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The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
Ark of the Law
—In the Synagogue():
A closet or chest in which are kept the Torah scrolls used in the public worship of the synagogue. The Ark is placed in or against the wall of the synagogue, toward which the worshipers turn in the solemn parts of the liturgy—the wall in the direction of Jerusalem. The Ark is always placed a few feet above the floor of the nave and is reached by steps. As the Torah is the most sacred and precious possession of the Jew, so is the chest which holds it the most important and ornate part of the synagogue. It is called "Aron ha-Ḳodesh" (the Holy Ark) after the Ark of the Covenant in the Tabernacle and the Temple (Exodus 25:10 et seq., 37:1 et seq.). The perpetual lamp () is usually hung in front of it. From the platform near it the priests pronounce their benediction on festivals (compare the expression , R. H. 31b; Shab. 118b), and in modern Ashkenazic synagogues the bimah or almemar—the platform from which the prayers are recited and the lessons of the Torah read by the precentor—is placed near it (compare in the Talmud the expressions and [Ber. 5:4; R. H. 4:7,34b], for performing the function of precentor). Whenever the Ark is opened thecongregation rises in reverence for the Torah it holds, and when it is empty, as on the Feast of the Rejoicing of the Law (SimḦat Torah), when all the Torah scrolls are taken out to be carried in procession, a burning candle is placed in it. Before the Ark there is frequently placed a curtain of costly material, called paroket after the curtain which in the Tabernacle and Temple screened the Holy of Holies (Exodus 27:21, 36:35, 21).
It may be safely assumed that the Ark constituted from the first an integral part of the synagogue edifice. The synagogue was considered a sanctuary next to the Temple (Meg. 29a; see Targum to Ezekiel 11:16), and the Ark as corresponding to the third division of the Temple, the Holy of Holies. The application of the term to the Ark is therefore not appropriate, as this name was given to the second or middle division of the Temple (1 Kings 6:5,17; 7:50). It is equally certain that the Ark served from the beginning as a receptacle for the sacred scrolls used in the service of the synagogue, although the older accounts do not expressly mention it. This may be inferred from the analogy with the Ark of the Covenant in which, according to tradition (Deuteronomy 10:2 et seq.; 1 Kings 8:9; 2 Chronicles 5:10), the tablets of the covenant, or the Decalogue, were deposited, and the place of which was taken by the Ark and the Torah.
In the Mishnah the Ark is referred to not as , but as , the word used in the Old Testament (spelled without י) for the Ark of Noah (Genesis 6-) and the Ark in which Moses was hidden (Exodus 2:3,5). Its preference for the term "Tebah" may be due to a desire to distinguish between the Ark of theTabernacle and Temple, and that of the synagogue (compare, however, the Baraita). The vulgar crowd commit a deadly sin in calling the sacred shrine simply "chest" (Shab. 32a). In Megillah 3:1 this gradation of sacredness is given: From the proceeds of the sale of a synagogue an Ark may be purchased; from those of an Ark, wrappers (for the Torah scroll); from those of wrappers, books (that signifies, according to Maimonides' Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah, Hilkot Tefillah, 11:14, the Pentateuch and other parts of the Old Testament in book form); from those of books, a Torah scroll (compare also ShulḦan 'Aruk, OraḦ Ḥayyim, § 153, 2). According to Ta'anit 2:1 the Ark was portable. Josephus ("Ant." 16:6, § 2) mentions incidentally that the sacred books were kept in the synagogue(σαββατεῖον); Chrysostom (347-407) refers in "Oratio Adversus Judæos," 6:7 ("Opera," ed. Montfaucon, vol. ), to the Ark (κιβωτός, the word by which the Septuagint renders the Hebrew and in "Orat." 1:5 to the "Law" and the "Prophets" which were kept in the synagogues. It is only Maimonides (Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah, Hilkot Tefillah,  3) and Bertinoro (to Ta'anit 2:1) who state explicitly that the sacred scrolls were preserved in the Ark.
In earlier times and in less important synagogues the Ark wasgenerally a movable piece of furniture, so that in case of disturbance or danger it could be readily removed with its contents. In its most rudimentary form it was merely a wooden case or closet, raised from the floor sufficiently high for the congregation to see the scrolls of the Law when the doors were open.
