Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Going Into the Sanctuary

Previous Posts:

Part I: From Belz to Eretz Israel
Part II: The Rebuilding Belz


Throughout the Jewish world, one notices a lack of aesthetic. While Jews have stood as equals with the best of their Goy (non-Jewish) neighbors in literature, science, mathematics, and military achievement, one still does not find the same quality of Jewish artwork or architecture as one does among the Christians or Muslims. If a Jew does become a famous artist or architect, his or her talent and contributions are generally made towards the Goy culture in which he or she resides. The great cathedrals of Europe, the mosques of Araby, or the religious works of Michelangelo have no counterpart in the Jewish or Israeli world. This may be the result of relentless persecution and poverty, or it may simply be that observant Jews living outside the land of Israel lacked the attachment to their birth lands, knowing that they would one day be called upon to pack up their belongings and return home. Even in Israel today, with a country so focused on security and growth, building as much as possible as fast as possible before the Arabs can get a hold of it, aesthetics have fallen by the way side.

The Belzer Beis HaMedrash HaGadol stands as the exception to this rule. Unlike the shuls (synagogues) in makeshift trailers, modified bomb shelters, even underground parking garages that one finds throughout Israel, all fourteen stories of the Belzer Beis HaMedrash from the smaller shtieblach on the bottom floor to the massive sanctuary which takes up the top five floors, displays the undivided attention to detail that the rebbe himself invested in the project over a decade and a half of construction. While most hareidi, "Ultra-Orthodox" neighborhoods, typically comprised of poor families with dozens of kids, are rough and dirty, the Belzer shul is immaculately clean, with a full-time team of brass polishers and rotations of workers and volunteers.

Volunteers sorting through the siddurim (prayer books) in the sanctuary.

In one of the smaller shtieblach on a lower floor.

The Aron Kodesh is a more modern design. The walls are black marble with inlaid copper.

The clock is outside the sanctuary. The Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish law) does not state that a Shul should have a clock, so all clocks remain outside.

There is a Hassidic minhag (tradition) to wash one's hands before prayer. This washroom is comprised of limestone and elongated carved marble basins with copper "kvarts," washing cups. There are a total of four rooms like this, two on either side of the entrance to the great sanctuary.
Sitting down in the sanctuary.

Attention to detail: the area near the shtender (podium) where the chazzan (prayer leader) sings, is set down slightly in the floor, a literal interpretation of Psalm 130, in which King David calls out, "From the depths I cried out to you." Also, note that the floor tiles are offset slightly. This is to avoid that one should bend over while praying the aleinu and see the orthoganal lines of the floor tiles coming together to form a cross, which might be a distraction.

Not only is the exquisite attention to detail impressive, but so too is the massive scale of the project. On a typical Shabbat, the 1954 seats on the floor level are filled.


Seats on the floor level. The wall with the windows can be completely removed to drive a cherry picker into the sanctuary as needed for maintenance.

Two additional floors provide seating for women and children. During Rosh Hashannah, the windows on the top floor were removed and rafters were built up on the roof to provide additional outdoor seating to yeshivah students and visitors who had flown in from around teh world, brining the seating up to 5,500.


The two women's galleries and the windows at roof level.

A computerized list is used to track who has seats reserved, each seat costing about $180 American for Rosh Hashannah.

A name on every seat.

The Rebbe, despite his great stature among his hassidim, sits in a seat identical to everyone else's. At his home is a much larger chair, which serves as a throne. The idea is simple: to his Hassidim, as a leader of his hassidim, the rebbe is a king, but in the eyes of the infinite God, all are as lowly equals.


On the bemah, from which the Torah is read on Shabbat (sabbath)

Hand carvings along the edge of the bemah.

The view from the bemah

Rebbe Aharon, the previous rebbe, worked tirelessly and carried his chair and shtender with him wherever he went, throughout the world. Today, they stand next to the Aron Kodesh, preserved behind glass.


Rebbe Aharon's shtender and chair.

2 comments:

Evan said...

It's true that there may have been some priceless works lost forever, but I think the Jewish contribution is more in the spirit, in ideas and beliefs, than in the physical. Also, Jews have never had financial support from the local governments with funded the building of most major religious works of art.

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