Prior to Shavuos is an excellent time to review some of the less-known halachos germane to kerias haTorah, including whether the Bimah needs to be in the middle of the shul.
Question #1: Small Shul
“We have converted a storage area into a temporary shul for our neighborhood. Must we put the shulchan in the middle when, as a result, we will have less seating capacity?”
Question #2: Reading from the Front
“May I daven in a shul where the bimah is in the front of the shul?”
Question #3: The Beis Medrash
“Must the bimah of a yeshivah be located in the middle of the beis medrash?”
Where is the bimah?
Although we find allusion going back to the time of the tanna’im concerning the proper location of the bimah and the shulchan in a shul, most of the halachic discussion about the topic is within the last two hundred years, for reasons that will soon be obvious. Let us begin by citing the early sources for this halachah, and then analyze some of the responsa on the subject.
When the Rambam records the laws germane to the proper construction of a shul, he mentions that a shul should have a raised platform in the middle, which we call the bimah (Hilchos Tefillah 11:3, see Kesef Mishneh). The Rambam explains that the bimah is used for two purposes: in order to read the Torah and to facilitate public speaking, the goal, in both instances, being to enable people to hear. He then adds that the shulchan upon which the sefer Torah is placed (which he calls a teivah) should be positioned on top and in the middle of the bimah. We thus see that there is a halachic preference, if not an outright requirement, (1) to have the shulchan placed in the middle of the shul, (2) to have it on an elevated surface.
Notwithstanding this ruling of the Rambam, the Kesef Mishneh (ad locum) notes that many shullen are not built this way. To justify the custom, he explains that, when constructing a large shul, one should place the bimah in the middle so that people can hear the reading, but when a shul is small, it may be more practical to have the Torah read from a place that is not centrally located.
When Rav Yosef Karo, the author of the Kesef Mishneh, wrote the Shulchan Aruch, he omitted the law requiring a bimah platform and that the bimah and the shulchan be in the center of the shul. This appears consistent with his opinion that the location of the bimah and the shulchan is not a requirement of shul design, but, rather, is a practical matter that is dependent on the construction and acoustics of the shul. However, both the Tur (Orach Chayim 150) and the Rema (ad locum) mention that the bimah should be in the middle of the shul.
The Gra cites Talmudic sources for the practice of placing the bimah in the middle of the shul (Glosses to Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 150). The Tosefta (Sukkah 4:4) and the Gemara (Sukkah 51b) describe the huge shul in Alexandria, which had a seating capacity of many thousands, and which had a wooden bimah in the middle. The Gra apparently holds that these allusions provided the Rambam with his source requiring a centrally located bimah. The question now is, if there is indeed a Talmudic source requiring the bimah to be in the middle, how can the Kesef Mishneh rule that there is no such requirement? Apparently, he feels that a large shul must have a centralized bimah in order to make it possible for the maximum number of people to hear the reading of the Torah, whereas a small shul does not require that its bimah be centrally located. On the other hand, the Rambam, the Tur and the Rema contend that a centrally-located bimah is an important aspect of shul design and construction.
The Chasam Sofer
We find little other literature on this subject until the nineteenth century. The earliest work of that era on this topic is a responsum from the Chasam Sofer, regarding a plan to increase seating capacity in a shul by relocating the shulchan to the front (Shu”t Chasam Sofer, Orach Chayim #28). The Chasam Sofer discusses the points raised by the Rambam, the Tur and the Rema that the shulchan should be in the middle, and the Kesef Mishneh’s comment that a small shul is not required to have its shulchan in the center, since people will easily hear the kerias haTorah from wherever it is read. The Chasam Sofer writes that the Kesef Mishneh’s reason applies only in a case of a shul that was built originally without the bimah in the middle, but once the bimah was built in the middle, one may not move it to a different location. Furthermore, the Chasam Sofer writes that if a small shul was expanded to accommodate a larger crowd, they will now be required to move the shulchan to the middle so that everyone can easily hear kerias haTorah.
The Chasam Sofer then writes an additional reason why one may not change the location of the bimah and the shulchan after they have been built. He notes a ruling of the Talmud Yerushalmi concerning the marking of the boards used in the construction of the mishkan. Since the boards of the mishkan were identical, why were they marked to designate each one’s proper location every time the mishkan was reassembled? What difference does it make where one puts any particular board?
The Yerushalmi explains that even if all the boards are identical and perfectly interchangeable, one is required to have each board returned to the same relative location. Each board acquires a specific sanctity because of its location, and this should not be changed. The Chasam Sofer then quotes the Maharil, who ruled that one should be careful to replace the planks of one’s sukkah in the same place year after year, for the same reason as we have just mentioned. Each board has a claim to its location, and one should return it to the spot it held the year before. Similarly, contends the Chasam Sofer, the part of the shul on which the bimah and the shulchan rested should remain as their location, and therefore, one may not relocate the bimah away from the central place that it has held.
