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Praying Towards Jerusalem

Harav Yaakov Medan
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Translated and adapted by Rav Eliezer Kwass 


            A curious problem arose in the RBM (= the Real Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut - home of the VBM; see a picture on our web page): the beit midrash does not face directly towards Jerusalem, but, instead, due north.  Though under normal circumstances every Jew in the world prays towards Jerusalem, should an exception be made when that will mean not facing the aron kodesh during prayer?  Rav Medan, in a lecture given to the students of Yeshivat Har Etzion on Shabbat parashat Lekh Lekha 5750, analyzed the issue and arrived at practical conclusions.  This problem is not unique to Yeshivat Har Etzion; often conditions necessitate building a synagogue or beit midrash (for instance, the Yeshiva University main beit midrash in the RIETS building) whose front does not face Jerusalem.  The lecture deals specifically with the beit midrash at Har Etzion, but the conclusion of Rav Medan is relevant to similar situations.




            The beit midrash faces due north precisely.  Many of those praying in the beit midrash are faced with a choice between facing towards Jerusalem and facing the aron kodesh.  This problem arises in many synagogues which for one reason or another were not built facing Jerusalem, and often in a markedly different direction.  An especially serious problem arises at the southern portion of the Western Wall.  If one prays while standing perpendicular to the Wall it often means deviating up to 70 degrees from the direction of the Holy of Holies!


            To properly understand this issue, three questions must be posed:

A. How important is praying towards Jerusalem and the Temple?

B. How essential is precision in this matter?

C. Is there anything wrong with not facing the aron kodesh in a synagogue?




            According to the gemara in Berakhot (30b), the source for praying towards Israel, Jerusalem, and the Temple Mount is the verse (from Shelomo's prayer at the dedication of the Beit Ha-mikdash), "They should pray to God towards Your chosen city."  No dissenting opinions are quoted, and the gemara concludes with the following derasha: "'Like the Tower of David built up beautifully ('le-talpiot')' - [The Temple Mount is] the hill ('tel') that all mouths ('piyot') are directed towards."


            In contrast, the gemara in Bava Batra (25) offers four directions in which to pray, none of them towards the Temple!  Of these four options, there is only one veiled reference to prayer towards Jerusalem and the Temple.  The four options listed there are:

A. ANY direction (except, perhaps, east because of the heretics) is legitimate because the Shekhina (Divine Presence) is everywhere - Rabbi Yishma'el, R. Sheshet and others.

B. Towards the WEST, because the Shekhina is in the west (this is the direction those within the Temple pray towards) - R. Akiva, R. Yehoshua son of Levi and others.

C. Towards the NORTH, if one wants to become wealthy - R. Yitzchak.

D. Towards the SOUTH, if one wants to become wise - R. Yitzchak (according to R. Yehoshua son of Levi, if one wants to become wealthy).


            Regarding the last two opinions, Rashi argues that a person should direct himself toward Jerusalem, but only his face should point towards the south or north.  However, the Mahari Abuhav (quoted by the Beit Yosef in OC 94) and the Rama, say the opposite.  They maintain that the body should point toward the north or south and only the face should look toward Jerusalem. 


            Most Rishonim view these two passages, in Berakhot and in Bava Batra, as representing opposing positions.  However, the Tosafot and the Rosh claim that R. Chanina, who mentions the direction of the Land of Israel at the end of the passage in Bava Batra, takes the position of the gemara in Berakhot. 


            Most of the poskim, including the Rambam, rule according to the passage in Berakhot, that one should face the Temple Mount during the silent prayer.  However, the Smag and the Mahari Abuhav, rule like R. Yitzchak in Bava Batra, that one can choose to pray towards the north or south, depending on if he is interested in wealth or wisdom.  As opposed to Rashi, they maintain that one's body should be directed north or south, and only one's face should point to Jerusalem.


            The Shulchan Arukh and the Rama adopt the Mahari Abuhav's position.  It is possible, according to their ruling, that in the same synagogue people might be pointed in three different directions during the silent prayer.  One group would face Jerusalem and the Temple, another would face south, and still a third would be praying towards the north!  This was not seen as problematic, even during public prayer (the Mishna Berura implies that the three options were also open to public prayer), when we are usually cautious to maintain uniformity, because of the prohibition "lo titgodedu" - do not break up into different groups ("lo ta'asu agudot agudot").  This position is difficult to apply and has not been practically adopted.  In fact, a number of the Acharonim (see the Kaf Ha-chayim OC 94:6) attempt to limit the Shulchan Arukh's ruling to where extenuating circumstances prevent one from facing the direction of Israel, even though, ideally, one should only face towards Israel and Jerusalem.


