This wooden structure is called a bimah, the Hebrew word for stage or elevated platform. In a Synagogue, the bimah is the platform from which the sacred Torah scroll is read aloud during a service. This bimah at Eldridge Street also serves as extra storage. Notice the metal lock affixed to the wood to ensure the safety of the ritual items stored

At the Eldridge Street Synagogue, the bimah is located in the center of the sanctuary. The central location reflects the historic placement of the altar in the Second Temple. By the mid to late 19th century however, it was more common for congregations in America and Western Europe to place the bimah in the front of the synagogue. Influenced by the Protestant custom of installing reading platforms in the front of the church, many Jewish congregations were motivated to do the same. There were also practical reasons behind the bimah’s location. Jewish congregations often bought churches, converted the building into a synagogue and simply left the reading platform in its original spot up front. By placing the bimah in the center, the leaders at Eldridge Street Synagogue made a conscious choice to preserve their own traditions. They also wanted to ensure that everyone, regardless of the location of his/her seat, would be able to hear the reading. In this way, placing the bimah in the center was also a democratic choice. Now the Torah reading was as accessible to the peddler sitting in the back of the sanctuary as it was to the wealthy merchant seating in the front.

Discussion Questions

  • Where have you heard someone speak or read from an elevated platform? What were they reading? Why do you think they chose to read from a platform instead of from the floor?

Classroom Extensions

  • Have students take on the role of an architecture firm designing a sanctuary for a synagogue. The congregational leaders can’t decide if they should place the bimah in the front or middle of the sanctuary. Have the students debate the placement of the ark within in the floor plan they are developing and present the pros and cons of each choice.
  • Compare and contrast speaking from a platform with speaking from the floor, as well as speaking in the front of a crowd versus from their midst. Have students recite a speech while standing first on a platform in the front of the classroom and second in their midst. Follow this exercise by having students speak in both location from the floor. Discuss the experience from the vantage point of both speaker and audience. Explore how the speeches compared when the placement of the speaker shifted.
  • Look at the drawing Reading from the Scroll to see an image of how the bimah is used during worship.