Question. Ancient synagogues have been discovered and excavated in Israel. Why do there not seem to be the remains of any ancient Arks?
Answer. Like the Ark of the Ten Commandments that was carried through the wilderness, ancient Arks were portable. The usual term for the Ark was “tevah”, literally a chest. The same word is used for the ark in the story of Noah.
The synagogal Ark was originally not a fixed cupboard but a chest containing the scrolls; it was brought into the synagogue when needed for a service. The Mishnah in Ta’anit records that in time of drought the Ark would be taken out into the town square for a communal prayer rally.
The date when the portable Ark was replaced by something more permanent is not certain, but it must have been somewhere in or before the 4th or 5th century CE since the synagogues dating from this period have a recess which must have housed the Ark.
In more recent times, ruined buildings have been found in many places that once boasted Jewish communities, and if there is a doubt as to whether a ruin was actually a synagogue the existence of an apse that must have been where the Ark stood is a decisive argument for the identity of the building.
The question that naturally needs to be asked is what happened to the actual Arks from these buildings and, even more so, what happened to their Torah scrolls. In some cases they were saved and found new homes. In others they suffered martyrdom. One cannot imagine any Jewish congregation willingly abandoning its Torahs.
LEAVING A SIDDUR OPEN
Question. Is it right for people leave their Siddur open after a service?
Answer. Definitely not. One should not walk away leaving a holy book open, even upside down (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 277). It is an insult to the book, like walking away from a person while they are still talking to you (Minhagei Y’shurun, p.103).
Further, if the book is left open something might fall on the open page and make it dirty.
Some say there is an angel called Shed, the initials of Shomer Dappin – “he who guards the pages”. He shows his displeasure with a person who leaves a holy book open by causing them to forget their knowledge! (Shach to Yoreh De’ah 277).
LAG BA’OMER: A NEW HOLIDAY
Come with me on a search for the origins of Lag Ba’Omer and check through the Bible, the Mishnah, the Gemara, and even the works of the medieval Ge’onim.
What do you find?
Nothing. Not a trace of the festival.
I know that tradition records that Rabbi Akiva’s vast numbers of students, fighting against the Romans, were smitten by a plague (Talmud Yevamot 61b) that lifted on this day. But the institution of Lag Ba’Omer as an official holyday took time to emerge.
Not until the 13th century is there a literary source, when the Sefer HaManhig (91b) reports a saying of Ibn Yar’chi that the ban on marriages during the Omer is relaxed on and from the 33rd day of the S’firah.
One explanation may be that as the weeks of the Omer proceeded, their severe impact waned and custom took account of what people were doing.
Whether this is the truth or not, it indicates that the people had an effect on the development of the observances of Judaism. Another example is of course Simchat Torah.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. Now retired and lives in Jerusalem.