Sunday, September 27, 2015

Guest Post - Daniel Adler: Should one Pray from the Bima or the Amud?

Should one Pray from the Bima or the Amud?

By: Daniel Adler

Over the past number of years it has become increasingly more common to find the shliach tzibur (prayer leader) praying from the bima rather than from the amud. This article will focus on the differences between the bima and amud, their specific functions and locations, which prayer services are meant to be recited from which location, and will examine various responsa on the topic.
It should be noted at the outset that this discussion pertains to Ashkenazic Jewry who have both an amud and bima in their synagogues (schuls). Sefardim [1] have a different layout in their schuls in that they only have a bima. This point will also be examined in this article.
Definition of the Bima
The bima is located in the middle of the schul. Beside for bima it has alternative names including ‘almemar [2]’ and ‘migdal’. The bima is generally higher than the ground level of the schul (hence the name migdal or bima, both of which denote height). The main use of the bima is to read the Torah from this location. In, “A World in Ruins” [3], Hermann Schwab (1946, p. 101) briefly discusses the bima:
In the centre of the synagogue stood the Almemar. The origin of the word is disputed. Some derive it from the Arabic Alminbar (pulpit of a mosque), but it is popularly traced to memorieren, and signifies a place for the reading of the Holy Scriptures. The Almemar was a raised dais, in most cases roofed over or flanked by pillars. Of ancient origin, it was carved in wood, hewn of stone or wrought of iron.
In “Makom Shenohagu” [4], a book about the customs of Bechhofen, Germany, the authors (Katanka & Doerfer, p. 44, 2011) describe the bima as follows:
In Ashkenaz, the bima was commonly referred to by two names, each of which was used during different periods. During the Middle Ages and up to the seventeenth century it was known as a migdal, and from about that time right up to the present day (amongst German Jews and their descendents) it is known as the almemar (or almemor, almemra etc.). It is thought that almemar is a corrupted form of the Arabic word al-minbar (the pulpit in a mosque), but this explanation of its etymology has yet to be accurately proven.
The almemar in Bechhofen was typical of its period, the eighteenth century. It stood in the middle of the synagogue, as prescribed by Jewish Law [5]…
This last point, that the bima must be located in the middle of the schul, follows standard Ashkenaz custom. How this differs from Sefardic custom will be touched on below.
Definition of the Amud
The amud [6] (lectern) is located in the front of the schul. It is situated either in front of the aron (ark which holds the Torah) or off to the side of the aron [7]. The amud is the dedicated location from where the shliach tzibur represents the congregation. It was common in the past (and one can find examples of this in modern schuls as well) that the amud was lower than the floor of the schul (i.e., down a step or more). Alternatively, the entire schul floor was situated somewhat lower than street level [8]. The former represents the Polish custom while the latter represents the German custom.
Both of these customs have similar rationales. Having the amud lower than the floor of the schul gives meaning to the verse in Psalms (130:1) “מִמַּעֲמַקִּים קְרָאתִיךָ יְהוָה - Out of the depths have I called You, O Lord”. This meaning is represented by the shliach tzibur who is standing in the lower location. Schuls that have the floor lower than ground level (i.e., one takes a step down to enter the sanctuary) are giving meaning to the same verse for the entire congregation - everyone should call out to HaShem from the depths.
Many German schuls, such as the Barn Schul in Bechhofen, had the floor lower than the street. A number of schuls that followed the Polish custom, such as the Altneuschul in Prague, had the amud lower than the schul floor [9].
The Polish custom follows the opinion of Magen Avraham as quoted by the Mishna Berurah (O.C. 90:1:5):
The Magen Avraham writes that today we are accustomed to have the location of the shliach tzibur at a deeper level than the rest of the synagogue. This is based on the verse מִמַּעֲמַקִּים קְרָאתִיךָ יְהוָה. [One can find an allusion to this custom in the Talmudic phrase] that states that one must go down in front of the aron [10].”
Regarding the German custom, Hermann Schwab (p. 101, 1946) writes that,
Not far from the Ark stood the reader in a depression in the floor, thus literally realizing the Psalmist’s phrase: “Out of the depths have I called Thee”; unless, indeed, it was preferred to site the whole structure below street level.”
Makom Shenohagu is clearer in this regard (Katanka & Doerfer, p. 44, 2011). While describing the Barn Schul in Bechhofen, the author’s state as follows:
From the vestibule there was one small step (of approximately 8cm [about 3in]) leading down into the synagogue. The custom of going down into the synagogue is based upon the Talmudic dictum: ‘Do not stand on a high place to pray, rather from a lowly place, as it is written: From the depths I call to you God’. In Ashkenaz, the “depths” were symbolised by going down into the main synagogue. This differs from the view of the Magen Avraham that the Chazzan [11] should stand in a specially lowered part of the synagogue floor.”
