Every Jewish synagogue contains an Ark, known in Hebrew as the Aron Kodesh, by the Ashkenazim and as the heichal among most Sephardim. Simply a receptacle, or ornamental closet, which contains each synagogue’s Torah scrolls. It is not only the focal point of the sanctuary, but also the holiest place in the synagogue, both because it contains the sacred writings of Judaism and because it represents the original ark of the Jewish people. Our tradition tells us that the original ark was created to hold the stone tablets (containing the Ten Commandments) that G-d gave Moses at Mount Sinai. In most cases, when possible, the Ark is located on the wall of the synagogue closest to Jerusalem.
The term “Ark” is a combination of two Hebrew words, “aron kodesh,” which means holy cabinet; its shape and decorations have evolved over the many years. What began as a humble niche containing a simple wooden cabinet to hold the Torah, has developed into magnificent works of art.
Because of its dominance as the most central focal point of synagogue furniture, it is important to endow the aron kodesh with beautiful and spiritually uplifting art. Among the common themes traditionally appearing are the Ten Commandments, The Tree of Life, Mount Sinai and The Twelve Tribes.
This past June, University Synagogue in Irvine, dedicated a new ark, commissioned by several synagogue members, which, in Rabbi Arnold Rachlis’ words “presents a very Reconstructionist approach with roots in our tradition that soars into modernity.”
Throughout the world there are examples of arks representing the art of the periods during which they were created. In 245 C.E. the synagogue of Dura-Europos fit a niche in the wall facing Jerusalem to place the scrolls which are thought to have been placed in a low, wooden cabinet. Similar cabinets are pictured in Pompeian frescoes. 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 crowns. In the 15th-century the ark becomes a freestanding, tall, double-tiered cupboard; the upper tier was fitted to hold the scrolls and the lower one to contain ceremonial objects. A gothic ark from Modena from the year 1505 can be found in the Musée Cluny, Paris, decorated with carved panels. A more elaborate Renaissance Ark from Urbino with painted decorations is in the Jewish Museum in New York. The Sephardi synagogue in Amsterdam (1675) has a baroque ark, which occupies the whole width of the nave. This ark adds a new feature: the twin tablets of the Ten Commandments set on top of the structure.
In the early 18th century, arks in German synagogues were baroque structures adorned with columns, pilasters, broken cornices, pediments and vases. The style became popular in Eastern Europe, where Jewish wood and stone carvers were inspired to create their own masterpieces. This is when we begin to see lions, birds, dolphins, stags, and eagles intertwined with open-work scrolls that covered the double-tiered ark. The built-in ark, such as the one of 1763 in the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, appeared in the late 18th century.
Until the 1840’s, the most common type of ark in the U.S. was a neoclassical structure with a curved, convex front and sliding doors. For the next twenty or so years the synagogue arks in Europe and America were designed in the Oriental style. They featured “bulbous domes and horseshoe arches, and were covered with geometrical polychrome decorations.” The Central Synagogue in New York is an example of that, built in 1872 in the Moorish Revival style “it pays homage to the Jewish existence in Moorish Spain.”
“After World War II, the creation of arks became an art form and many artists experimented with new forms, and materials.” Nowadays artists strive to create an ark which stems from tradition yet speaks to today’s audience. They use new imagery or reinterpret common themes to instill an uplifting sense of awe and beauty in the congregation. Using modern forms is an opportunity for these artists to render their own unique styles and personal artistic touch.
The new ark at University Synagogue is very much an example of the new trends in ark design. The artist, Laddie John Dill, has been crafting light and earthy materials like concrete, glass, sand and metal into luminous sculptures, wall pieces and installations since the 1970s. The first work he did for the synagogue, a large piece titled “Shema” dominates the synagogue’s entrance. For the design of the ark, Dill did extensive research on what the ark means and visited synagogues all over the world. He wanted to create something that had never been seen before and lived with the idea for over a year.
The ark is a vision in his language of plywood and glass. It incorporates the highest grade of ground minerals, metals, and aluminum and oxide glass. The shapes, somewhat reminiscent of the synagogue’s logo—the eternal flame—are based on the classical calligraphy of Hebrew, and the dome-like shape was designed to coordinate with the architecture of the sanctuary.
In Temple times the Holy of Holies which contained the ark and the Ten Commandments, was out of bounds to everyone, except the high priest on Yom Kippur. Today, the synagogue ark is often what captures one’s attention when entering the sanctuary—its purpose to not only house the Torah, but to inspire a sense of awe and wonder; and most importantly, to make it accessible to all.
Source: Jewish Virtual Library
Florence L. Dann, a fourth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.