As proof to his point, the Chasam Sofer notes that, although the second Beis Hamikdash was larger than the first, the location of the menorah, the mizbechos (the altars) and all the other vessels remained the same — they were not moved to accommodate the new, larger structure. This was because the site where the holy vessels were located should not be changed. Similarly, rules the Chasam Sofer, even according to the Kesef Mishneh’s approach that a bimah need not be centrally located, this ruling does not permit relocating a bimah that has already been placed in the middle.
Shulchan is like the mizbeiach
In addition to the reasons just cited, the Chasam Sofer provides another reason why the shulchan should be in the center of the shul. The shulchan serves in a role similar to that of the mizbeiach, the altar of the Beis Hamikdash. This is because of the concept – based on the words of the prophet Hoshea, U’neshalmah parim sefaseinu – our lips, meaning our reading of the Torah, replace the bulls that were offered in the Beis Hamikdash. (This idea is conveyed in a passage of the Gemara in mesechta Megillah 31b.)
When we read about the korbanos during kerias haTorah, it is as if those sacrifices are being offered. This reading, then, provides the shulchan with some of the sanctity of the mizbeiach, and the shul with some of the sanctity of the Beis Hamikdash.
This idea can be demonstrated from the hoshanos that we perform on Sukkos (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 660), which are reminiscent of the hoshanos procedure performed in the Beis Hamikdash, when the four minim were carried around the mizbeiach. The original service of the hoshanos could be performed only by circling around the mizbeiach. So too, when we perform hoshanos, we walk around the shulchan, which serves as a surrogate mizbeiach. Similarly, on Simchas Torah, we carry the sifrei Torah around the bimah (Rema, Orach Chayim 669:1).
The Chasam Sofer explains that since the mizbeiach was in the middle of the Beis Hamikdash, so too, the shulchan should be located in the middle of the shul.
Another major posek who associates a centralized bimah with the mizbeiach is the Netziv, Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, who was the Rosh Yeshivah of the yeshiva in Volozhin for many decades of the late nineteenth century. In a responsum (Shu”t Meishiv Davar #15), he notes that the shulchan is in the middle to parallel the mizbeiach, which explains why we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah from the bimah just as in the Beis Hamikdash they blew the trumpets at the time that the korbanos were offered. He rules that the shulchan must be exactly midway between the north and south parts of the shul, just as the outside mizbeiach was, but that it does not have to be midway between the east and west parts, because the outside mizbeiach was not located centrally in this axis.
The Netziv adds a few other reasons why it is prohibited to move the bimah — one of which is that people will assume that they can change other Jewish customs, without realizing that they are tampering with halachah.
When one reads the two responsa very carefully, that of the Chasam Sofer and that of the Meishiv Davar, one will notice that there is a bit of a dispute between them. Although both scholars compare the shulchan to the mizbeiach, the Chasam Sofer compares the shulchan to both the inner mizbeiach, which was made of gold and predominantly used for burning the ketores, the incense offered daily in the Beis Hamikdash, and also to the outside mizbeiach, whereas the Netziv compares it only to the outside mizbeiach.
The inner mizbeiach was located midway between the shulchan of the Beis Hamikdash, on which was placed the lechem hapanim (the showbread), and the menorah, which was kindled daily. The shulchan stood in the northern section and on the western side of the kodesh; the menorah stood opposite it on the southern flank, and the mizbeiach was exactly in the middle of the kodesh.
The outer mizbeiach, which was used all day long for the various offerings of the Beis Hamikdash, stood in the middle of the azarah, the courtyard of the Beis Hamikdash. Actually, there is a dispute among tanna’im exactly where the mizbeiach stood. All agree that on the orientation of east to west, it was in the middle of the azarah. The dispute is from a north-south perspective, whether it was exactly in the middle, or whether it was somewhat off center, either to the north or to the south. According to some authorities, this dispute might affect whether one should try to make sure that the bimah and the shulchan are exactly in the middle of the shul, or whether it is sufficient that they are near the middle, but they do not need to be perfectly centered, as is the prevailing custom.
It should be noted that, notwithstanding that the Chasam Sofer and the Meishiv Davar both explain that the bimah must be in the middle of the shul because of its comparison to the mizbeiach, Rav Moshe Feinstein writes that this is not a convincing reason for the practice (Shu”t Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 2:42).
Moving the bimah
According to what we have just said, one should not move the bimah in order to make more room to perform hoshanos. Although this seems to be the predominant approach among the halachic authorities, the Minchas Yitzchak (3:4) quotes from the Imrei Eish a justification of those who move the bimah in order to conduct the hakafos, on the basis that (1) there is no requirement to make the bimah represent the mizbeiach, and (2) even if there is such a requirement, the bimah does not need to be in the perfect center, and it is permitted to move the bimah, provided it is not placed next to the aron, but in front of it. Nevertheless, all agree that both the hoshanos and the hakafos must go around the bimah, as expressed in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim, chapter 660) and the Rema (Orach Chayim, chapter 669).
