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12 Iyar 5766 - May 10, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Siyum in World's Oldest Shul in Prague

by Yated Ne'eman Staff

A few days after Pesach a siyum took place in the Altneushul of Prague. Avrohom Yehuda Sohn, a talmid of the Yeshiva Gedoloh section of Gateshead's Yeshiva Letze'irim, travelled as part of a group of yeshiva bochurim to Prague. After staying up most of the night he was able to complete maseches Kiddushin within the same walls which had once heard the Maharal's and Shloh Hakodosh's deep divrei Torah.

The Altneushul is probably the oldest standing shul in the world, dating to the 13th century. Its walls have withstood the ravages of numerous fires and pogroms. Other shuls in Vienna, Regensburg and Worms, which were built at the same time, fell prey to pogroms, fires or Kristallnacht. The survival of the Altneushul throughout the centuries is truly astonishing.

The Siyum was part of a packed program undertaken by about a minyan of boys from Gateshead Yeshiva Gedoloh, Sunderland Yeshiva and the kibbutz of Gateshead Yeshiva Letze'irim under the leadership of Rav M. D. Spiro. They had decided to spend their post-Pesach Bein Hazmanim touring Jewish Prague.

Their first visit was to natural animals: the zoo. Their second visit was to human (Nazi) animals: the Theresienstadt Ghetto, Gestapo prison and the gigantic beis hakevoros. They were told that Yidden in the Gestapo prison were so crowded together through the nights that they had to sleep whilst standing up — without sanitary facilities! Although past closing hour, they could still see one of the five clandestine shuls which had operated in Theresienstadt Ghetto despite Gestapo oppression.

One day was devoted to the tour of Prague's historic and stunningly beautiful shuls. The bochurim benefited from in-depth explanations of Prague's great rabbinical personalities, including the Maharal, Klei Yokor and Shloh Hakodosh, and the history of what was fittingly called, "A City of Torah and Tragedy." They saw the Jewish Museum's exhibits documenting, on the one hand numerous Pogroms from the outside, and on the other hand gadlus beTorah on the inside. The saw exhibits showing that the first "Yellow Star" had to be worn by Prague Yidden centuries before the Nazis "reinvented" it.

The high point of their tour was undoubtedly the visit to the ancient beis hakevoros of Prague, the eternal mokom menuchoh of great luminaries. Prague is famous for the Maharal and it was at his kever that the tefillos were most intense. Whilst the normal path only allows visitors to visit the mokom menuchoh of the Maharal and Klei Yokor, a local historian led this group to the parts that are normally closed off. Thus they had the rare opportunity to daven at the kever of the Elya Rabboh and the Tzemach Dovid and to see the bitter complaints of the Chevra Kadisha, recorded on a matzeivoh, against being forced to exhume part of the beis hakevoros. The artificial hill in the beis hakevoros is made up of the exhumed bones. Most interestingly, the exhumation stopped just short of the row where the Maharal is buried.

They also visited the newer beis hakevoros of the Noda Biyehuda and the dayonim of his Beis Din, after hearing a description of his multifaceted greatness as rov, rosh yeshiva, prolific writer and the greatest posek of his generation. Again they saw the sad result of a partial exhumation of that beis hakevoros: The Television Tower of Prague is set in a park covering remnants of kevorim. It is interesting and ironic that the grandchild of the director who led the building of the tower is now a true ger tzedek.

The bochurim slept in a house in the area which was one part of the old Ghetto. The Jewish Civic Center Building has been preserved together with its outer clock whose face has Hebrew letters and whose hands move counterclockwise (since Hebrew is written from right to left).

The bochurim also heard the Lubliner Rov's incisive comments about the contrast between Prague and Pressburg. Pressburg had battled the onslaught of Haskoloh and succeeded to make the glorious past continue into the (prewar) present (of the time of the Lubliner Rov), whereas the mild and conciliatory stance taken by the Prague kehilloh led to a decimation of its spiritual level. Above all, Pressburg and nearby towns had yeshivas which ensured the vibrant continuity of Torah.

The tour to the resting place of gedolei Torah, the conveyors of ultimate truth, was rounded off with a visit to the place of the Great Lie and Enemy of Yiddishkeit: The Museum of Communism.

The Ponovezher Rov zt"l is reported to have said: "The minhag is to go to a levaya one way and to return along a different route. This is to indicate that the person who has attended a levaya has changed!"

In the same way it may be said that the participants who returned from the trip are not the same as those who embarked upon it. Their personalities have been enriched by a truly memorable and uplifting experience.


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