What Is a Bimah? Originally Published March 22-23, 2019.

A bimah (בִּימָה) is an elevated platform.  Used in a synagogue it is, in church English, a pulpit.  In modern Hebrew “bimah” also refers to a stage.  In ancient and Orthodox churches, it is also used to refer to a pulpit (bema).  It was also the term used in ancient Athens for a orator’s platform.  The platforms used in courts of law today derive from that time in Greece as well.

The tradition is that the Sefer Torah is read from a shulhan, a table, on the bimah.  In many traditional and Sephardic shuls, the bimah is located in the center of the sanctuary.  A friend likes to describe a northern European synagogue in which the bimah was in the center, and the board members sat around along the walls; services did not start until all board members were present.  The platform also may be called an almemar (from the Arabic al-minbar, platform), or among Sephardi Jews a tevah (box).  In the Sephardic rite, the whole service is conducted from the tevah (תֵּיבָה). 

Back in the days of Nehemiah (Neh. 8:4) they read Torah from a bimah, likely made of stone.  The Talmud later mentions a wooden platform in the center of the synagogue of Alexandria (Suk. 51b).

In the Middle Ages, there was often a separation between the Ark (where the Torah scrolls are kept) and the bimah.  Sometimes there are congregants sitting between the two.

Today many congregations are rethinking the raised platform with accessibility in mind.  The height is often not so high and the stairs not the only means of access.  Many also are adapting the idea of reading Torah in the center of the congregation, using a floor-level shulhan for accessibility.  This also may coincide with leading other parts of the service from within the congregation. 

As you look at our bimah, you will see on the right (stage left) the “rabbi’s lectern” and on the left (stage right) the “cantor’s lectern.”  (Look at the images carved on them to see whether you can surmise the representations.)  The cantor’s lectern is built with the ability to face the Ark or the congregation to lead the service, as a cantor needs to do both, and this is often true even when the bimah is placed elsewhere. 

Bimah architecture is widely varied, and may even include surrounding railings, metal fencing, or a roof.