Imitating idolic practice
Until now, the discussion regarding the proper location of the bimah and the shulchan has involved only the laws of building a shul. However, a completely new issue is discussed by a disciple of the Chasam Sofer, the Maharam Shik (Shu”t Maharam Shik, Yoreh Deah 165). In a responsum dated erev rosh chodesh Adar, 5616 (1856), to Rav Yisroel Dovid, the av beis din of Feising, the Maharam Shik introduces a new halachic issue: the Torah violation of imitating the practices of the gentiles. In the mid-1800’s, those who wanted to locate the bimah and the shulchan to the front of the shul were, in general, not motivated by space concerns, but because they wanted their shullen to look similar to the way non-religious congregations appeared, which, in turn, were made to appear like churches. Following gentile practices in the observance of our mitzvos involves the violation of several verses of the Torah, such as, Uvechukoseihem lo seileichu, Do not follow their laws (Vayikra 18:3), Velo seilechu bechukos hagoy, Do not follow the laws of the gentile (Vayikra 20:23), and Hishamer lecha pen tinakeish achareihem, Be careful lest you be attracted to them (Devorim 12:30). This general prohibition is quoted by the Rambam (Hilchos Avodah Zarah 11:1) and the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah, Chapter 178:1).
In the details germane to understanding the laws of Uvechukoseihem lo seileichu, there was a dispute between Rav Yisroel Dovid and the Maharam Shik. Rav Yisroel Dovid felt that this prohibition would exist even when the reason for moving the bimah was to make more seating room. The Maharam Shik disagreed, demonstrating that Uvechukoseihem lo seileichu is violated only when the intent is to mimic non-Jewish practices. The Maharam Shik also prohibits having the bimah in front or moving it there when someone might assume that the bimah is in front in order to mimic non-Jewish practices, even when this was not the intention of those who planned and constructed this shul. When it is clear that the purpose for moving the bimah and the shulchan is to create more seating capacity, it is not prohibited under the heading of Uvechukoseihem lo seileichu, but only because of the reasons mentioned by the Chasam Sofer.
The Minchas Yitzchak (3:4) quotes a letter from Rav Shimon Sofer (a son of the Chasam Sofer, who ultimately became the rav of Cracow) written to a very prominent community that had offered him the position of chief rabbi. Rav Sofer wrote a letter to the community turning down the post, because the bimah of their main shul was not located in the middle of the sanctuary and, also, because the chazan’s amud was located at a high point in the shul, when, according to halachah, it should be at a low place.
In this context, we should quote the Mishnah Berurah, “With our great sins, in some places the custom of the early generations has been ignored and the bimah is constructed near the aron hakodesh, out of desire to follow the practices that the gentiles observe in their temples. Regarding these communities, one should say, And Yisroel forgot his Maker and he built temples [Hoshea 8:14]. The later authorities already cast aspersions on these people” (Biur Halachah 150:5, s.v. Be’emtza).
Entering the shul
Is there any halachic problem with entering a shul whose bimah is in the front?
The Minchas Yitzchak (3:5) quotes from different sources that prohibited even entering such a shul.
However, Rav Moshe Feinstein holds a more moderate approach to this last question (Shu”t Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 2:42.) Rav Moshe was asked whether one may daven in a shul that has its bimah in the front. The questioner had heard that in Hungary they had prohibited davening in such a shul, an approach that would indeed be reflected by the above-quoted Minchas Yitzchak. Rav Moshe responds that he was unfamiliar with such a prohibition. If it did exist, it was because they needed to stamp out Reform, and it has the halachic status of a hora’as sha’ah, a ruling established because of a temporary circumstance. However, in other countries one is permitted to daven in such a shul. Rav Moshe concludes that when there are two shullen in a town, one with its bimah in the middle and the other with the bimah elsewhere, one should daven regularly in the shul whose bimah is in the middle.
At this point, let us discuss the third question asked at the beginning. “Must the bimah in a yeshivah be in the middle of the beis medrash?”
This question is discussed by the Minchas Yitzchak (Shu”t Minchas Yitzchak, 3:6), who concludes that the rules governing the existence of a bimah and a shulchan and their location are germane only to a shul, but that there is no requirement to have a bimah in a beis medrash. The reason for this ruling is a topic for a different article. The Minchas Yitzchak writes that it is perfectly acceptable for a beis medrash to use a portable shulchan for kerias haTorah.
We all hope and pray that the day will soon come when we shall merit the third Beis Hamikdash. In the interim, we should be careful to treat our batei keneses and batei medrash with proper sanctity, including all their halachic details.