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Sephardic Arks

A New York Times article last month about the Jewish community of Istanbul contained a description of its oldest synagogue, the Ahrida, which was untouched by the recent bombings. The synagogue’s “main feature,” the Times observed, “is its teva, or pulpit, which is shaped like an ark. Some people say it was built to commemorate the ships that brought the Sephardim [to Turkey] from Spain.”

My first, Ashkenazi reaction to this was to think the Times had made a mistake, since in Yiddish-speaking Eastern Europe the Hebrew-derived word teive was an infrequently used synonym for the aroyn-koydesh (Hebrew aron ha-kodesh), the “holy ark” in which the Torah scrolls are kept. Tevah in biblical Hebrew means “ark” and is a term that occurs in two places in the Bible, once to designate Noah’s ark and once for the floating cradle in which the infant Moses was hidden by his mother. It never refers to the biblical Ark of the Covenant, which is called aron ha-b’rit.

Post-biblically, however, the use of tevah to signify the ark in the synagogue is old, going back to early rabbinic times, in which the word also meant “box.” (As it does today in such contemporary words as tevat-do’ar, or “mailbox.”) We know this not only from the Talmud, but also from the more exotic evidence of Ge’ez, the ancient sacred language of the Ethiopian Christian church, in which tabot means “holy ark,” too. This usage has, according to the scholars, no indigenous Ge’ez derivation and must have entered Ge’ez in the early centuries C.E. from a Hebraic source. (The old legend that the original Ark of the Covenant was taken to Ethiopia after the destruction of the Temple may be related to this.)

And yet after checking with Sephardic friends, I realized that I was wrong and the Times was right. The word teva does designate the pulpit in Sephardic synagogues, i.e., the table or stand on the bima or platform from which prayers are recited and the Torah is read. The ark, on the other hand, is called by Sephardic Jews the hehal (pronounced “HEY-khal”), from the Hebrew heykhal, “temple.” This usage, too, is old and can be found as far back as the 12th-century writings of Maimonides, although it was never adopted by Ashkenazim.

Why did teva go from meaning “ark” to meaning “pulpit” in the Sephardic world? I can think of two possible and by no means mutually exclusive explanations. The first is architectural. In synagogues from the talmudic period, the ark or tevah was placed in a niche or apse in the wall facing Jerusalem and prayers were led from directly in front of it, sometimes from a lowered space at its feet to which the prayer leader descended. Hence the common rabbinic expression “to pass before the tevah” or “to descend before the tevah,” meaning to lead the prayer.

Starting with medieval times, however, the location of the ark and of the prayer leader were often separated, particularly in Sephardic synagogues, the ark remaining in the wall facing Jerusalem while prayers were led from a pulpit on an elevated bima in the synagogue’s center. “To pass before the tevah” in the sense of leading the prayer was therefore no longer logical. Reinterpreting tevah to mean “reader’s stand” instead of “ark” would have been a way of adopting the expression to the changed layout of the synagogue.

The second explanation bears on the Times’s description of the Ahrida’s teva as “shaped like an ark.” Although I have not been in the Ahrida Synagogue, other Sephardic synagogues that I am familiar with have reader’s stands built in the form of chests, on the flat top of which the prayer book or Torah scroll is placed while below, behind cabinet doors, are kept prayer books, prayer shawls, kiddush cups and other items. (Some Ashkenazic synagogues have a similar arrangement.) Possibly, this box-like construction also encouraged the use of teva for “reader’s stand.”

The explanation given by the Times, on the other hand, that Sephardim call the reader’s stand the tevah because it resembles the waterborne arks or ships that brought their ancestors to Turkey after the 1492 expulsion from Spain is clearly sheer fancy. What it shows is that Sephardic Jews themselves were puzzled by the changed meaning of the word and tried to make sense of it. The fact of the matter is that teva meaning “pulpit” was most likely in use in Spain before the expulsion, as is testified to by the word’s having the same meaning in Hakitia, the Judeo-Spanish of the Jews of Morocco. This would seem to indicate that all Jews leaving Spain, both those heading for North Africa and those heading in the opposite direction for Turkey, already took this use of teva with them to their new homes.

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