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I am seeking sources related to the origin of the physical structure of a shul. Specifically:

  • Placement of the ark in the front of the shul.
  • Torah reader's bimah - I've seen 3 arrangements: Most Ashkenazi shuls have the bimah in the middle Sefardi shuls (many) have it in the back Conservative / Reform have it on the bimah where ark is and reader is facing the cong.

What is the source / history behind these placements? I assume some are halacha, some minhag.

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This question was taken up by the author Zvi Zohar on his book Rabbinic Creativity in the Modern Middle East. I will give a summary of what his sources tell us, and then give useful quotes from the book itself.

Synagogue orientation/construction is based on custom, not halakha. As with any customs that develop their origins are often muddled and sometimes blasphemous. In general the design of Ashkenazi synagogues are either based on the church designs of their Christian neighbors, or as a response to their Christian neighbors. The same can be said of Sephardim with their Muslim neighbors.

So while it is true that the Rambam in his Mishneh Torah describes the ideal location for the Bimah being in the Middle of the Synagogue, Yosef Karo (Kesef Mishneh ad loc) comments on this Rambam as follows: "its positioning in the middle is not obligatory, rather it is contingent on the place and time."

So you have large sources on both sides of these arguments. So now let's take a look at some of the sources brought down by Zvi Zohar in Rabbinic Creativity in the Modern Middle East pages 291-292:

In nineteenth century Europe it became common practice in the Reform movement to position the bima at the front of the synagogue hall. In reaction, the Orthodox rabbis, led by the Hatam Sofer (Responsa Hatam Sofer, Orah Hayyim, Responsum 28), ruled that there is an unequivocal obligation to situate the bima only in its traditional place --i.e. in the middle of the synagogue. This reaction reached its height in 1886, when 100 rabbis signed a declaration excommunicating anyone who prayed in a synagogue in which the bima was not located in the center.

It seems clear from the sources that the Reform movement seems to have permeated into common Ashkenazic practice despite the Orthodox movement's best efforts. Contrast that to the reponse of the former Chief Rabbi of Egypt Rabbi Aharon Raphael ben Shim'on (in his responsa umiTzur Devash 3b) in 1896.

If situating the bima in that place (the center) would impair the beauty of the synagogue, or, if in that location the bima will lack clear light, such that the Torah reader will not be able to read comfortably and will not be able to peruse the letters of the Torah scroll and to verify that the spacing [between the letters of the scroll] is at it should be, then that which is lost is greater than that which is gained....Thus it seems, in my humble opinion, ...that the bima should be set in the place most conducive to the fulfillment of its functions.

Zvi Zohar brings ample evidence that Rabbi ben Shim'on knew of the Hatam Sofer's ruling but clearly did not agree with it. Rabbi ben Shim'on's ruling is consonant with the position taken on this issue by one of the greatest Italian rabbis of modern times. Rabbi Yishma'el haCohen (1723-1811) in his book Zera' Emet details his response to a similar question. A synagogue was destroyed in which the "duchan" was in the center of the building and now the synagogue was being rebuilt, and the members of the community wanted to put the "duchan" somewhere else. Rabbi Yishma'el haCohen ruled in accordance with Karo that there was no obligation and that such a decision "everything is in accordance with the time and place...and there's nothing more to discuss on the matter."

It is worth noting that Rabbi Ya'akov Shaul Elyashar (1817-1906) who was serving as Rishon le-Tzion at the time ruled against both Rabbi ben-Shimon and Rabbi Yishmael haCohen to side with the Chatam Sofer which was not surprising considering there was a larger amount of Ashkenazi influence in Eretz Yisrael than there was in Egypt.

  • the teimonim had the bima in the middle of the kanisa however it was moved to the front once the reading was over. i dont have the location of where mori qafih zl brings this down. either halikhoth teimon or in the rambam itself – MoriDowidhYa3aqov Apr 30 '17 at 12:49
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R. Eliezer Eisenberg has a very nice theory of the traditional stucture of a synagogue here.

Essentially, he argues that the layout of a synagogue is supposed to parallel the structure of the mishkan / beit hamikdash.

With respect to your specific questions: the Ark parallels the kodesh hakodashim / aron hakodesh and is thus placed at the front. The bimah parallels the mizbach ha'olah and is thus placed somewhere between the entrance to the synagogue and the amud of the chazzan.


Some more detailed quotes:

The Bimah is the Mizbach Ha'olah. This has been pointed out by the Chasam Sofer (Teshuvos OC 28) and the Netziv (Meishiv Davar OC 15). (The Chasam Sofer calls it the Mizbei'ach Hapnimi, which sounds like the Mizbach Haketores, but he can't possibly mean that, as Reb Moshe points out in Igros OC II 41.) The reason for the correspondence is the Gemara in Menachos 110a; אמר ריש לקיש מאי דכתיב זאת התורה לעולה למנחה ולחטאת ולאשם כל העוסק בתורה כאילו הקריב עולה מנחה חטאת ואשם-- It is at the Bimah that we read the Torah; Reading the Torah is our equivalent of sacrificial service, our Avodas Hakorbanos. (In OC 660, the Gaon and the Pri Megadim in Mishbetzos Zahav sk1 bring that on Sukkos we are makif the Bimah that has a Sefer Torah on it as a zecher le'mikdash based on Megilla 31b, that reading the Parshios of Korbanos is mechaper like physically bringing korbanos. Why, you may ask, don't they bring the Reish Lakish memra from Menachos which seems to be on eisek Torah in general and not just parshos hakorbanos? I suppose that they are mechalek between 'kor'in' in Megilla and "oseik' in Menachos. Now, the Gaon/PM are mashma that the ikkar thing to be makif around is the sefer Torah, that the Sefer Torah, not the Bimah, is like the Mizbei'ach. But the Taz in sk 1 says that the Bimah is like the Mizbei'ach "when it has a sefer Torah on it," and there is no reason to say that the Gaon or the PM are saying different than him.)

Just as the Mizbeiach was elevated, our Bimah, too, is elevated. The elevation is not just for better acoustics or line of sight, it is minhag Yisrael, to the extent that one is prohibited from taking a shortcut from one side of the shul to the other by way of the Bimah platform, because the platform is considered a different, and more holy, reshus (Mekor Chaim OC 151:5).

And, of course, the Aron Hakodesh. The Paroches/Curtain in shul and the niche containing the Sifrei Torah is the Paroches of the Mishkan, behind which reposed the Aron Hakodesh, which contained the Luchos and the Sefer Torah written by Moshe Rabbeinu. Sometimes people are confused by the fact that in a synagogue, the closet is called the Aron Kodesh, whereas in the Mikdash/Mishkan, the Aron Kodesh refers to the box that contains the tablets/Torah, and the area is called the Kodesh Kadashim. So in the synagogue, we are conflating the Kodesh Kadashim and the Aron container of the Torah and calling it the Aron Kodesh.

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