Height of the Bima
Why should the bima be higher than the floor of the schul? Rav Binyamin Shlomo Hamburger [12] gives ten rationales to explain this phenomenon:
1. One must be oleh l’torah - a person receives an aliyah. The word aliyah, beside for denoting a ‘spiritual lift’, also has a physical representation in that the individual must walk up to the platform where the Torah is read from.
2. The Torah was given on Mount Sinai which was above the nation. Reading the Torah in schul is considered a reenactment of the Sinai experience. We therefore read the Torah from a high location.
3. When Zechariah spoke to the nation, he stood on a high platform so all the people would be able to hear.
4. When Ezra read the Torah to the people in the street, it says he stood on a ‘migdal’.
5. When fulfilling the commandment of Hakhel [13], they would make a bima and the King would read from on top of the bima.
6. In the schul that was located in Alexandria, Egypt, the Talmud states that a bima was in the middle of it so that the person standing on it could be seen by the congregation [14].
7. Rambam states (Hilchos Teffilah, 11) that a bima should be placed in the middle of the schul for two reasons. One is for reading the Torah. The second reason given is that when the rabbi gives his speech, all will be able to hear him since he is in a high location. Furthermore, he is surrounded by mechitzos, walls. These walls, according to Jewish Law, make it that the rabbi is considered to be in a separate domain so that his back is not to the ark. It is considered an affront to the ark to have one’s back turned toward it [15].
8. Kabbalistically, according to Magen Avraham, one may not have more than six steps leading up to the bima. Although this statement is unclear to the author, clearly the bima is on a higher level than the schul floor.
9. Many of the early commentators refer to the bima as a ‘migdal’, which implies a high location.
10. Reading the Torah is compared to bringing a sacrifice on the altar. Just like the altar was high, a schul should have a high bima (Chasam Sofer).
If a schul does not have a high bima, it is still ‘kosher’ [16]. It is clear, however, that it is proper to have a high bima.
Why One May Not Pray From the Bima
The shliach tzibur should not pray from the bima, as praying from a high place is considered arrogant. This is one of the reasons why there is a designated location for the shliach tzibur to pray from, and why the location of the amud, or the schul floor, is often lower. Mechaber, in Hilchos Teffilah (O.C. 90:1) states that, “One who is praying should not stand on...any high location [17].” Mishnah Berurah (ibid, 3) commenting on this says that, “[The reason that one may not pray from a high location is because] there is no haughtiness before God, as the verse states, ‘from the depths I call out to God’.”
Bima Location - Middle vs. Front
A topic that is related to this discussion in an ancillary manner is the argument that existed between Reform and Orthodox Judaism as to the placement of the bima. In short, the Reform movement wanted the bima moved to the front of the schul instead of the center; the Orthodox strongly and sharply rejected such an idea for various reasons. A discussion on this topic is beyond the scope of this essay[18]. One source on this topic however, deserves examination as it is related to the current discussion.
Rabbi Yaakov Ettlinger (1798 - 1871), known for his books, Aruch Laner, described that there are separate and distinct places for the chazzan and for reading the Torah. He does this from a philosophical/polemical viewpoint which will further expand on some ideas as to why the amud and bima are separate.
Rav Ettlinger says [19] that a schul has three functions, and each one of these functions is represented by something specific in schul.
A schul is meant to sanctify the human spirit. This is represented by the aron, which is located in the east side of the schul. The eastern side of the schul (facing toward Israel), along with the aron kodesh (holy ark), shows the earthly manifestation of the Divine.
The second purpose of a schul is for prayer. This is represented by the location [amud] where the chazzan stands to lead the congregation in prayer.
The third purpose of a schul is spiritual enlightenment and instruction. These ideas are represented by the bima. The bima should be in the middle of the schul the same way that a seed is embedded in the core of a fruit, as the heart is in the center of the body, as rays emanate from a central pinpoint of light, so to the luchos and Torah were located in the middle of the encampment in the desert. In our schuls, this idea is represented by the bima, where we read the Torah, which is located in the middle of schul. This teaches us the centrality of Torah in the life of a Jew; the center represents equality - all of Israel has an equal share in Torah. All Jews are reminded by this to guard the Torah. In a battle, there is a flag that must be protected; in the same way Israel has its banner that we rally around and must protect - the Torah.
The above is a short summary of what Rav Ettlinger says. All of the ideas described will only work for the bima and Torah which are read from this center location. It is clear that prayer, as he points out, has its own unique location in the synagogue.
