ARK, the receptacle in the synagogue in which the Torah scrolls are kept. Among Ashkenazim, it is generally called the aron or aron kodesh ("Holy Ark"; cf. II Chron. 35:3); among the Sephardim, it is known as the heikhal or sanctuary ("Ehal" among the Spanish and Portuguese communities of London, Amsterdam, etc.). The Ark is generally situated on the wall of the synagogue which in Israel faces the Temple Mount, and in other countries faces Israel. Thus in Babylonia the Ark was placed on the synagogue's western wall, while in the western world it is located on the wall facing east (see
). In the Mishnah it is called tevah ("chest" or "box"; Ta'an. 2:1; Meg. 3:1; et al.). Thus the term "yored lifnei ha-tevah" ("go down before the Ark") means to lead the congregation in prayer, as the Ark was generally raised above the floor level on which the reader's lectern was set.
According to Jewish Law the Ark is the holiest part of the synagogue after the Torah scrolls themselves. It is permissible to sell the pews or the reading desk and apply the proceeds to the purchase of an Ark, because they have a lesser holiness, but it is forbidden to sell an Ark even in order to build a synagogue because "one may not descend in matters of holiness" (Meg. 26a and Rashi ibid.). It is forbidden to make any secular use of the Ark (Tosef., Meg. 3: 2); and when it is no longer usable it must be stored away (Tur., OH 154). One may not sleep in the vicinity of the Ark (Sh. Ar., OḤ 619), nor sit with one's back to
it (Levush, OḤ 150). It is related that Jacob Segal Moellin (Maharil) used to bow three times to the Ark when he passed it on departing from the synagogue "like a disciple taking leave of his master" (Sh. Ar., OḤ 132, Magen Avraham, 6). The law is: "One must show great honor to the Torah scrolls and it is a mitzvah to set aside a special place for them, to honor that place, and to beautify it." (Sh. Ar., YD 282). It is said that the ignorant die because they refer to the Ark as arana (Aram. "box"), without the adjective "holy" (Shab. 32a).
The Mishnah records that on public fast days declared because of drought, the Ark was brought out into the town square and covered with ashes, and prayers were recited in front of it (Ta'an. 2:1). The ashes were symbolic of the unworthiness of the congregation (Ta'an. 16a; TJ, Ta'an. 11:1, 65a) or of the fact that God suffers with His people (Ta'an. 16a).
There are several widespread customs connected with the Ark. It is opened for certain prayers such as
on fast days and during the
*Ten Days of Penitence
and for many of the piyyutim recited on the High Holy Day services. It is customary to stand while the Ark is open although there is no obligation to do so (Sh. Ar., YD 242:13). The accepted practice is not to leave the Ark empty. When all the Torah scrolls are taken out on Hoshana Rabba and Simḥat Torah, a lighted candle, symbolic of the "light" of the Torah, is often put there; however, halakhic objections have been raised to this custom (Sh. Ar., OḤ 154:7). The Ark usually has a curtain on it which is called parokhet. A lamp (
) is kept continually burning before it. It is not uncommon for men or women to open the Ark to offer private prayers for sick relatives or for other troubles. Generally, opening the Ark seems to stress the importance of the prayer.
Form of the Ark
The scrolls were originally kept in a movable receptacle which served both as their repository and as a pulpit. In the synagogue of Dura-Europos (c. 245 C.E.) a niche in the wall facing Jerusalem was fitted to receive the scrolls which are thought to have been placed in a low, wooden cabinet. Similar cabinets in ordinary use are pictured in Pompeian frescoes. Representations of the Ark are found in paintings and grafitti in the Jewish catacombs in Rome, as well as on the third- and fourth-century gold glasses from Jewish catacombs in that city. The scrolls are depicted lying on shelves in the open cabinets. In the Middle Ages, however, the Ark took the form of a taller niche or cabinet in which the scrolls stood upright, mounted, wrapped in cloth and sometimes topped with finials. This type is represented in 14th- and 15th-century illuminated Hebrew manuscripts of Spanish and German origin. In 15th-century Italian Hebrew manuscripts, a new type appears: the freestanding, tall, double-tiered cupboard, the upper tier fitted to take the scrolls and the lower one to contain ceremonial objects. A Gothic Ark from Modena from the year 1505, decorated with carved panels, is in the Musée Cluny, Paris. A more elaborate Renaissance Ark from Urbino with painted decorations (1550) is in the Jewish Museum in New York. The Sephardi synagogue in Amsterdam (1675) has a baroque Ark, occupying the whole width of the nave. Here a new feature is the twin tablets of the Ten Commandments set on top of the structure. This feature, taken over by the Sephardi synagogue in London in 1701, was later adopted generally.
A baroque structure, adorned with columns, pilasters, broken cornices, pediments, and vases became standard in German synagogues in the early 18th century. The style quickly spread to Eastern Europe, where it inspired Jewish wood and stone carvers to create their masterpieces of folk art. Lions, birds, dolphins, stags, and eagles intertwined with open-work scrolls covered the double-tiered Ark, with the door set into the lower story and the Decalogue into the upper level. The built-in Ark, such as the one of 1763 in the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, appeared in the late 18th century, as a product of the then dominant classicism. The cabinet is built into the wall and projects slightly. However, the most common type of Ark in the U.S. until the 1840s was a neoclassical structure with a curved, convex front and sliding doors. From the 1850s and 1860s the Arks of the Moorish style synagogues in Europe and America were designed in the Oriental style. They featured bulbous domes and horseshoe arches, and were covered with geometrical polychrome decorations. In 1925 an attempt was made to revive the old portable type of the Ark of the Tabernacle in Temple Emanu-el in San Francisco, California. Here the Ark, a house-like structure in cloisonné enamel with a double-pitched roof, resembles a Gothic jewel case or reliquary. It is placed sideways so that the ḥazzan taking out the scroll does not turn his back to the worshipers.
After World War II, the creation of Arks became an art form and many artists experimented with new and daring forms, and with the use of new materials, such as concrete and glass.