Speyer’s Jewish Heritage is part of the outstanding and unique Jewish legacy of ShUM, an association of three cities (Mainz, Worms and of course, Speyer) along the river Rhine which represented the main hub of Jewish life in Europe during the Middle Ages.
ShUM is the acronym formed out of the first letters of the medieval Hebrew names for the cities, Shpira, Wermaisa and Magenza.
Speyer is one of Germany's oldest cities; local legends date the first Jewish settlement to the times of the city’s foundation by the Romans, 2000 years ago. Evidence suggests that Jews probably first came to the town in the early 11th century, fleeing from Mainz, from which they had been expelled. Bishop Rüdiger Huzman allotted them a special residential quarter and gave them a plot from church lands to be used as a cemetery. He also granted them unrestricted freedom of trade and considerable autonomy.
Despite waves of persecutions, the community grew and thrived during the 12th century; its economic position was excellent, and Speyer established itself a hotspot for Torah studies whose fame in Europe was matched only by Mainz and Worms. The most important Tamudists of those times flocked to the yeshivot of the ShUM communities, such as the Kalonymos family, Rabbi Yehuda ben Meir and his pupil Rabbi Gershom ben Yehudah, Isaac Halevi, and last but not least the Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak, whose commentaries on the Torah and Talmud spread from here throughout the entire Jewish world.
At the end of the 13th century the situation changed dramatically, when a series of blood libels, persecutions and expulsions progressively weakened the community, until its final dissolution in the first third of the 16th century. A small community was formed again at the end of the 18th century, but the Shoah put an end to it. Only in the mid-1990s, a new community was established; and in 2011, a converted church was inaugurated as a synagogue.
In our Jewish Speyer Tour, we’ll explore the traces and the legacy of the golden times of the Speyer Jewry, such as the 12th century mikveh. The monumental, impressive ritual bath, located in the heart of the former Jewish quarter (Judenhof) is the oldest remaining in Europe and is dated to about 1120.
In the area around the mikveh, you will be able to admire the remains of the Romanesque-style synagogue built in 1104, in use until 1450, and the women's shul, which was built in the mid 13th century. The community in Speyer was the second, after Worms, to have such an institution.
Another fascinating archaeological site is yeshiva, whose foundations were excavated in 1997/98. It was a central institution for a community in which religious learning and teaching were pivotal, and its construction dates back to the first half of the 14th century.
In 2010 the SchPIRA Museum was established at the entrance to the »Judenhof«. There you can find unique medieval relics, as well as gravestones from the 12th to the 15th centuries. In 2012, the municipalities of Speyer, Worms and Mainz applied for the inclusion of ShUM in the list of Unesco World Heritage sites, based on the universal value and significance represented by ShUM’s jewish heritage, and Speyer’s gravestones are one of the core monuments in the application.
It wouldn’t be Speyer’s first monument on the World Heritage list though: the Kaiserdom, an astonishing Romanesque cathedral begun in 1030, has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1981. Climb the 304 steps of the southwest tower to reach the 60m-high viewing platform and enjoy a spectacular panorama on the city. Alternatively, you can climb to the top of 13th-century Altpörtel, the city’s western gate and the only remaining part of the town wall. On the second floor, a permanent exhibition covers the rest of Speyer’s history!
Discover Speyer’s unique Jewish legacy and enjoy all the city’s charms on our Jewish Speyer Tour!