|The bimah and Aron HaKodesh at the historic |
6th&I synagogue in Washington, DC.
This week's parsha, Acharei Mot, describes a lot of things Jews shouldn't do, such as going into the Holy of Holies, the most sacred inner room within the Temple, . . . unless it's Yom Kippur, you're the High Priest, and you've undergone all the necessary physical and spiritual preparations. Because the Temple no longer exists, this prohibition is really just a reminder of a long-ago time and place.
The closest we have to the Holy of Holies in a modern synagogue is the Holy Ark (Aron HaKodesh), where the Torah scrolls are kept. The Ark is usually the central focal point of any sanctuary, whether it's in the front of the room or the center. It's often decorative and can be very elaborate with all sorts of thematic motifs woven into the design. Click here to read about all the symbols located within and around Agudas Achim's Ark.
The Torah scrolls are placed on a shelf inside the Ark behind both a set of doors and a curtain. It is an honor to be called up to the bimah (the best translation is probably "stage") to open the doors and/or curtains before certain prayers are said. The congregation stands when the Ark is opened and waits until the curtain is closed before sitting. Certain prayers also call for bowing in front of the open Ark.
Finally, on Yom Kippur, the rabbi and chazzan prostrate themselves before the Ark at one powerful point in the service. This custom is just a echo of what the High Priest would have done thousands of years ago at the Temple in Jerusalem, but it connects us to our ancestors and our history nonetheless.