            Even the Mishna Berura (OC 94:12) records that the custom in Eastern Europe was not to adopt the Shulchan Arukh and Rama's position.  Most people followed Rashi's opinion and only inclined their heads in prayer towards the north or south, while facing their bodies towards Jerusalem.  This is based on maintaining uniformity in the synagogue ("lo titgodedu").


            The approach (1. above) that the Shekhina is everywhere and therefore one can face any direction, is rejected by the poskim.  The Taz does, however, rely on it when he rules that if one began praying facing the west he should not move his feet in order to face Jerusalem.  The Ma'amar Mordekhai argues that one should move his feet to the proper direction.




            We have shown that the bulk of the poskim rule that one should face Jerusalem during prayer.  What is defined as "facing Jerusalem?"  How precisely does one have to point himself in that direction?  Is it sufficient not to clearly turn towards a different direction, or is it essential to face a particular direction?  Three sources imply that precision is not so important:

A.  Our version of Berakhot 30 reads, "One should direct one's HEART towards Jerusalem."  It seems to speak primarily about an INNER direction (the Arukh Ha-shulchan notes this).

B.  The gemara implies that even with regards to one's physical position, precision is not so crucial.  It sounds as if one standing outside of Israel can merely point towards ISRAEL, but does not need to direct himself to Jerusalem or the Temple.  Likewise, throughout Israel it is sufficient to face Jerusalem, and not necessarily the Temple Mount (the Arukh Ha-shulchan also points this out).

C.  Rabbi Chanina (Bava Batra 25) tells Rav Ashi that in order to pray towards Israel, Babylonian Jews should face south during prayer.  Even though Israel is southwest of Bavel, Rabbi Chanina does not require people to face southwest during prayer (the people of Israel are even called "the westerners" in the Babylonian Talmud).  Apparently, there is no need to perfectly align oneself toward Israel, getting the rough general direction is sufficient (the Ma'adanei Yom Tov's second explanation of the Rosh's opinion)..


            Likewise the Rosh (and following him the Tur and the Rama) writes that the prevalent custom among European Jewry was to face EAST during prayer, even though Israel is SOUTH of both Germany (the Rosh's original home), and Poland (the Rama's home).


            Despite these sources, most of the poskim held that one should strive for precision as much as possible:

A.  The Tosafot in Berakhot reject the version of the gemara that reads, "direct one's HEART," because it refers to directing one's body also.

B.  Rabbeinu Yona explicitly writes that one standing outside Israel should not only face Israel, but also Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.  Likewise, outside of Jerusalem people should also pray towards the Temple.  In fact, anywhere in the world people should face the kaporet above the Holy Ark in the Holy of Holies.  Rabbeinu Yona clearly calls for precision.

C.  The Ma'adanei Yom Tov explains that R. Chanina was, in fact, telling R. Ashi that the Babylonian Jews should ALSO face the south when they pray, and NOT ONLY the west: R. Chanina was actually trying to fine tune their direction so they would pray towards the southwest, towards Jerusalem, and not only the west, as they previously had been.  Both the Chatam Sofer (Responsum 19) and the Yad Eliyahu (section 1) explain the gemara this way.  The Levush (section 94) writes extensively to prove that in Lublin, Poland, where he lived it is necessary to pray towards the south east, not merely to the east.  He calculates the exact direction and most of the Acharonim (especially the Yad Eliyahu) agree with him.  Even the Mishna Berura agrees with the Levush's opinion and holds that, ideally, one should face precisely towards Jerusalem.  As we mentioned earlier, the Arukh Ha-shulchan and it should be pointed out the Ma'adanei Yom Tov (in his second explanation as opposed to C. above - his first explanation) rule leniently like the Rosh and Rama (against the Levush).


            There are two practical ramifications of how precise one must be in praying towards Jerusalem:

1.  If one faces the wrong direction and realizes this in the middle of prayer, is it necessary to change directions mid-prayer?  The Taz and Ma'amar Mordekhai, as mentioned above, argue about whether to shift direction once one realizes the mistake.  Even the Ma'amar Mordekhai, who usually requires redirecting oneself, is of the opinion that it is not necessary to switch directions in order to face Jerusalem more precisely.  If a Jew in Europe accidentally faced towards the east he would not have to move while praying the amida to face the southeast.