Sefardic Custom
As mentioned, Sefardim only have a bima. The entire service is done from this location. The bima itself, which according to Ashkenazim must be in the middle of the schul, will not necessarily be in the center according to the Sefardic custom. In Makom Shenohagu, the authors describe how according to the Ashkenaz custom the bima is in the middle. The authors then add that,
Rabbi Yosef Karo does not bring this Law, since in his own commentary on the Rambam, Kesef Mishnah, he brings a reason for placing the almemar at the western end of the synagogue (a Spanish practice which is seen in the Esnoga in Amsterdam and at its smaller sister congregation in Bevis Marks in London, and typically found in many Italian congregations)” (Katanka & Doerfer, p. 44, 2011).
Both of these schuls follow Spanish-Portuguese minhagim. Since Rambam says the bima must be in the middle, and Rav Karo disagrees, this is bound to cause divergent customs among Spanish Jewry.
Responsum Relating to Praying from the Amud
Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Binyomin Sofer (1815-1871) in his work K’sav Sofer (O.C. 19) discusses the issue of praying from the bima versus the amud in great detail. The following is a translation/paraphrase of some portions of his responsum.
You (the questioner) describe a schul where the Sha”tz stands on the bima to represent the congregation. However, you are concerned that this is an incorrect practice considering that the Magen Avraham writes that the shliach tzibur should stand at a lower location than the rest of the schul
You should know that the Magen Avraham finds a reference to the custom of the shliach tzibur standing at a lower location from a common phrase used in the Talmud. The phrase is that one should go down before the ark. The implication of this saying is that the shliach tzibur is standing in a physically lower location in front of the ark than the rest of the schul.
I, in my humbleness, have also found a reference to this custom based on the Talmud in Brachos… The Talmud states that, “one should not stand in a high location to pray, but rather one should stand in a low location to pray”. This Talmudic saying is troublesome. Why should the Talmud have to tell us both statements? The Talmud did not need to write that one should stand in a low location as it has already told us not to pray from a high location!
I believe the answer is as follows. If the Talmud would have only written not to stand in a high location to pray, I would have thought that there is no specific rule that states that I must pray from a low location. The Talmud therefore had to spell out for us that one should pray from a low location. This is important as when one is praying it is insufficient to only show that he is not haughty by making sure not to pray from a high location. Rather, a person should actively show that he has extra lowliness before God…
Why doesn’t the Talmud just state that a person should pray from a low location? There is a distinction between these two injunctions. The fact that one may not pray from a high location - this is an actual Law as there is no haughtiness before God. The statement, however, that one should pray from a low location is not a Law - rather it is a nice gesture to show extra lowliness before God.
This is why the Talmud writes the statement twice, “One may not pray from a high location,” this is the Law. “One should pray from a low location,” this is a nice thing to do but is not a binding injunction…
According to our understanding of the Magen Avraham’s custom, we must ask why this idea only applies to the shliach tzibur. In reality, every individual should pray from a low location to show his own humbleness [20]. The reason that we are not careful for this is that it is simply not practical to have a schul that has a tiered floor; every place would need to have a higher and lower location next to it [21]. However, we are careful that the shliach tzibur should be in a low location. The effect of this is that the tzibur now sees their representative is showing his personal humbleness and humility which will in turn cause the congregation to have humbleness and humility during prayer [22]...
If one was standing on the bima prior to praying, even if he never intended to pray in a high location, he should come down from the bima for davening. Certainly one should not purposely go to the bima to pray. (It is possible that this rule of not praying in high location would even apply to a place which is just slightly higher than the floor [23]). One can certainly extrapolate from this situation using a fortiori argument to show that it is wrong for the shliach tzibur to specifically go to the bima intentionally to daven from there. A person who specifically goes to a high location to pray is showing the absolute height of haughtiness – and in a public manner!
If a schul is very large, Bais Yosef is of the opinion that, for acoustical reasons, the schliach tzibur may daven from the bima. According to Bais Yosef, this is only true in a situation where it would otherwise be impossible to hear the shliach tzibur if not for his standing in a high location. If it is possible to hear his voice from the amud, but his voice would be stronger and more easily heard from the bima, even Bais Yosef would not permit the chazzan to stand on the bima [24]. The Talmud is Succah (51b) records [25] that the schul in Alexandria, Egypt placed the schul chazzan [26] on the bima to wave a flag. The purpose of this was to let the congregation know that it was time to answer amen. Rashi states that the shliach tzibur was standing at the amud. Due to the size of the schul, many were not able to hear the shliach tzibur and they did not know when to answer amen. One sees from here that they never even considered placing the shliach tzibur on the bima. It is difficult to say that if the shliach tzibur would have been on the bima that his voice still would not have been heard. Those that were closer to the shliach tzibur heard his blessing and the amen would travel back through the schul… Both Rashi and Tosefos are of the opinion that they never wanted to place the shliach tzibur on a high position so the congregants would be able to hear the blessings of the shliach tzibur [27]. Certainly in the situation that you (the questioner) are describing, one should not place the shliach tzibur on the bima just so his voice is louder and more powerful…
Those that Say One May Pray from the Bima
Are there opinions that allow one to pray from the bima? As quoted above, Bais Yosef permits one to daven from the bima in a situation where it would otherwise be impossible to hear the shliach tzibur in various schul locations.
