This dynamic community has been publishing Maskil Magazine since 2002. Its name points to our history – in the 18th and 19th century, the Jewish supporters of enlightenment and rabbi Mendelssohn were called by this name.
In the year 2000, a Jewish Liberal Union was founded to unite reformed and liberal educational, cultural and religious activities. Another aim of this organisation is to offer shelter to other Jewish communities which stand outside of the Federation and which lack the means for an independent existence. To become a member, there is no need of Jewish faith but only the will to renew the cultural and social life of the Jews. The Union takes as a member everyone who has at least one Jewish parent and who feels himself to be a Jew, or is ready to convert to Judaism. The head of the Union is František Fendrych. It publishes the Hatikva Magazine (Hope). The Jewish Liberal Club presents itself as liberal and is cetered around the personality of Fedor Gál (born in 1945).