- Question: [Sunday, 19th Adar 5783]
I have seen some synagogues that they have a bench and table for sitting in front of the Bima, between the Bima and Aron Kodesh, and others which do not have anything between the Bima and Aron Kodesh, and it is hence left as completely empty space without any furniture in between. After inquiring, I was told that indeed the Rebbe’s directive was like the former approach to have a bench and table in front of the Bima, between the Bima and Aron Kodesh, in order to negate the order in conservative and Reform synagogues, which is similar to a church, in which the Bima is placed in direct approximation to the Aron Kodesh, and not in the middle of the synagogue. Practically, what should we do in our Shul which currently does not have anything between the Bima and Aron Kodesh.
So long as the Bima is in the middle and center of the Shul, there is no need for you to place a bench in front of the Bima, and you may choose to leave the space empty, as is done in 770 in both the downstairs and upstairs Shul. In the event that the Bima is not in the middle and center of the Shul, or your congregation is not dedicated to Orthodox tradition and may in the future place the bimah next to the Aron, then seemingly a bench should be placed.
Explanation: Traditionally, as rule the Rishonim and Poskim, the Bima must be in the middle and center of the synagogue. This is done in order so everyone can equally hear the reading of the Torah, as well as being that the bimah is similar to the gold altar in the temple, which was also in the center. Now, in the 1800s reform temples began changing from this traditional order of a synagogue and started copying churches and making the Bima in close approximation to the Aron Kodesh. Due to this, leading Orthodox rabbis of those generations and later, vehemently opposed any change to the tradition of where the bimah is to be situated, and equated this change with following the ways of the Gentiles and with heresy.
Now, regarding the question of whether one may or should arrange a seating area in front of the Bima, between the Bima and Aron Kodesh, the Poskim rule that it is absolutely forbidden to be done in a way that the person sitting will have his back facing the Aron Kodesh. This is due to two reasons; 1) it is a belittlement to the Aron Kodesh for one to have his backside facing it. 2) When a person bows by his Aliyah [by those accustomed to do so], it appears that he is bowing to that person. However, the later Poskim explain that there is no issue with placing a bench in between the Bima and Aron Kodesh for people to sit with their backs towards the Bima and front facing the Aron Kodesh, and that so is indeed the custom today to position a sitting area between the Bima and Aron Kodesh. In such a case, it does not appear that the Olah is bowing to the person sitting in front of the bimah being that the bowing is only done out of respect for the Torah, as well as that this worry only applies when one bows towards the face of a person and not his backside. Now, as to the statement of the Rebbe regarding this matter, and if it is only that it is allowed to place a bench there, or that one must do so, the following is an analysis on the subject:
The Rebbe was once asked by a rabbi who was asked to become the leader of a congregation in which the bimah was not situated in the center of the synagogue, as to what he has to do. The rebbe replied that there should be at least one bench for sitting between the Bima and Aron Kodesh. In a later letter to the same individual the Rebbe clarified as to why specifically a bench is needed and simply leaving empty space does not suffice, as the bench will serve as an everlasting interval between the Bima and Aron Kodesh and prevent it from being too close. Likewise, with the bench there one can argue that it is considered that the bimah is in the middle of the synagogue, as opposed to one of its ends, even if it is not in the exact center when measuring from wall to wall. Hence, the rebbe negated simply leaving empty space between the Bima and Aron Kodesh, and required specifically a bench to be placed there, due to the above two reasons.
Based on these letters, some Melaktim have written that there should always be at least 1 to 2 benches between the Bima and Aron Kodesh in every synagogue. However, “Ein Hachaiy Makchish Es Hachaiy,” and even in the Rebbes own Shul in 770 this was not done, and why would the Rebbe direct the whole world to do so and then ignore the fact that in his own Shul it isn’t followed. In answer to this contradiction, some Rabbanim suggest that the above directive only applies to a place which is only a synagogue for prayer and not to a place which is also a Beis Midrash. Other Rabbanim, however, have seemingly rightfully explained that the above directive of the Rebbe was meant for the very specific case which the asker posed to the Rebbe, which is regarding a synagogue that is leaning towards the conservative side which already had the bimah positioned in approximation to the Aron, as follows the reform movement, and it is regarding this case, and this case alone, that the Rebbe directed for a bench to be placed in between. Hence, we have concluded as above that there is no need to have a bench in between in a synagogue which follows protocol and Jewish tradition to leave the Bima in the center of the synagogue, and it is only necessary in a synagogue in which its congregation is not guaranteed to follow this protocol, or perhaps also in the case where for whatever reason the Bima is not able to be positioned in the exact center.
Sources: See regarding the bimah being in the center of the synagogue: Rama O.C. 150:5; Tur 150; Rambam Tefila 11:3-4; Chasam Sofer O.C. 1:28; Yehuda Yaleh O.C. 1:3; Sdei Chemed 4:758, Mareches Beis Hakeneses 13; Meishiv Davar 15; Machaneh Chaim 10; Levushei Mordechai 1:83; Minchas Yitzchak 3:4-7; 5:22; Mishnas Yosef Hilchos Beis Hakeneses end of 21; Divrei Yisrael 62; Biur Halacha end of 150; Piskeiy Teshuvos 150:13; See regarding the prohibition of placing a bench between the Bima and Aron Kodesh: Taz O.C. 150:2 and Y.D. 282:1; M”A 150:6; Levush 150:5; P”M 150 M”Z 2 and Chayeh Adam 17:19 [permit if facing Heichal]; M”B 150:14; Toras Chaim Sofer 150:11; Kaf Hachaim 150:46; Minchas Yitzchak 3:4, 6; 5:22; See regarding the Rebbe’s directive to place a bench in front of the bimah: Igros Kodesh Vol. 23 p. 156; 193, printed in Likkutei Sichos 16:615