THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Tetzaveh – פרשת תצוה
February 24, 2018 – ט אדר תשעח
This essay is sponsored with love by Shari, Elliot, Andy, & Evan Levontin in honor of Betsy & Sid Baum; and by Suzy Levin in memory of her father, Yosef David ben Azriel Z”L.
Bimah in the Middle
The construction of the Tabernacle, the manufacture of its holy vessels, and their placement in the sacred precincts are among the major themes of the latter half of the Book of Exodus. It is therefore timely to consider the architecture and layout of the synagogue, which is considered by rabbinic tradition to be a מקדש מעט, or “miniature Temple.”
This essay focuses on the location of the Bimah. The word “Bimah” is borrowed from the Greek, and refers to an elevated platform. For the public Torah reading, the scroll is brought from the Ark to the Bimah and placed on a table (Shulchan). In some synagogues, the Shulchan atop the Bimah also functions as the Amud, the spot from which the precentor leads the prayer service.
Maimonides ruled that the Bimah must be located in the center of the synagogue, so that the Torah reader or preacher who use the raised platform can be heard by everyone in attendance (Hilkhot Tefillah 11:3). Tur and Rema, too, ruled that the Bimah must be centrally located so that all parishioners can hear the public reading (Orach Chaim 150:5). Rabbi Joseph Karo, however, omitted this detail from his codification of the laws of synagogue construction. In his commentary on the Mishneh Torah, Karo asserted that the preference for a centrally located Bimah is merely a practical concern about audibility of the reader; it is not an inviolable rule. Accordingly, in small synagogues, where all worshippers can hear the reader regardless of where he is positioned, the Bimah can be moved off-center for aesthetic reasons (Kesef Mishnah).
There is no unambiguous Talmudic source mandating that the Bimah be in the middle of the synagogue, though several passages in rabbinic literature offer indications that in classical synagogues the Bimah was, in fact, so situated. For halakhists seeking legal support for the preservation of tradition, these sources are marshalled as evidence not merely of what was, but also of what must be.
The great synagogue in Alexandria had a centrally located Bimah, from which the sexton waved flags signaling to the congregants when they should respond “amen” to the precentor’s blessings (Tosefta Sukkah 4:6 and Sukkah 51b). Many commentators assumed that the flags were necessary because the synagogue was so large that worshippers sitting in the distant pews could not hear the cantor. If that interpretation is correct, then one might extrapolate from this example that a synagogue must have a centrally located Bimah regardless of the audibility factor. An alternative interpretation for the flags is that the worshippers were ignorant of Hebrew, and so, despite their ability to hear the cantor’s rendition, they nonetheless needed prompting about the timing of the proper liturgical responses.
In Masekhet Soferim, one of the post-Talmudic Minor Tractates, there are instructions for the performance of Hagbah. The Torah scroll should be opened to a width of three columns and held aloft. The person performing Hagbah should turn in all four directions so that all congregants, men and women alike, can see the sacred script (Soferim 14:8). The premise of the halakhah is that congregants are found on all sides of the Bimah. While this does not necessarily imply a perfectly centered Bimah, it could be interpreted as precluding the positioning of the Bimah to an extreme side of the sanctuary.
In 1830, Hatam Sofer was asked whether it is permitted to move the Bimah from the middle to the front of the synagogue (Shu”t Hatam Sofer Orach Chaim 28). The congregation in question was growing and needed to renovate its sanctuary. By moving the Bimah they hoped to increase seating capacity and enhance the aesthetics of the room. Hatam Sofer responded in the negative. He provided three reasons: a) The Bimah is compared to the Temple altar, which was located in the Holy at the exact midpoint of the north-south axis between the Table and the Menorah (Yoma 33b). b) The raw materials used to construct the Tabernacle were not supposed to be moved. Beams designated for the southern wall were not be used in the construction of the northern wall (Yerushalmi Shabbat 13c). Similarly, the old Bimah acquired its position in the middle of the room and could not be relocated. c) “Innovations are forbidden by the Torah.” This was Hatam Sofer’s mantra in battling against reformers and to express pithily his belief in the critical importance of preserving traditional ways.
Netziv (Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin) also compared the Bimah to the altar. But, unlike Hatam Sofer, who mentioned the inner incense altar, Netziv compared the Bimah to the outer altar, on which sacrificial animals were burnt (Shu”t Meishiv Davar 1:15). He cited the Vilna Gaon, who noted that we circle the Bimah on Sukkot during the Hoshanot service in remembrance of the original rites performed with willows around the courtyard altar (Biur Ha-Gra Orach Chaim 660:1).
Rabbi Judah Aszod suggested that the Bimah must be centrally positioned because the public reading of the Torah is a re-enactment of the Sinaitic Theophany, at which time the Israelites surrounded Mount Sinai on all sides (Shu”t Yehudah Ya’aleh 1 Orach Chaim 3). God instructed Moses to “set bounds unto the people round about (Exodus 19:12).” Dayan Weiss found support for the centrally positioned Bimah in the Talmudic description of the Menorah (Shu”t Minchat Yitzchak 3:4). The flames of the other six candles tilted toward the middle candle, indicating that the middle position is most praiseworthy (Menahot 98b).
