I just attended a synagogue for a bar mitzvah, and I was surprised to see that the podium where the Torah is read is in the center of the sanctuary, facing forward. In the synagogue where I grew up, it was in the front. Does it make a difference?


The traditional place of the podium, known as the bimah, is indeed in the center of the sanctuary, facing toward the ark. Maimonides1 codifies this practice and supplies a practical reason: When the reader is in the center, everyone is able to hear the Torah reading clearly and easily.

In addition, Rabbi Moses Sofer,2 known as the Chatam Sofer, explains that the bimah in the synagogue is representative of the altar that was in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Just like the altar was positioned in the center of the Temple courtyard, we position the bimah in the center of the synagogue. He cites the Talmudic3 description of the great synagogue of Alexandria, which had such a bimah in the center of the synagogue, as evidence that the center of the synagogue has been the home of the bimah since antiquity.

For these reasons, tradition mandates that the bimah should be at the center of the synagogue, or at least behind a row of seats.4

(I should point out that the above is regarding the place from where the Torah is read. On the other hand, the Ashkenazic custom is that the cantor, chazan, who leads the prayers stands on floor level in the front of the sanctuary, and should not stand on a raised platform unless that is the only way that his voice will be heard.5)