Kraków: Architecture of Holiness

In his book, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, John Ruskin defines architecture as “the art which so disposes and adorns the edifices raised by man for whatsoever uses, that the sight of them contributes to his mental health, power and pleasure.”¹ I think it’s fair to say that the sight of a synagogue rarely contributes to my mental health, power, or pleasure. On the other hand, I can say that what I do there, learn or pray, for example, often adds to my mental health, power, or pleasure. The question is why doesn’t the building; is there something different about synagogue architecture?


The Aron HaKodesh, Tempel Synagogue, Kraków, Poland

Friday, October 19, 2018, continued: The Progressive (Tempel) Synagogue in Kazimierz. [Note: Tempel is the German spelling of the English word Temple.]

In his modern classic, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, Abraham Joshua Heschel introduces the idea of an “architecture of holiness.” Although Heschel uses the word “architecture,” he is not referring to space, to a physical location, to a building. He is, instead, thinking of an architecture of time, not space, of a temporal architecture, not a physical one.

Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn.²

Abraham Joshua Heschel

The Tempel Synagogue was consecrated in 1862 as a Reform synagogue, built as a successor to the small prayer room that the Kraków followers of the Reform movement had used since the early 1840s.³ Growth in their numbers forced the need for a new building. It is a magnificent building. Its architecture is similar to the temples built by the Reform movement in Germany. The original structure was modified over the years, assuming the form we are familiar with today, only in 1924.

Women’s Gallery, Tempel Synagogue, Kraków, Poland

The services performed in the synagogue followed the principles laid down by German Rabbis. Interestingly, the weekly sermon was delivered alternately in Polish and German. Not Yiddish.

From 1939 to 1945, the German invaders used the synagogue as a storage room, its aisles as stables for their horses. Soon after the end of the war, religious services were once more conducted in the Tempel. These became rare after 1968, and, for the most part, stopped by 1981. After many years of neglect, renovations were begun in 1995. Today the building serves as the venue for the concert that opens the annual Festival of Jewish Culture. Occasionally, it is used for religious services, mostly Orthodox.

Stained Glass Windows, Tempel Synagogue, Kraków, Poland

The Tempel’s architecture is indeed a wonder to behold. Its renovation after the devastation it suffered during World War II is stunning. But even with all of their might and arrogance, in the building’s darkest days, with horses stabled in its aisles, the Nazis could not touch, for they could never reach it, the architecture of holiness where the men and women, who built the Tempel and prayed there, lived. For that existed only in time.

Next time: The Sabbath in Krakow and a problem about space.


¹John Ruskin. The Seven Lamps of Architecture (Illustrated) (p. 8). Kindle Edition.

²Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Sabbath (FSG Classics) (Kindle Locations 220-222). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

³Historical information in this section is drawn from Eugeniusz Duda, Jewish Cracow (Krakow: vis-a-vis etiuda, 2014), pp. 83-87.

Photos © 2018 Beth Ben-Avraham.

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