Rabbi Dr. J. David Bleich in his book, “Contemporary Halakhic Problems,” [28] (Volume 1, p. 65-67) discusses various possibilities. Avudraham quoting the Jerusalem Talmud [29] states as follows,
From this incident in the Jerusalem Talmud we are accustomed to have the shliach tzibur stand [on the bima [30] in order that the congregation should be able to hear and to allow those who are uneducated to fulfill their [prayer] obligations with the shliach tzibur. Even though the Rabbi’s said that one should not stand in a high location to pray, this custom is good, for otherwise they would not hear on account of the multitudes which assemble in the synagogue [31].”
Two caveats to this. First, Avudraham is also dealing with a situation where there is no other possibility to hear the shliach tzibur. Second, Avudraham and Bais Yosef are both Sefardim. It has already been pointed out that Sefardim only daven and read the Torah from one location. This point, as mentioned in the footnotes above, is particularly confusing. It seems clear that the schul in Egypt had both a bima and amud (at the very least according to Rashi’s opinion. One could argue that this is the basic implication of the Talmud). Perhaps Avudraham refers to the location of the bima. As mentioned, Rambam says the bima must be in the middle of the schul. Bais Yosef disagrees. It is possible that the structure of Sefardic synagogues have changed over time [32].
Another possible leniency discussed by Rav Bleich is related to Rambam’s opinion that was quoted above. Rambam states that the bima is high and surrounded by mechitzos (walls). Since the bima is surrounded, by Jewish Law it is considered its own domain and not a “high place”. There is no doubt that this is halchically true and it would also explain how Sefardim daven from the bima. This explanation would also provide some justification to those Ashkenazim that daven from the bima. However, it most certainly does not fit in with the spirit of the law; one still needs to walk up and the congregation sees their representative in a high location. Many of the reasons given as to why the bima is supposed to be high are not compatible with this explanation. It would appear that Ashkenazi poskim do not accept this view.
The best source that Ashkenazim have to pray from the bima is from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986). In two separate responsa in his work Igros Moshe (O.C. 2:28 and 3:10) Rabbi Feinstein permits one to daven from the bima, albeit that it must fulfill the same conditions laid out by Avudraham and Bais Yosef - it must be that it is impossible to hear the shliach tzibur from the amud. What makes Rabbi Feinstein’s responsa unique is that he takes a decidedly more lenient approach to the entire issue. Rabbi Feinstein states at the end of the second responsa,
...Therefore, I rule that the main place for the shliach tzibur to stand at is before the amud. However, when a large crowd is in schul, and due to this crowd it is impossible to hear the shliach tzibur throughout the entire schul, it is permissible for the shliach tzibur to daven from the bima. This will allow the entire congregation to hear without difficulty [33]. Even in [Eastern] Europe this practice was followed in many large synagogues.”
What May be Recited at the Bima
Which aspects of davening, according to everybody, may be recited at the bima? In short, anything that is not considered actual praying is specifically done on the bima in order to show that it is not part of davening. The following list includes some examples of permissible recitations from the bima.
In some congregations the chazzan either recites everything up to Yishtabach from his seat or from the bima. The reason for this is that from the point of Yishtabach and forward is considered the main part of davening. One source for this can be found in Divrei Kehillos, written by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Geiger [34] (1792-1878),
From the beginning of teffilah until the [end of Yishtabach] the shliach tzibur stands at his seat (literally, ‘stands in his place’). He does not stand before the ark (i.e., at the amud) as one does not go down to the ark until reaching the blessing of Yishtabach. [The reason for this is that] the kaddish after Yishtabach and Borchu, through the remainder of davening, is considered the main portion of the service” (Geiger, 1868).
There are many different variations as to the exact juncture that the shliach tzibur approaches the amud. While most readers are most probably unfamiliar with any of these practices [35] and their various combinations, one aspect of this is probably familiar to many of Eastern European descent. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is common that the shliach tzibur for Shacharis stays at his seat until he says the word, “Hamelech”, from his location, in a loud voice. Only thereafter does he approach the amud.