In the mid-19th century, many congregations in Germany and Austria-Hungary wanted to relocate the Bimah to the front of the synagogue. This no longer reflected a matter of seating capacity or aesthetics but, instead, a desire to imitate the European churches, where the liturgy is conducted from an elevated altar at the front. The great Hungarian halakhists and homilists of the generation after the Hatam Sofer responded harshly to these proposed changes. Rabbi Meir Eisenstadter (1786-1852) accused the progressives of wanting to uproot not only the Bimah but all of Judaism (Shu”t Imrei Esh Orach Chaim 7).
Rabbi Israel David Margaliot-Jaffe, an ideological forefather of ultra-Orthodoxy, more mildly accused the young innovators of thinking that it was in Judaism’s best interests to mimic the worship practices of the gentiles (Sefer Mecholat Ha-machanayim). But in so doing, the progressives were said to have run afoul of grave Biblical prohibitions. “After the doings of the land of Egypt, wherein ye dwelt, shall ye not do; and after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do; neither shall ye walk in their statutes (Leviticus 18:3).” Those consciously looking to change the Jewish style of worship on the basis of what can be learned from heathens were considered in breach of that prohibition in Leviticus and also unmindful of the Torah’s later wording “Lest you seek out their gods, saying ‘How do these nations worship their gods? Let me, too, do thus’ (Deuteronomy 12:30).”
Rabbi Judah Aszod offered a homiletic explanation for the wishes of Reform/Neolog Jews to move the Bimah closer to the Ark. In the Temple, the outer altar was used continuously. Throughout the day sacrifices were brought; throughout the night the limbs and fats were consumed on the altar pyre. The outer altar, then, represents the Jew for whom Torah study and Torah observance are life’s constants. In contrast, the inner altar was used only for brief moments, twice daily, to burn incense. The golden inner altar, then, represents the Jew who is only occasionally devoted to religious observance and who satisfies his obligation to study Torah merely by reciting Shema twice daily. The traditional Jew places his Bimah in the middle of the synagogue, just as the outer altar was located in the middle of the Temple Courtyard. The less pious Jew places his Bimah toward the front of the synagogue, near the Parokhet covering the Ark, just as, in the Temple, the inner altar was close to the Parokhet draped in front of the Holy of Holies.
The placement of the Bimah became a determining factor in the fate of local communities, as Hungarian Jewry experienced a sharp fissure on the national level between Orthodox and Neolog factions. In 1855, Rabbi Simon Sofer was invited to be the Chief Rabbi of Papa. He declined the offer because the main synagogue in Papa had a Bimah in the front and the precentor faced the congregation rather than the Ark. The question of where to put the Bimah in the newly renovated synagogue in Debrecen was a factor in prompting the ultra-Orthodox rabbis to gather for a conference at Michalowitz in November 1865. The conference issued a pesak-din, or halakhic ruling, forbidding a Jew from even entering a synagogue lacking a centrally positioned Bimah.
Chofetz Chaim noted that in some parts of the Jewish world sinners were placing the Bimah close to the Ark and calling their synagogues Temples. He applied to them the verse, “For Israel hath forgotten his Maker, and builded palaces (Hosea 8:14).” In the Biblical context, those palaces were places of idolatry. Chofetz Chaim’s point was that these newfangled synagogues were not merely improperly designed Judaic houses of worship but were far worse (Biur Halakhah Orach Chaim 150:5).
In 1959, Rabbi Moses Feinstein was asked by Rabbi Nachman Bernard of Wichita, Kansas, about praying in a synagogue with a forward-positioned Bimah. Rabbi Feinstein came to America from Russia in the 1930s, and so he was far removed in time and place from the great denominational battles of 19th century central Europe. He had some vague knowledge of a ruling issued in a prior generation by Hungarian rabbis banning prayer in such synagogues. But he assumed that even if it were true, the ruling was merely an emergency measure applicable only in Hungary as a means of countering the advance of the Reform Movement. As for 20th century America, Rabbi Feinstein wrote that a centrally positioned Bimah is preferable but that one is certainly permitted to pray in a synagogue with a Bimah near the Ark (Iggerot Moshe Orach Chaim 2:42).
From the above discussion and analysis, the following conclusions emerge: a) Worshippers need to be able to hear the liturgy, Torah reading, and sermon. Every effort should be made to design the synagogue in such a way as to avoid acoustical dead zones. b) There is symbolic value, even if not much purely halakhic significance, in the central positioning of the Bimah. c) Imitating the styles of worship of other religions, even if solely for aesthetic reasons, is objectionable and likely to provoke communal strife.
This above all: A Jew must be able to daven without regard to the physical design or any other aspects of the synagogue itself, and attempt, personally and also as part of communal worship, to communicate with the Almighty in heartfelt prayer.