Question: If a synagogue has a truly elegant Aron Kodesh (holy ark where Sifrei Torah are stored) which the members now wish to plate with gold, will it be permissible to remove the curtain covering the Aron in order to show its beauty to all of the congregants?
Answer: Firstly, the act of enhancing and beautifying the Aron Kodesh is certainly a great Mitzvah, as our Sages tell us (Shabbat 133b), “This is my G-d and I shall beautify Him,” one achieves this by beautifying His Mitzvot: Make a beautiful Sukkah, take a beautiful Lulav, tie beautiful Tzitzit, and write a beautiful Sefer Torah with nice ink and cover it with beautiful cloth.
The Gemara in Masechet Yoma (70a) states that when the Bet Hamikdash stood, every person would bring his own Sefer Torah from his house and read from it in public in order to show off its appearance in public. Rashi (ibid.) explains this to mean that one would show off the beauty of the Sefer Torah and the glory of its owner who troubled himself to beatify the Mitzvot, as the verse states, “This is my G-d and I shall beautify Him.”
Similarly, Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l writes (in his Responsa Yechave Da’at, Volume 6, Chapter 9) that it is correct to show off the beauty of the Aron Kodesh when the curtain is pulled aside and the doors of the Aron are opened to remove the Sefer Torah.
Nevertheless, it is improper to completely remove the curtain covering the Aron Kodesh, for the prevalent custom of covering the Aron Kodesh with a curtain is mentioned in the Tosafot (Megillah 26b). It is not only a matter of beauty, rather, this is actually based on the verse (Shemot 26, 33), “And the curtain shall separate for you between the Holy and the Holy of Holies.” (Some Sephardic communities customarily hang another curtain on the inside of the doors of the Aron Kodesh, as is quoted by the Responsa Yaskil Avdi, Volume 4, Orach Chaim, Chapter 7).
Similarly, the Responsa Zera Emet, Volume 1 (Orach Chaim, Chapter 26) writes that even if the Aron Kodesh is especially magnificent and looks nicer without a curtain than with one, the curtain should nevertheless not be removed from the Aron Kodesh, for the custom of hanging a curtain is not merely for aesthetic purposes; rather, it is based on the verse, “And the curtain shall separate for you between the Holy and between the Holy of Holies.” It is also similar to the coverings of the holy vessels. The Responsa Terumat Ha’Deshen (Chapter 68) writes similarly that the curtain hung on the Aron Kodesh is made for modesty.
Based on this, even if the Aron Kodesh is more beautiful without a curtain, the prevalent custom among all Jewish communities should not be changed.
Maran zt”l adds that that the reason for hanging a curtain is because the sanctity of the Aron Kodesh is extremely great since it is a “primary service to a holy item” while the curtain is merely “secondary service to a holy item” (since it serves the Aron which serves the Sefer Torah). It is not correct that the congregants be able to feast their eyes on the sanctity of the Aron Kodesh at all times. He proceeds to brings sources for this matter.
It is well-known that a custom of the entire Jewish nation has the status of Torah law (see Tosafot Menachot 20b) and it is therefore forbidden to change customs accepted by the entire Jewish nation. Indeed, Rabbeinu Yosef Cologne writes lengthily (Chapter 9) to prove from the Gemara (Ta’anit 28b) that one may not nullify any custom. Similarly, Rabbeinu Yitzchak ibn Giat writes that one may not change any custom, even if one is doing so to enact a better custom in its place. Other great Poskim write likewise. Hagaon Harav Yehuda Ayash writes in his Sefer Mateh Yehuda, Volume 2 (Chapter 582, page 36a) that no Jewish custom should be changed and anyone who does so is considered a fence-breacher, for every custom has a Heavenly root. He writes likewise in his Responsa Bet Yehuda (Orach Chaim, Chapter 60) that all rabbis who have led their communities based on the Torah were always very careful not to change any customs in the least; on the contrary, they would always search to strengthen the observance of the custom as best they could.
Thus, regarding our case as well, Maran zt”l concludes that the custom of hanging a curtain on the Aron Kodesh should remain intact, even if the Aron is more beautiful without it. This is indeed the case in Maran zt”l’s synagogue until this very day where the Aron Kodesh is covered with a curtain, in accordance with this age-old Jewish custom.