The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit
Weekly Shiur In Halakhic Topics
Yeshivat Har Etzion
#18: Praying Towards
by Rav Yaakov
and adapted by Rav Eliezer Kwass
A curious problem arose in the RBM (= the Real Beit Midrash of
Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shevut - 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
To properly understand this issue, three questions must be
important is praying towards Jerusalem and the Temple?
essential is precision in this matter?
C. Is there
anything wrong with not facing the aron kodesh in a
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
direction (except, perhaps, east because of the heretics) is legitimate because
the Shekhina (Divine Presence) is everywhere - Rabbi Yishma'el, R. Sheshet and
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
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
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
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
FACING ISRAEL, JERUSALEM AND THE TEMPLE MOUNT
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
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
FACING THE ARK
VS. FACING JERUSALEM
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
The Arukh Ha-shulchan (OC 94:5) implies that the halakha is very
stringent about praying with one's back to the
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
Even though those standing to the south of the aron do not have
their backs COMPLETELY facing the aron, he still forbids turning more
This is how Harav 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
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
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
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
"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."
Daf Kesher #240, Tammuz 5750, vol. 3, pp. 90-94.]