More familiar to readers is the common custom that in most schuls Kabbolas Shabbos, the service recited to welcome the Shabbos, is recited from the bima. After this portion of the service concludes, the shliach tzibur proceeds to the amud for Borchu. The reason for this is that Kabbolas Shabbos, is not part of davening per se. In schul, we explicitly show this by reciting Kabbolas Shabbos from the bima. Maariv, which is an actual prayer, must be recited from its proper location. This is why the shliach tzibur approaches the amud before Borchu. Some sources to show this follow below:
1. Divrei Kehillos (p. 62) mentions that in Frankfurt, Kabbolas Shabbos was not initially accepted [36] for the entire congregation. When L’cha Dodi was recited [37], it was only on condition that there would be certain restrictions; it was recited from the bima to show that it is not part of teffilah, and the chazzan would not wear a Tallis. This specific method mentioned in Divrei Kehillos is uncommon; just about every synagogue today has the chazzan wear a tallis for Kabbolas Shabbos [38]. Further, there is a custom that the chazzan only stands on the bima for L’cha Dodi, as mentioned by Divrei Kehillos, and the remainder of Kabbolas Shabbos is recited from the amud. This custom is practiced among German congregations [39].
2. Rabbi Dr. Elie Munk in his book, “The World of Prayer,” [40] explicitly states as follows (p. 4):
It was pointed out that this festive inauguration of the Sabbath (i.e., Kabbolas Shabbos) was not part of the actual Divine service and it was therefore decided that this group of psalms, ending with מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד, would be recited by the Reader not from the regular Reader’s stand, but from the Bima”.
3. “The Commentators’ Shabbos Prayers,” [41] (p. 27) has a similar comment:
These prayers before Ma’ariv are to be viewed as an integral part of the ceremony of welcoming Shabbos. They are not to be considered part of the Ma’ariv service, which is clear from the fact that they are chanted by the Chazzan not from the regular reader’s stand but rather from the Bima, the table set in the center of the synagogue” (Sender, 2005).
In conclusion, based on the sources quoted, it seems clear that Ashkenazim have two separate locations in schul; an amud for the chazzan, and a bima for reading the Torah and other non-davening parts of the liturgy. In a schul where it is impossible to hear the shliach tzibur without him standing on the bima, Ashkenazim have the opinion of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein to rely on. In most typical situations where one can hear the shliach tzibbur, even when difficult, it appears that the Ashkenaz consensus is not to allow davening anywhere beside the amud. Although many synagogues currently pray from the bima, based on the quoted sources, it would appear that this is something that should possibly be reevaluated [42].
The author would like to express his thanks to Rabbis Shlomo Katanka and Mordechai Doerfer (authors of Makom Shenohagu) for their invaluable insights and assistance with this article. The author can be reached at

[1] This article originally had information regarding Teimanim that was gathered from those Teimanim that this author is fortunate to know. It was pointed out to the author by Rabbi Dr. Seth Mandel, that some of this information is not accurate. A future version of this article will attempt to clarify and fix these errors. In the interim, most references to Teimanim have been removed. This author is indebted to Rabbi Dr. Mandel for his information on this subject.
[2] <almemar> is pronounced [alMEmar], or in IPA, /ˌælˈmɛmɑɚ/.
[3] Schwab, H. (1946). A world in ruins: History, life and work of german jewry. (English ed.). London, England: Edward Goldstone Publishing Company.
[4] Katanka, S., & Doerfer, M. (2011). Makom shenohagu: Minhag bechhofen. London, England: Machon Moreshes Ashkenaz.
[5] Rama in Orach Chaim 150:5, based on Rambam, Hilchos Tefillah 11:3.
[6] Rav Mordechai Doerfer told this author that in Ashkenaz, no “amud”, per-se, existed until the 19th century and the term is inaccurate. The Shliach tzibbur would use a regular shtender. The term is used here as this is what most are familiar with.
[7] This variation is dependent on custom. Having the amud in front of the aron appears to be the more prevalent minhag (custom). Rav Doerfer mentioned that the more prevalent custom until the 19th century was to have the amud off to the side, although still opposite the aron.
[8] This does not necessarily mean that the floor of the schul was always lower than the street. The point is that when one walks into the main sanctuary, one must take a step down.
[9] These are just examples. Many other schuls can be found that followed both customs. It was pointed out to the author by Rav Doerfer that some schuls had both a lower floor and an even lower location for the shliach tzibur.
[10] The exact phrase is יורד לפני התבה.
[11] Prayer leader.
[12] Director of Machon Moreshes Ashkenaz ( This summary is taken from an audio lecture given in England, February 20, 2007 (
[13] When portions of the Torah were publicly read by the king. This took place once every seven years.
[14] This statement by the Talmud will be examined in more detail below.
