Speyer’s Jewish Heritage is part of the outstanding and unique Jewish legacy of ShUM, an association of three cities along the Rhine River (Mainz, Worms and of course, Speyer), which represented the cradle 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.
Our Speyer Jewish Heritage tour will stroll through one of Germany's oldest cities. According to local legendary traditions, the first Jewish settlement can be dated back to the times of the city’s foundation by the Romans, 2000 years ago. In fact, 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 persecution and mobs of crusaders, the Speyer Jewish community grew and prospered during the 12th century; its economic position was excellent, and Speyer established itself as a centre of Torah study 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, including the Kalonymos family, Rabbi Yehuda ben Meir and his pupil Rabbi Gershom ben Yehudah (the “Light of the Diaspora”), Isaac Halevi, and the Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak, whose commentaries on the Torah and Talmud spread from here throughout the Jewish world.
At the end of the 13th century, the situation of the Jews in Speyer changed dramatically, and a continuous series of blood libels, persecutions and expulsions progressively weakened the community, until its final dissolution in the first third of the 16th century.
Later, the Shoah put an end to the small community founded at the end of the 18th century. Only in the mid-1990s did a new Jewish community form, and in 2011, a converted church was inaugurated as a synagogue to form what is now the Jewish community of Speyer.
On our Jewish Speyer Tour, we’ll explore the traces and the legacy of the golden times of the Speyer Jewry. In the centre of the former Jewish quarter (»Judenhof«), a monumental mikvah from around 1120 is preserved. The impressive ritual bath is the oldest remaining of its kind in Europe.
Further on from the area around the mikvah are the secured remains of the Romanesque-style synagogue built in 1104 and used until 1450, and the women's shul, which dates back to the middle of the 13th century. The community in Speyer followed Worms, where the first known women's shul was built.
An archaeological site of interest is the yeshiva; its foundations were excavated in 1997/98. The construction of the yeshiva, which illustrates the importance of religious learning and teaching in Judaism, dates back to the first half of the 14th century.
In 2010, the SchPIRA Museum opened at the entrance to the »Judenhof« to offer access to an important part of the Jewish heritage of Speyer. There, relics and excavation findings from the prime era of Jewish medieval history are displayed, as well as gravestones from the 12th to the 15th centuries.
Along with the mikvah and the synagogue's remains, these gravestones are the core monuments in Speyer being considered with the application for ShUM’s UNESCO World Heritage Status.
This 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 of the city. Alternatively, you can climb 154 to the top of 13th-century Altpörtel, the city’s western gate, the only remaining part of the town wall. On the second floor, a permanent exhibition covers the rest of Speyer’s history.
After an intense, and somewhat strenuous, dive into Speyer’s rich history, there is nothing better than enjoying a cold beer and some regional specialities prepared using the three beers brewed on the premises (light, dark and wheat) at the historic brewery Domhof-Hausbrauerei, just beside the Kaiserdom.
Discover Speyer’s unique Jewish heritage and enjoy all the city’s charms on our Jewish Speyer Tour!