Sometimes the Ark is fashioned as a recess or niche in the wall, and the design is then very properly considered in connection with the architectural treatment of the interior of the synagogue. When this method is adopted it is generally ornamented with columns, cornices, and arches; and when built of stone or other rich materials, presents an appearance of great dignity. Examples may be found to-day in some of the London synagogues, a particularly notable one being that in Great St. Helens, which itself is a fine piece of classic design. In this structure the Ark is a curtained recess in a semicircular wall. It is flanked with pilasters and coupled Corinthian columns, which are surmounted by other columns and arches supporting a half-dome, a fine effect of stateliness being attained by this simple treatment.
A more modern example is found in the synagogue Mickve Israel, of Philadelphia, where the Ark occupies practically the entire eastern end of the building. Here, also, it takes the form of a recess in the wall; and it is framed with columns and pilasters supporting a round arch, in the tympanum of which are the tables of the Law surrounded by stained glass. When the doors are opened, a base of white marble is disclosed, and on this rest the scrolls.
In the synagogue at Amsterdam there is an extremely beautiful Ark treated architecturally with Ionic columns, cornices, and pediments; the central portion is raised higher than the sides and contains the tables of the Law elaborately framed and surrounded by carving. This Ark is specially notable from the fact that it is divided vertically into five parts, each having separate compartments with doors, and all containing scrolls. Notwithstanding its elaboration, however, it has no relation to the interior design of the building, and must be considered rather as a handsome piece of furniture placed in the position of honor.
In many of the important synagogues in Europe the Ark is treated in the same way. In Wiesbaden, Florence, and Paris are three instances of this. The Ark in the synagogue in each of these cities is a superb structure made of stone, marble, and rich metal work; but the main line of the walls against which it is placed has been recognized in its design, and while it is a separate structure, it still forms a consonant part of the interior and harmonizes with it without losing its distinctive importance.
The Ark in the Temple Emanu-El in New York is an unusually elaborate piece of Moresque design. It is richly carved, entirely constructed of wood, and colored in the manner of the Alhambra.
In the Temple Beth-El, New York, the Ark is made of onyx and colored marbles, and is placed against a semi-circular background of marble and mosaic. Richly wrought and gilded bronze is used for capitals and other ornamental parts, and for the doors—which latter are counterweighted, and rise instead of sliding to the sides. These doors are of open design, so that, even when they are closed, the scrolls may be seen, as the interior is illuminated with electric lights.
The approach to the Ark of the West End Synagogue, New York, is by four steps from the main floor, giving upon a broad platform extending nearly the whole width of the building; from the center of the rear of this again, rise four semicircular steps leading to the actual Ark. This is of elaborate Moresque design and workmanship, in which strong relief is obtained by the use of light oak fretwork, embedded in black walnut panels, in the central sliding doors which conceal the scrolls. Handsome walnut pillars, which reproduce the form of those of stone that support the portico of the exterior of the building, and of those of onyx that uphold the galleries, flank the Ark. The whole structure is set in an arched recess in the south wall of the building, and receives light in the daytime from rows of Moresque windows of stained glass, placed close together and filling the extent of the arch. By night, concealed gas or electric lights are skilfully adjusted to illuminate the salient points of the design. The pulpit and the reading-desk, occupying their customary positions, repeat the mosaic ornamentation of the combined oak and walnut, characteristic of the Ark. An equally elaborate Ark is that of the "Shearith Israel" congregation in New York, the Sephardic place of worship; a colored plate of it forms the frontispiece of vol. of this Encyclopedia.
The Ark is always surmounted by a representation of the two tables of the Law, while a perpetual lamp hangs in front; silver and bronze lamps of rich workmanship are often placed at the sides. The doors, except in the Sephardic synagogues, are covered by curtains, and the walls of the interior are also adorned with rich hangings.
The Ark is approached always by at least three steps, but sometimes many more are used, and—as in the case of the Paris synagogues—a fine effect is obtained by marble steps and balustrades.
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Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Ark of the Law'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tje/a/ark-of-the-law.html. 1901.