[15] See for example, Yechezkel 8:16 and Rabbi Dr. Elie Munk’s, The World of Prayer, vol 2, p. 7. for some examples of this. In short, Rav Munk discusses turning toward the aron after bowing at the end of L’cha Dodi. Another example is that Kohanim always kiss the ark after blessing the people. The concept of not having ones back to the aron was so obvious to previous generations that Conor Cruise O’Brien, in his book, “The Siege - The Saga of Israel and Zionism” (1986), relates the following incident with regard to one of Herzl’s first public speeches (p. 73): “On his way back, Herzl addressed the congregation in the synagogue at Sofia (June 30, 1896). As his diary records: ‘I stood on the altar platform. When I was not quite sure how to face the congregation, without turning my back to the Holy of Holies, someone cried: ‘It’s all right for you to turn your back on the Ark, you are holier than the Torah.’” It is well known that Theodor Herzl was from an assimilated family and knew little about Judaism - yet this concept was even obvious to him! It is astounding that there are few congregations that are concerned for this today. According to Rav B.S. Hamburger, Polish Jewry was generally lax with regard to having ones back to the aron.
[16] It is especially common that a small schul or bais medrash will only have a shulchan, a table in the center of the room used for reading the Torah.
[17] This is difficult. Sefardic custom is specifically to daven from the bima, which is a high location! Some answers to this difficulty will be offered below.
[18] Many responsa have been written on this topic. See for example: Chassam Sofer O.C. v. 1, 28; Seridei Aish v. 2, 154 (Mosad HaRav Kook); Igros Moshe O.C. v. 2, 41-42.
[19] The following consists of both a partial paraphrase and direct quotations from Dr. Judith Bleich’s book on Rabbi Yaakov Ettlinger, Jacob Ettlinger, his Life and Works. The Emergence of Modern Orthodoxy in Germany (1974) p. 154.
[20] This is the German custom.
[21] Such a possibility would exist in a schul built like a stadium - each level is progressively lower than the level that precedes it. A floor like this is sometimes found in the women’s section if it is a balcony. Rav M. Doerfer, in an article in Yerushaseinu, v. 7 (השתלשלות מנהגי סדרי הישיבה בבתי כנסת: מישיבה לארבע קצוות ביהכ"נ עד ישיבה שורה לפני שורה), points out that such a setup was found in ancient schuls in Israel.
[22] As pointed out earlier, much of this is a paraphrase and not an exact translation. K’sav Sofer is railing on the German custom. To explain the two customs: according to the German custom, everybody is standing at a low level. However, this is only recognizable when one enters the sanctuary. Once inside, there is no distinction between the congregation and their representative. The positive of this is that every individual is physically in a lower place. The negative is that when the congregation is praying, it is no longer recognizable. According to the Polish custom, only the representative of the congregation stands in a low location. The positive is that everybody is always cognizant that their representative is in a low location. The negative is that the tzibur is never physically on a lower level. Eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chayim.
[23] Usually something under three tefachim in height is considered part of the floor. K’sav Sofer says that this is not necessarily the case by teffilah.
[24] Again, considering that Sefardic custom is only to daven from the bima, this is difficult. Answers to this difficulty will be proposed later.
[25] This schul was exceptionally large. In order to give an idea as to how large this schul was, the Talmud relates that it sometimes had, “double the amount of individuals who left Egypt inside at one time.” (Presumably, this is a hyperbole as that number would have been several million individuals). This story is recorded in three different locations; the Babylonian Talmud, Jerusalem Talmud and the Toseftah. The Babylonian edition relates that a wooden bima was in the middle of the schul and the chazzan of the schul would stand on it. When ‘he’ would reach amen, the chazzan would wave his flag and the congregation would answer amen. This was done due to the schul’s size; not everybody was able to hear the shliach tzibur. There is an argument among the commentators as to who the ‘he’ is referring to. According to Rashi, the chazzan was the shamash (sexton) and the ‘he’ refers to the shliach tzibur who was standing at the amud in the front of the schul. Tosefos HaRosh quotes Aruch in the name of Rabbeinu Nissim that the ‘he’ and the chazzan are one and the same - but the case has nothing to do with praying. Rather, they were reading from the Torah. Tosefos HaRosh also quotes Rabbeinu Shemuel who seems to understand the Talmud in line with Rashi. The Jerusalem Talmud clearly records that the incident revolved around Torah reading.
[26] The word ‘chazzan’ has multiple meanings. It often refers to the shliach tzibur. It can refer to someone in charge of something. In this case, according to K’sav Sofer’s understanding, the word ‘chazzan’ refers to the schul shamash.
[27] It is difficult to know if K’sav Sofer intends this as a proof for or against Bais Yosef’s position. In the beginning, it appears that he is citing this incident as a proof. His conclusion however, seems to say that one should not even be able to move to the bima in a situation where parts of the congregation can not hear at all.
[28] Bleich, J. D. (1976). Contemporary halakhic problems: Library of jewish law and ethics. (Vol. 1). Ktav Pub Inc.
