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Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
A bimah is the elevated platform in the synagogue at which the reading of the Torah takes place. The bimah has steps on its two sides so that those called to the reading ascend at the side nearest to them and descend, after their portion has been read, by the steps at the other side; the principle is that one should ascend for the reading of God’s words by the swiftest route and leave, as if reluctant to depart, by the longest route.
In Sephardi synagogues the cantor leads the prayers from the bimah (also called the almemar) but in some Ashkenazi synagogues it is held to be inappropriate to pray to God on an elevated spot, and the cantor stands at a desk on the floor below the ark. In many of the older synagogues the preacher delivered his sermon from the bimah.
The bimah, according to Maimonides, has to be situated in the center of the synagogue but Karo defends, on aesthetic grounds the Sephardi practice of his day of sitting the bimah at the Western end of the synagogue, provided that all the congregants can hear the reading.
With the rise of the Reform movement at the beginning of the 19th century, some synagogues located the bimah at the Eastern end of the synagogue adjacent to the ark. This innovation met with fierce opposition from Orthodox authorities such as Moses Sofer who argued that it was a conscious attempt by the Reformers to copy the practice of the Christian church where the altar is at the east end of the building. Hungarian Orthodox Rabbis placed a ban on entering a synagogue where the bimah was located at the Eastern end of the synagogue.
Nowadays, however, even some Orthodox synagogues have the bimah adjacent to the ark, mainly because, in larger synagogues, this enables the congregation to have more space for seats in the body of the building.
The whole controversy about the sitting of the bimah, like the question of the use of the organ, obviously had more to do with the general question of innovations in the forms of Jewish worship than with the strict application of Jewish law in the particular instances. It was all part of the suspicion by the Orthodox that the Reformers were prone to imitate Gentile forms of worship.
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