Huberman AltneuschulAleppo great synagogueFlorence synagogue

  • Issue: September 1987
  • Designer: D. Ben-Dov
  • Stamp size: 30.8 x 40 mm
  • Plate no.: 39 - 41
  • Sheet of 15 stamps Tabs: 5
  • Printers: E. Lewin-Epstein Ltd.
  • Method of printing: Photolithography

For two thousand years the synagogue has been a major pillar of Jewish continuity, an original Jewish institution from which the Christians later derived the church and the Moslems, the mosque. It was already widespread, both in the Land of Israel and the Diaspora, in Second Temple times, and after the Destruction of the Temple it became the sole focus of Jewish communal worship.

Tel Aviv's Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora features a series of meticulous models reproducing famous synagogues down the ages and throughout the world. Three of these are featured on this set of stamps.

In Christian countries, severe laws restricted Synagogue buildings which had to be low and inconspicuous. The 14th century Altneuschul was in the heart of the Jewish quarter of Prague. It is built below street level and on entering, the worshipper descends a few steps. This was a common feature in synagogues of the time, explained by the rabbis as so constructed to observe the words of Psalms 130:1 "Out of the depths have I called thee, 0 Lord". However, the more likely reason is architectural: as the building had to be kept low, internal height could be achieved by lowering the floor.

The Altneuschul is the oldest synagogue in Europe still in use. Its name meaning "Old-New Synagogue" (originally it was the 'New Synagogue "' but received its present name when an even newer one was built) inspired the title of Theodor Herzl's utopian novel of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel "Altneuland" (Old-New Land). The Gothic-style building is gloomy and mysterious and has given rise to many legends, most famous of which was the story of the "Golem" the man-made monster created by Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague to save the Jews of the city who were under attack.

Under Moslem rule, Jewish houses of worship were also subject to severe limitations. The building of new ones was often forbidden while the height had to be below that of the lowest mosque in the town. As a rule, therefore, the synagogues in these countries were small buildings, often little more than rooms, but there were exceptions and in places monumental edifices were put up. One of the best-known was the Main Synagogue in Aleppo, Syria. It was built in the ninth century (although traditionally ascribed to the fourth-fifth century) and architecturally influenced by the great mosques in Cairo. In the central internal courtyard stood the reader's raised roofed platform. The congregation sat around in porticoes while the main ark (there were seven altogether) was placed in a niche in the wall. The most famous ancient Hebrew Bible manuscript, the Ben Asher codex, was kept in this synagogue and when the building was burnt down in a pogrom in 1947, a member of the congregation rescued the precious document from the flames and it was later smuggled out of Syria and into Israel.

With the spread of Emancipation in the late 18th century, Jews emerged from the ghettos into which they had been confined, and were recognized as equal citizens. Their synagogues were now magnificent and prominent buildings. In this way, the Jews wanted to make a public demonstration of their equality, but at the same time to emphasize their distinctiveness as Jews they frequently adopted oriental styles of architecture. The main such activity was in Germany where 200 fine synagogues were erected in the 19th century, only to be destroyed by the Nazis in the 2Oth. A famous example of this type of synagogue is the Tiempo lsraelitico in Florence, a landmark even in that city. The oriental motifs can be clearly seen in its dome, turrets and horse-shoe arches and the theme is carried on in the interior with its multicoloured mosaics and tiles. Prominently displayed on its exterior, as in many of these buildings, were the two Tablets of the Law, seen as of more universal import than the seven-branched candelabrum favoured in previous ages.

Architecturally, synagogues were at all times profoundly influenced by their non-Jewish surroundings but inside they were unique - a house of assembly (which is the meaning of the word "Synagogue" and of its Hebrew equivalent), which was the focus of Jewish religious and communal life, a place of prayer, study and meeting, of inspiration, consolation and hope.

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Festival stamps 5748 (1987)