[29] As mentioned above, the Jerusalem Talmud records that this incident revolved around Torah reading - not prayer.
[30] Actually, the Hebrew word used is תבה which makes this confusing. The taivah generally refers to the ark.
[31] This last part is an exact quote from Rav Bleich’s book. One can find the original statement of Avudraham in the two volume set of his works, volume 1, p. 126.
[32] This question was posed to Rav Shlomo Katanka in an email (August, 2013). Rav Katanka responded as follows: “The Teimani Schul of Al-Sharabi had a movable Bima/Amud which is placed in front of the Aron Kodesh for Tefilla. It is then moved to the middle of the schul for Leining. It is then moved back again for davening. Apparently this was the original Minhag in Yemen but more recently a permanent fixed bima was built in Schuls preventing this practice. This is still done in the Temani Shul in Kiryat Sefer. This seems to make it understandable why the Rambam talks about the Amud but the Sefardim do not use one at all! They may have had a movable Amud/Bima.” This theory, posed by Rav Katanka to the author, if true, would answer this difficult question. However, one may still need to assume that there was an amud and bima - i.e., two separate heights. (Of course Sefardim and Teimanim have divergent customs. Furthermore, ‘Shar‘abim’ are not necessarily looked at as ‘typical’ Teimanim).
[33] Rabbi Feinstein’s responsa must be studied to determine if he is only allowing his leniency when it is impossible to hear the shliach tzibur, or if he even allows it if it is to allow the congregation to hear without difficulty. Obviously, one has more leeway if he means the latter.
[34] Dayan in Frankfurt.
[35] Today, it is common to find the shliach tzibur standing at the amud from Birchas HaShachar, the very beginning of the prayer service.
[36] Rav S.R. Hirsch instituted Kabbolas Shabbos in Frankfurt. Until he instituted it, only select members of the congregation would recite Kabbolas Shabbos. Arguments for and against its implementation existed until WWII ended these arguments. It might not be far to say that it is due to Rav Hirsch’s great influence and esteem that Kabbolas Shabbos is now recited by all Jews of German descent.
[37] It is unclear if this refers to the time period when the congregation recited Kabbolas Shabbos, or it is still referring to the time period before it was accepted by the entire congregation.
[38] A notable exception to this rule is Adass Yeshurun of Manchester, England. The original custom is followed that the chazzan does not wear a tallis for Kabbolas Shabbos. (Heard from Rav S. Katanka).
[39] The rationale is that the verses in Kabbolas Shabbos are recited in an alternating manner, akin to the recitation of Psalms. It is therefore considered more in line with praying than L’cha Dodi since Psalms are generally said from the amud; however the alternating fashion tends to set it off from regular praying and thus nobody would assume that this was instituted miyyamim kadmonim, from earlier times. (Heard from Rav Yisroel Strauss).
[40] Munk, E. The world of prayer. (Vol. 2,). Israel: Feldheim Publishers, Ltd.
[41] Sender, Y. (2005). The commentators’ shabbos prayers. Feldman Publishers, Ltd.
[42] How is it that so many synagogues pray from the bima? A number of possibilities exist, although all are far from certain. It is possible that Sefardic minhagim have influenced the Ashkenazi understanding of this issue. Perhaps the Reform movement, who pray from a bima in the front, have influenced some Ashkenazim to always pray from the bima, even when it is not in the front. Another possibility is that architects have been designing synagogues unaware of the Ashkenaz custom on the matter. The most compelling possibility is as Rabbi Feinstein writes. Since large congregations in Eastern Europe were known to pray from the bima, it is possible that many erroneously believe that this is the Ashkenaz custom. Rav Katanka, in an email to this author (October, 2013), said the following as a possible approach as to how so many Ashkenazim pray from the bima: “In London, circa 1725, when the Hambro' Schul began, the chazzan always prayed from the bima. The Great Synagogue (Dukes Place, London – opened in 1791) also davened from the bima. Most other schuls in the United Kingdom (and perhaps even in the United States) followed and copied the Great Schul in London, which was extremely influential; it was even called the most important schul in the world by Cecil Roth in his, “History of the Great Synagogue”, London, 1950. This included both schuls that were large and small. This practice is still standard in the "Englisher" Schul's in United Kingdom. Great rabbonim davened in these schuls. For example, Rav Meshulem Zalman son of Yaavetz (at the Hambro Schul), Rav Dovid Tevle Schiff (at the Great Synagogue), Rav Nosson Adler of London at the Great Synagogue), Dayan Yechezkel Abramsky (at the New Synagogue in Stamford Hill) etc. The list is endless. Even if one could claim that these rabbonim could not change the established custom, they were not against it enough to say anything negative about the chazzan davening from the bima.” This author still stands by his conclusion that the topic should be reevaluated, at the very least in the United States where, as of now, this is in no way a universal practice.
