Is the shul merely a holy place where we come to daven and learn, or is it vastly more significant? In sefer Yechezkel, the novi comforts the Jewish people, assuring them that even when they are thrown from Eretz Yisroel, Hashem will remain in their midst. He will dwell in the shuls and botei medrash they build wherever they find themselves: Although I have cast them far off among the nations and scattered them among the countries, yet will I be to them as a little Mikdosh in the countries where they shall come (Yechezkel 11:16). The Gemara (Megillah 29a) comments, “These are the botei knesses and botei medrash in Babylon.” Shuls are surrogate Botei Mikdosh where Hashem dwells amongst us during our exile.
The similarity between shul and Bais Hamikdosh is not only spiritual, but practical. One of the most basic similarities between shuls and the Bais Hamikdosh is the honor that accrues to them both. The Mishnah Berurah (151:1) writes that this derives from the Gemara’s comparison of the Bais Hamikdosh to a shul: “They are called Mikdosh me’at and regarding the Mikdosh the verse says, You shall fear My Mikdosh (Vayikra 19:30).“How far does this rule extend? Does the similarity between shul and the Bais Hamikdosh extend to the shape of a shul and where we place its furniture?
The Eight Sided Shul
Someone once asked the Noda B’Yehuda whether it is one permitted to build a hexagonal shul. He replied that the issue is not discussed anywhere and that he saw no halachic reason to prohibit it. However, if the purpose of building a hexagonal shul was to imitate the impressive homes of gentiles it would be better “not to innovate anything that changes the old minhag, especially in this generation.”
Rav Chaim Binyomin Pontrimoli, a prominent 19th century poseik of Izmir, Turkey, begged to disagree with the Noda B’Yehuda “after kissing the dust beneath his feet,” due to the fact that Chazal derive so many laws of shuls from the Bais Hamikdosh. Shul doors are always built eastward, similar to the Heichol that opened to the east, (although Tosafos says this does not apply to shuls that do not face eastward). The Gemara (Shabbos 11) learns that a shul is built in the highest part of a town from the Bais Hamikdosh,of which it says, To elevate the house of our G-d (Ezra 9:9). The laws of not destroying a shul, not using it as a shortcut, specifically using it as a shortcut after one davens there, and not entering it for one’s personal benefit, are all learned from the Bais Hamikdosh. And the Shaloh (Rimzei Mussar, Tetzaveh) writes that the custom of having a ner tamid in shuls is derived from the menorah that burnt constantly from evening to morning.
Rav Chaim Binyamin concludes that just as the building, rooms, and altars of the Bais Hamikdosh were square or rectangular, so too, our shuls should be those shapes and not hexagonal.
Placement of shul furniture led to huge controversy in the 19th century. The Reform movement of Germany not only introduced organs into shuls and removed the mechitzah between men and women, but also moved the bimah from the middle of the shul to the front in imitation of gentile houses of worship where the altar stands in front. In the summer of 1830, the kehillah of Eisenstadt wrote to the Chasam Sofer asking if they could place the bimah of their new shul in front, not in imitation of the Reform, chas v’sholom, but merely to make more room.
The Chasam Sofer (Shu”t Chasam Sofer, O.C 28) discouraged the idea, explaining that the location of the bimah is based on the place of the altar in the Bais Hamikdosh, and adding his famous aphorism that chodosh ossur min Hatorah – innovation is forbidden by the Torah. The son of the Chasam Sofer, Rav Shimon Sofer (the Michtav Sofer of Krakow, d. 1883) discusses his father’s ruling in greater detail.
First, he writes, “our eyes see that in almost all places of our exile from end to end, shuls are built the same with the bimah for Kri’as Hatorah in the middle and a special bimah below on the floor near the aron hakodesh where the shliach tzibbur goes to daven.”
Prayer corresponds to incense as the verse says, Let my prayer be set forth before you as incense (Tehillim 141:1), he continues. Therefore, just as the golden altar of incense stood before the aron hakodesh in the Bais Hamikdosh, so too, the amud of tefillah stands before the aron in shul. The bimah, on the other hand, corresponds to the copper altar of sacrifices that stood in the middle of the courtyard, for upon it we read the verses of korbanos that correspond to the various sacrifices. Also, the Gemara (Menachos 110) comments on the verse, This is the Torah of the burnt offering, of the flour offering, etc. (Vayikra 7:36), that “whoever studies Torah is considered as if he offered a burnt offering, a flour offering, etc.”
