Rabbi Yossi Slotnick
Former Rosh Kollel in Cape Town (1997-1998)
Currently Ra”m in Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa
In honor of Yerushalayim, we will discuss the well-known halachah that one must face Eretz Yisrael, Yerushalayim, and theMikdash during the tefillah (prayer).
The Mishnah (Brachot 4:5) states:
“One was riding on a donkey [and it was time to daven], he should dismount [and daven]. And if he cannot dismount, he should turn his face. And if he cannot turn his face, he should direct his thoughts (leebo – literally, his heart) towards Beit Kodshei HaKodashim.”
The Gemara (BT Brachot 30a) cites a baraita which expands upon the Mishnah:
“One who was standing in chutz la’aretz should direct his heart towards Eretz Yisrael, as it says, ‘And they will pray to you by way of their land.’ (Melachim I 8:48) One who was standing in Eretz Yisrael should direct his heart towards Yerushalayim, as it says, ‘And they will pray to Hashem by way of the city which You have chosen.’ (Melachim I 8:44) One who was standing in Yerushalayim should direct his heart towards the Beit HaMikdash, as it says, ‘And they will pray towards this house.’ (Divrei Hayamim II 6:32) One who was standing in the Beit HaMikdash should direct his heart towards the Beit Kodshei HaKodashim, as it says, ‘And they will pray towards this place.’ (Melachim I 8:35)… Thus, one who was standing: in the east – turns his face towards the west; in the west – turns his face towards the east; in the south – turns his face towards the north; in the north – turns his face towards the south. Thus, all of Israel directs their hearts to one place.”
Yet, these sources seem to contradict another Gemara (BT Bava Batra 25) which discusses the proper direction for tefillah:
“R’ Yehoshua ben Levi said, ‘Come, let us be grateful towards our forefathers who publicized the direction (makom – literally, the place) of tefillah [i.e. that one should face west]’… And R’ Oshaya held that the Shechinah is in every place [and thus, one can face any direction]… And also R’ Yishmael held that the Shechinah is in every place… And also R’ Sheshet held that the Shechinah is in every place. For R’ Sheshet said to his attendant, ‘Stand me up facing any direction except east. And not because the Shechinah is not present there, but rather because the heretics instruct [that one pray] to that side.’ And R’ Abahu said, ‘The Shechinah is in the west.’… R’ Yitzchak said, ‘One who wishes to become wise – should face south, and to become rich – should face north. And your sign [for this rule]: the shulchan is in the north, and the menorah is in the south.’ And R’ Yehoshua ben Levi said, ‘One should always face south, for by becoming wise, one will become rich. As it says, “Length of days is in its right hand; in its left hand are wealth and honor.” (Mishlei 3:16)’ But R’ Yehoshua ben Levi [had] said [that] the Shechinah is in the west! [The answer is] that one should turn [slightly] toward the [other] side. R’ Chanina said to Rav Ashi, ‘[People] such as yourself who live to the north of Eretz Yisrael should face south.’ And from where do we know that Bavel is to the north of Eretz Yisrael? Since it is written, ‘Out of the north the evil shall open upon all the inhabitants of the land.’ (Yermiyahu 1:14)”
While the Gemara in Brachot discusses the Mikdash’s direction, the Gemara in Bava Batra lists the assorted opinions for the proper direction to face during tefillah and also debates the question of selecting a direction. The Gemara in Brachot wants everyone “to direct their hearts to one place,” but the Gemara in Bava Batra is based on another consideration: where is the Shechinahlocated?
Broadly speaking, the Rishonim address this contradiction in two different ways:
This is a machloket, and the halachah follows only one of the Gemaras.
The two Gemaras complement each other.
Many Rishonim – such as the Rambam and the Tur – follow the first path and rule strictly according to the Gemara in Brachot. However, Rashi (as understood by the Beit Yosef) and others assert that the Gemara in Bava Batra is based on the Gemara in Brachot. In other words, one’s body should face the Mikdash, but one may tilt one’s head slightly in other directions, in accordance with the Gemara in Bava Batra.
The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 94:1-2) refers to both approaches:
“When one arises to pray – If he was standing in chutz la’aretz, he should turn his face towards Eretz Yisrael and direct his thoughts also to Yerushalayim and to the Mikdash and to the Beit Kodshei HaKodashim. If he was standing in Eretz Yisrael, he should turn his face towards Yerushalayim and direct his thoughts also to the Mikdash and to the Beit Kodshei HaKodashim. If he was standing in Yerushalayim, he should turn his face towards the Mikdash and directs his thoughts also to the Beit Kodshei HaKodashim. If was standing behind the kaporet, he should turn his face towards the kaporet.
“If he is praying in a different direction – he should turn his face towards Eretz Yisrael, if he is in chutz la’aretz; towards Yerushalayim, if he is in Eretz Yisrael; and towards the Mikdash, if he is in Yerushalayim.”
Simply put, the Shulchan Aruch rules that one must face Eretz Yisrael, Yerushalayim, and the Mikdash. However, if (for assorted reasons) a person is davening in a different direction, he should at least turn his body slightly in this direction. Thus, the Shulchan Aruch rules strictly in accordance with the Gemara in Brachot.
The Rama, in contrast, adds:
“And one who wants to fulfill what they said, ‘one who wants to become rich should face north or to become wise should face south,’ in any event, should tilt his face to the east.”
In other words, the Rama permits one to choose which direction he favors – as long as he at least turns his face towards Eretz Yisrael, Yerushalayim, and the Mikdash (as suggested by Rashi).
In conclusion, we should note that the Aruch HaShulchan (ibid) uses Rashi’s opinion to explain the widespread custom in chutz la’aretz of davening towards “mizrach” (i.e. the east) – even though Eretz Yisrael is not situated to the east of every location. He observes that this custom reflects the view that one may daven in any direction – as long as one is slightly turned towards Eretz Yisrael, Yerushalayim, and the Mikdash. Davening towards “mizrach” is an indication of the congregation’s attempt to turn in this direction, at least to a certain extent, while recognizing that HaKadosh Baruch Hu is everywhere.