An interesting notion was posed to this author. Perhaps many congregations pray from the bima on Shabbos and Yom Tov since the injunction of מִמַּעֲמַקִּים קְרָאתִיךָ יְהוָה, praying to God from the depths, should not apply on these special days. Although such an idea may provide some justification to those who pray from the bima, one must contend with the following facts. None of the sources mentioned in this article state such an idea. (Although it is certainly possible that other sources mention such an idea elsewhere and this author is unaware of it). Furthermore, three sources were quoted above that specifically show that one should go down to the amud - on Friday night! It would seem that none of the above sources would support such an idea.
When this article was sent to Rav Mordechai Doerfer for review (email, October 2013), he sent back numerous points, both directly and indirectly related to this topic. His main comments are included here:
כמה הערות והארות כלליות:”
המאמר מתייחס בעיקר לשאלה מדוע הש"ץ לא יעמוד על הבימה. אבל צריך גם לבאר, מה עניין בזה לעמוד לפני ארון הקודש? ועוד, מה הם הסיבות להעמיד את הש"ץ באמצע? שגם למנהג זה [בלי להתייחס לבעיה שהבימה גבוה] יש מקור, והחשוב בינהים הרמב"מ פ"ט הל' תפילה. ובעניין חשיבות האמצע עי' גם במאמארי בירושתינו. פשוט לי שבמניין מזדמן במקום שאין ארון הקודש [מצוי במניינים בחתונות וכדו'] על הש"ץ לעמוד באמצע, שאם אין ארון הקודש, למה יעמוד במזרח? אבל עדיין לא מצאתי לזה מקור מפורש, ועינינו רואות שאין זה מנהג העולם.
אנסה לתאר בקיצור נמרץ התפתחות עניין מקום הש"ץ בבית כנסת. בבתי כנסת הישנים, בתקופת המשנה, לא מצאנו לא אלממור ואפי' לא ארון הקודש. מסביב לקירות היו שורות מדורגות, כך שאמצעיתו של בית הכנסת היה יותר נמוך, ולשם ירד הש"ץ לפני התיבה – כעין ארון קודש קטן נייד שהכניסו רק בשעת התפילה. בתקופת האמוראים כבר מצאנו ארון קודש קבוע, אבל מלבד זה לא השתנה שום דבר. ארון הקודש ובית הכנסת כולה לא היו דווקא מכוונים לכיון ירושלים, כך שאין סיבה לחשוב שמקום הש"ץ עבר שינוי. בתקופת הסבוראים וגאונים אין לנו מידע ברורה. מה שברור שבתי כנסת של תקופת ראשונים היו נראים כבר אחרת, אבל אין הוכחה מתי שינוי זה חל. בתקופת הראשונים בתי הכנסת פיתחו את הצורה שמקובלת (מלבד השינויים של מאה ה-19 וה- 20) עד היום, כולל החלוקה בין מנהג הספרדים ואשכנזים בעניינו.
עדיין אין הדבר ברור אצלי, אבל יש לי כמה סיבות לשאר שגם בבתי כנסת הראשונים באשכנז הש"ץ עמד על האלממור: ראשית, צורת הישיבה לד' קצוות שגורמת למרכזיות מוחלטת. שנית, שבכל בתי כנסת מימי הראשונים באשכנז שנחרבו אין שום זכר למקום מיוחד לש"ץ מול ארון הקודש אבל יש כעין תיבה מאבן בפינה מזרח-דרום של האלממור [יש בתי כנסת מימי הראשונים כמו וורמיישא ופרג שהיו בשימוש גם בתקופה החדשה ועברו שינויים רבים. מאידך, יש בתי כנסת שנחרבו ונשארו במצבם האחרון עד שנתגלו שוב בימינו, כמו רגנסבורג, שפירא, ארפורט, קלן]. ועי' בפיוט במוסף ר"ה [היה עם פיפיות]: גשים מול ארון הקודש באימה לשכך כעס וחימה ועמך מסובבים אותם כחומה...וקשה לפרש פיוט זה גם כמנהג אשכנז וגם כמנהג ספרד, אבל אם באמת כמו שאמרנו שהש”ץ עומד על האלממור מול ארון הקודש ואין ספסל בינו לבין ארון הקודש שמפריד (אולי מלבד ספסל אחד מחובר לאלממור ששם מקום הרב, כך היה בוורמיישא) אולי לא קשה. כל זה כמובן לא אומר שעלינו לחזור למנהג של ימי הראשונים, היות וכבר נהגו לפחות יותר מ- 400 שנה בחלוקה מוחלטת בין אלממור לבין מקום הש"ץ."