This too, he says, is why the husband of a yoledes receives an aliyah in place of bringing a korban yoledes, and why someone who escaped tribulation gets an aliyah when saying the blessing shegimolani kol tov in lieu of bringing a korban. On Sukkos also, we encircle the bimah with the four species (Hakofos) to commemorate the encircling of the altar with the aravos in the Temple. Therefore, he concludes, the bimah must be situated in the middle of the shul just as the copper altar was built in the middle of the Temple courtyard.
A number of poskim, including the K’sav Sofer, the Mahari Assad, and the Netziv of Volozhin, forbade placing the bimah in the front of a shul, and a rabbinical gathering in Michlovitz, Hungary, decreed among other things, that “it is forbidden to enter and daven in a shul where the bimah is not in the middle.”
This was surprising because the Kesef Mishneh (Hilchos Tefillah) writes that the rule was pragmatic and depended on place and time. Why does the Rambam require having a bimah in the middle? Only so that everyone in the shul should hear Kri’as Hatorah clearly. This, the Gr”aexplains, is derived from the Gemara’s description of the huge Alexandrian shul where “there was a wooden bimah in its middle.”
When Rav Yosef Tzvi Carlebach, last chief rabbi of Hamburg before its destruction, was offered the position of chief rabbi of Berlin in the hope that his popularity would unite all the city’s Jews under his authority, he refused because the governing board had decided to build a new shul where the bimah would be placed in front of the aron and not in the center, citing as precedent the example of Rav Seligman Baer Bamberger whose shul in Wurzburg had a bimah in the front. To this Rav Carlebach replied that if that were the only problem with their shul he would have agreed. The trouble was the Berlin shul also had an organ and a revised Siddur.
“If you were willing to abolish the organ and to retain the traditional prayer book; to have one united Jewish community that is completely loyal to tradition, with only the one stipulation that the reading desk be situated in front of the congregation instead of in its midst–then, I would be the first to preach from the pulpit of the Oranienburgerstrasse Synagogue,” he wrote to them. “Then, when the time comes, I would confess before G-d that I indeed violated one of the precepts of the Shulchan Aruch, but, by so doing, I united all the brethren of the Jewish people under the banner of Torah, and prevented them from being divided into two kinds of Judaism.”
“Bamberger achieved such unity as a result of his one concession and the official Jewish community of Würzburg has remained Orthodox to this day. But as for those who have destroyed the unity of Judaism by the introduction of outright reforms in worship, they have acted contrary to the spirit of Rabbi Bamberger. They add insult to injury in their dealings with Orthodoxy by denying in its own houses of worship that which it regards as sacred principle.” (Ish Yehudi, p. 168)
Why did Rav Carlebach regard the prohibition of a misplaced bimah as less severe than an organ or revised prayer book?
Rav Moshe Feinstein (O.C. vol. II, 42) explained that the prohibition against davening in shuls with a bimah in the middle was an emergency ruling.
“Regarding making a bimah in the middle, one should certainly do so,” he writes. “But regarding davening in a shul where it was not made in the middle, I do not think it is forbidden. That which people say that in Hungary they forbade it is not clearly known to me. It was probably only in places where they did this for reformist reasons, for in those places it was the beginning of the wicked reformers’ activities. But in other places where the intent is not for reform but so that there should be more places and other reasons like this, davening there is not forbidden.”
No Clear Cut Rule
Regarding the original question of how far to extend the comparison between the Bais Hamikdosh and shuls, Rav Yonasan Steiff (Shu”t Mahari Steiff) concluded that there is no hard and fast rule.
“I am puzzled,” he wrote. “Since shuls and botei medrash nowadays are in the place of the Bais Hamikdosh as it says in Megillah (29a), …it would be fitting and correct to appoint guards to guard them every night in remembrance of the guarding of the Bais Hamikdosh. But we do not find that Chazal enacted this even miderabanan. Perhaps this is because it is a decree most of the public could not endure, especially in villages with few Jewish inhabitants.”
Despite his tentative answer, Rav Steiff concludes that the comparison between shul and Bais Hamikdosh is not watertight:
“The acharonim have already discussed at length that our shuls are similar to the Bais Hamikdosh in many ways. Nonetheless, they are not similar in everything because we rule that no one can sit in the [Temple] courtyard except kings of the house of Dovid as explained in Yuma (25a), and there is no prohibition against sitting in our shuls. All this needs much further research.”
Whatever Chazal’s criteria, they were insistent that the shul should resemble the Bais Hamikdosh enough that we never forget that even in exile, we stand three times daily before Hashem’s presence.
(Main source: Milei Debei Kenishta, published by Bais Medrash Bais Yissochor Dov, Golders Green, London, 5765.)