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The Crown of Halacha

Positioning the Bimah

This entry is part 6 of 12 in the series Rav Bloomenstiel

From Shu”t Sheves Achim by

Rav Avraham Chaim Bloomenstiel

QUESTION: Is it ossur to daven in a shul whose bimah is positioned at the very front, before the aron?  If we are building a shul and there is a support pillar in the center of the room, may we lechatchilah move the bimah to another location?

ANSWER:  Sukkah 51b records that the bimah of the Great Synagogue of Alexandria was placed in the center of the kehilla. Based upon this remark, the Rambam writes in Hilchos Tefilla 11:3 that the bimah must be placed in the center of the kehilla so that everyone can hear the Torah reading or those who speak from the bimah. The Rama 150:5 paskens likewise that the bimah must be placed in the center of the shul so that all can hear the Torah reading. The Kessef Mishnah understand this requirement as practical and not halachic, meaning that in large synagogues the bimah must be in the center so that all can hear clearly. However, in small synagogues where audibility is not an issue, there is no problem placing the bimah elsewhere.

However, the Chasam Sofer OC 28 writes that our bimah is like the inner mizbeach of the Holy Temple. Since the inner mizbeach required placement in the center of the heikhel, so too our bimah must be in the center of the shul.  This comparison between our bimos and the inner mizbeach is difficult, though. There are two instances in which our bimos are compared to a mizbeach. The first is with regard to the reading of the Parshas HaKorbanos (see Rambam Hilchos Chagigah 3:4). The second are the circuits of the hoshannos on Sukkos (lbid. Hilchos Lulav 7:23). However, these comparisons are between our bimos and the outer mizbeach, the mizbeach haolah, not the inner mizbeach. Furthermore, the Chasam Sofer’s reason is a chiddush that does not appear in any earlier sources. For both of these reasons, I don’t find the Chasam Sofer’s argument to be terribly compelling.

The Chasam Sofer brings a second reason that is much stronger. He explains that relocating the bimah is a practice that originated among the reformers and, therefore, we may not move the bimah and thus give credence to their practices. The source for the prohibition of she-lo yechazek bi-y’deihem, endorsing sectarian practices, is a mishna in Chagigah 17a. When Shavuos fell out on shabbos, the following Sunday was not given the status of isru chag. The reason is so that we should not appear to condone the erroneous opinion of those who held that the Sunday after our Shavuos was the “real” Shavuos. For more examples of this prohibition see Rashi Chullin 41b s.v. Yechakeh es ha-tzedokim and Rambam Hilchos Shechitah 2:6.

Additionally, the Chasam Sofer writes that it is prohibited for anyone to pray in a synagogue that has placed the bimah at the front. This appears to be a horaas shaah, however, and may not apply to us in our place and time. At the time of the Chasam Sofer, placing the bimah at the front was a clear sign that the congregation was adopting reform ideology. It was dangerous to associate with such a kehilla at that time lest one be swept along with them in their move toward reform and assimilation (see lgros Moshe OC I:42). In our times, however, there is a vast gulf between Reform and Orthodox congregations. Nowadays, should an Orthodox synagogue place their bimah at the front, it is not a sign that the yiddishkeit of the synagogue has become poisoned and thus poses a threat to those who pray there. Nevertheless, Rav Moshe Feinstein ztz”l (ibid,) writes that if there are two shuls in a place, one whose bimah is in the center and another whose bimah is not, a person should pray in the shul whose bimah is correctly placed in the center. Rav Feinstein’s teshuva implies that, if the only synagogue available is one whose bimah is incorrectly located, it would be permitted to daven in that synagogue even lechatchilah.

In conclusion:

  • In a large shul the bimah must be located in the center (Rama OC 150:5).
  • In a small shul, even though the Kesef Mishna is lenient, we must be strict according to the Chasam Sofer and place the bimah in the center. Many poskim have ruled this way. See Shu”t Ksav Sofer OC 19, Shu”t Mahari Assad OC 50, Shu”t Meishiv Davar I:75, Shu”t Noda BiYehuda Tanina OC 78, and Sdei Chemed Osefes Dinim 13.
  • One should endeavor to pray in a synagogue whose bimah is correctly located. If the only synagogue available is one whose bimah is not centrally located, then one may pray there (Igros Moshe OC I:42).
  • All of the above refers to moving the bimah for aesthetic or ideological reasons, which is strictly prohibited. However, if the bimah is not centrally located due to some practical reason that is obvious to the congregation, such as a pillar in the middle of the shul or serious acoustic issues, then it is permitted to move the bimah. Nevertheless, one may only do so as is minimally necessary.
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