Question: Is it permissible to order a curtain embroidered with the image of lions standing on either side of the Ten Commandments and hang it up on the outside of the Aron Kodesh?
Answer: The subject matter that this question is based on is quite complicated and we shall therefore discuss only some of the words of the Poskim as they apply here.
The Opinion of the Ohr Zarua
The Ohr Zarua (Masechet Avodah Zara, Chapter 203) writes that there was an incident in Cologne where images of lions were drawn on the windows of the synagogue and Rabbeinu Elyakim ruled that they must be removed based on the verse, “You shall not make for yourself a statue or any image.” Furthermore, when the congregation prays and bows while facing these images, it seems as if they are bowing to the images and this is forbidden. The Ohr Zarua adds: “I remember that when I was younger, they would draw forms of birds and other animals in the synagogue and I ruled that this is forbidden, for this would cause people to pay attention to the beauty of the images as opposed to concentrating on their prayer.” He brings sources to support his view.
The Opinion Maran Ha’Bet Yosef
Maran Ha’Bet Yosef (Yoreh De’ah, Chapter 141) rejects Rabbeinu Elyakim’s opinion and writes that the only true prohibition applies to a protruding human figure. However, the forms of animals are not forbidden.
Similarly, this prohibition applies only when the entire face can be seen. However, if only a portion of the face can be seen, this is not forbidden. Maran zt”l ruled likewise approximately twenty years ago when, before upcoming Kenesset elections in Israel, coins depicting the face of the great Mekubal, Harav Yitzchak Kaduri zt”l, were minted. A great and well-known rabbi claimed that this was forbidden because it depicted the figure of a human face. When Maran zt”l was asked about this, he ruled that this was not forbidden since the prohibition only applies to the image of a full human face; however, these coins that only featured a partial view of the Mekubal’s face (a profile), were permissible. Hagaon Ben Ish Hai and other great Poskim rule likewise.
The Opinion of Maran in his Responsa Avkat Rochel
On the other hand, Maran Ha’Bet Yosef himself in his Responsa Avkat Rochel (Chapter 63) writes lengthily about this matter and writes that one should not make forms or images of lions and the like on the curtain of the Aron Kodesh or on the Aron Kodesh itself. He adds that one who is truly G-d-fearing should protest vehemently until the images of the lions are removed from the synagogue, especially because there is concern that it may seem that the congregation is bowing to the images of these lions. In any event, these forms should not be made in a synagogue which is considered a “Miniature Bet Hamikdash.”
The Opinion of Maran Ha’Chida and the Final Halacha
Maran Ha’Chida (in his Sefer Shiyurei Beracha, Yoreh De’ah, Chapter 141) quotes a certain Gaon who writes that it is obvious that one may not allow such images of lions in synagogues or Batei Midrash (Houses of Study) where people pray on a regular basis. He adds that anyone who rules leniently on this matter will have to give reckoning before Hashem for this.
Halachically speaking, the custom in Israel was to completely abstain from making any images in the synagogue, as is quoted in the works of the Poskim. Hagaon Harav Shmuel Heller, who was a rav in Tzefat, writes lengthily on this matter in a special pamphlet dedicated to this topic. Regarding new immigrants to Israel from Germany and other places in Europe who drew protruding forms of lions and deer on the Aron Kodesh of the Ari z”l’s synagogue in Tzefat, he writes that according to the letter of the law, this is forbidden, especially in Israel where Sephardic Jews had ruled stringently on this law. Thus, even those who had emigrated from Ashkenazi countries were obligated to follow the more stringent view in accordance with the pre-established custom of the place.
Summary: After dealing with this matter extensively, Maran zt”l writes (in his Responsa Yechave Da’at, Volume 3, Chapter 62) that it is forbidden to hang a curtain embroidered with images of lions on the Aron Kodesh. He adds that rabbis in Israel and all over the world for that matter must raise public awareness about this issue, convince the caretakers of synagogues to remove such curtains and other such forms around the synagogue, and to no longer produce such curtains with these images.