2.  If the whole congregation mistakenly prayed in the wrong direction, (for example: east and not southeast) can an individual pray exactly towards Jerusalem or is this considered arrogant or liable to provoke an argument?  This is discussed in the Yad Eliyahu (at length) and in the Mishna Berura.




            I have not found any halakhic source mandating prayer TOWARDS the aron kodesh, but a group of Acharonim (the Ma'adanei Yom Tov, Peri Megadim, Arukh Ha-shulchan, and Mishna Berura) write that one should not pray with ONE'S BACK TOWARDS THE ARON.  This prohibition takes precedence over the obligation to pray towards Jerusalem.  In other words, it is better not to pray towards Jerusalem if that results in one's back facing the aron kodesh.  The Magen Avraham and Yad Eliyahu do not mention this consideration, implying that one should face Israel and Jerusalem at all costs.


            The poskim who do take the position of the aron into account base this prohibition on two different verses: "their backs were to the House of God" (Yechezkel 8:16) and "they turned their backs towards Me" (Yirmiyahu 32:33).  What is considered praying with one's back to the aron kodesh?  In most of the synagogues and batei midrash whose arks are not facing Jerusalem, if one faced Jerusalem precisely his back would still not totally face the aron.  What is the cutoff line?


            The Arukh Ha-shulchan (OC 94:5) implies that the halakha is very stringent about praying with one's back to the aron:


"Likewise all those that stand to the north of the aron kodesh [mistakenly facing due east and not southeast] can face the east and incline towards the south.  However, those standing on the southern side of the aron should not incline towards the south because then their back will be facing the aron kodesh.  They should therefore face directly to the east."


            Even though those standing to the south of the aron do not have their backs COMPLETELY facing the aron, he still forbids turning more toward Jerusalem.


            This is how Ha-rav Amital shlita ruled for us in our beit midrash.  All those standing southeast of the aron, including the shaliach tzibbur, should not incline towards the east but should remain facing due north, the direction of the aron.  [This does not mean that they should pray in the direction that their seats face, northwest(!), but rather due north.]


            I have two doubts about the Arukh Ha-shulchan's position:

A.  In 94:13 he writes that if the aron is on the northern or southern side of the synagogue one who is praying individually (not with a minyan) can pray towards the eastern wall.  This seems to allow some leeway, even veering 90 degrees from the direction of the aron.

B.  Even if we accept that the Arukh Ha-shulchan rules stringently in this case, perhaps he was building on his own opinion that does not demand precision with regards to directing oneself towards Jerusalem.  Perhaps, the majority of poskim who rule stringently about facing Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, would allow a person to pray only partially facing the aron.


            Indeed, the Peri Megadim in the Mishbetzot Zahav seems to be less concerned about veering from the direction of the aron.  Only the rav, standing right next to and south of the aron kodesh, would have his back to the aron if he inclined his body towards Jerusalem.  With regards to the rest of the congregation, he, as well as the Divrei Chamudot on the Rosh, does not seem to be concerned with people only partially facing the aron.


            The Mishna Berura, based on the Peri Megadim and Divrei  Chamudot, seems to agree, for he writes:


"If he finds himself in a place where the wall faces the east he should incline towards the southeast.  If, though, he finds himself praying south of the aron, he should not incline himself thus, so as not to appear to have one's back to the aron."


            My general impression is that he is also only concerned about having one's back to the aron for one who stands directly south of the aron.  Even though his formulation does not tightly prevent any other interpretation, his source in the Peri Megadim is certainly clear about this point.


            Based on this, and on the Magen Avraham and the Yad Eliyahu, it would seem that as long as the line extending forward from between a person's shoulders reaches the front of the aron, it is legitimate to face precisely towards Jerusalem.


            This presentation is, of course, only a theoretical suggestion, for the Rosh Yeshiva has already ruled based on the straightforward reading of the Arukh Ha-shulchan.  We would like to point out, though, that even according to the Arukh Ha-shulchan when one BOWS he should try to face Jerusalem.  One's heart should definitely be directed to Jerusalem and the Temple, as Daniel did in his prayer.  Thereby, we will fulfill "They will pray to You towards the city which You chose," and Hashem will likewise respond - "You will hear from Your dwelling place on high."


[Adapted from Daf Kesher #240, Tammuz 5750, vol. 3, pp. 90-94.]


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