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Thoughts on the Direction of Prayer

For the past year, I have been serving, in addition to my rabbinic duties at Temple B’nai Israel, as one of the registry chaplains at Edward Hospital in Naperville.  In practice, this means that generally on Sunday afternoons, I visit patients in the hospital for several hours and after that, remain on-call at the hospital overnight for any emergencies that might arise.  Since Edward Hospital is not a major trauma center, I often get to sleep through the night, though not always. In the morning, I turn over the Spiritual Care cellphone to the staff chaplain arriving and then go into the chapel to offer my morning prayers, to daven shacharit.  The chapel is non-sectarian, with chairs set up, a reader’s stand with an open Bible on it, and a couple of kneelers, but no apparent crosses or crucifixes, just a beautiful, colorful, evocative series of panels set before any visiting worshipers who stop in to pray or meditate, often to pour out their hearts before God on behalf of loved ones who are suffering illness upstairs in the hospital rooms.  At Christmas time, a decorated tree is set up in the front of the chapel for the holiday season.  On one side of the room is a table where we’ve put a Jewish Bible and where, on Chanukah, we placed an electric menorah.


In a corner, in the back, there is a small cabinet with a little sign that reads in Arabic “Salaam” with English translation of “peace.”  It also has a little compass in the corner, labeled “Qibla compass” with an arrow pointing in the direction of Mecca, toward which Muslims customarily direct their prayers.  There also are a couple of copies of the Qur’an sitting next to the sign.  When I come in to offer my prayers, I usually find a little space on top of that cabinet for my tallit and tefillin bags and, figuring that Jerusalem and Mecca are not that far apart (about 900 miles), I direct my prayers a bit to the left of the Qibla sign, where I’m imagining Israel to be. (The Jewish compass app on my phone, confirms this as well.)


Though most people think of God as being Omnipresent and thus He may be reached wherever we are and wherever we turn - God is everywhere, we believe, yet we generally look up to heaven when we wish to direct a prayer to the Almighty, imagining him on His throne”looking down upon heaven and earth,: as the Psalmist has it.  Turning to the book of Kings, however, when King Solomon dedicates the First Temple in Jerusalem, he offers a prayer to God, “When You hear the supplications which Your servant and Your people Israel offer toward this place, give heed in Your heavenly abode – give heed and pardon.” He goes on to speak of people seeking forgiveness for sins, “Should Your people Israel be routed by an enemy because they have sinned against You, and then turn back to You and acknowledge Your name, and they offer prayer and supplication to You in this House, oh, hear in heaven and pardon the sin of Your people.”  Solomon goes on to mention several other occasions when people may turn toward the new House of God and offer prayers.  He calls on God to receive these various prayers directed toward this house in His heavenly abode and respond accordingly.  The king mentions specifically that people will pray in “the direction of the city which You have chosen, and of the House which I have built to Your name.”


In the Book of Daniel, we find this righteous man, living in Babylonian exile, following those very instructions. In chapter 6, we’re told that Daniel “went to his house, in whose upper chamber he had had windows made facing Jerusalem, and three times a day he knelt down, prayed and made confession to His God, as he had always done.” The rabbis in the Mishnah deal with some situations where it might be difficult to follow this procedure.  “If someone is riding on a donkey [at the time of prayer], he should dismount and pray.  If he is unable to dismount [say if there is nobody to hold the donkey] he should turn his face [toward Jerusalem and pray].  And if he is unable to turn his face, he should concentrate his thoughts toward the Holy of Holies.”  Likewise, the Mishnah advises that one traveling on a ship or imprisoned in stocks or some other similar situation preventing him from facing Israel or Jerusalem, should concentrate (“direct his heart”) on the Holy of Holies.


Discussing this further, the Talmud speaks of a blind person or one who is uncertain of the directions toward the land of Israel or Jerusalem. In such a case, one should “direct his heart toward his Father in heaven.”  The Talmudic passage goes on to elaborate on these instructions:  If one is standing outside Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel), he should direct his heart toward Eretz Yisrael.’  This is derived from the passage in Kings where Solomon speaks of this.  The commentators, particularly the Tosafot, make it clear that we’re not merely asking for one to direct one’s thoughts toward the Holy Land, but one should actually turn physically in that direction if at all possible. “If he was standing in the Land of Israel, he should direct his heart (he should turn) toward Jerusalem.”Here too the proof text is taken from Solomon’s address.  “If he was standing in Jerusalem, he should direct his heart (he should turn) toward the Temple.” This time they cite the parallel passage in Second Chronicles, chapter 6.  “If he was standing in the Temple, he should direct his heart (he should turn) toward the chamber of the Holy of Holies.” This they base on the passage in Kings once more. The Talmud doesn’t stop even there.  In some editions they ask even about one who is standing in the Holy of Holies, i.e. the High Priest on Yom Kippur or, perhaps, workmen repairing some part of that chamber, and they answer that such people must direct their attention to the ark cover, an object that was absent from the Second Temple.


Ever since then, even with the Temple gone and with it the Holy of Holies and the sacred ark and its cover, we continue to face in the same direction where the Temple once stood. As we know, our sages always try to determine such matters to the nth degree. So, It has been noted that those praying at the Western Wall today should not pray directly toward the wall, but should stand diagonally before it, turning to their left to what would have been the direction of the Holy of Holies in the ancient Temple. Outside of Israel, we don’t try to be quite so precise, but at least face in the direction of Israel. In synagogues which for some reason are not oriented toward Jerusalem, there is a bit of a controversy as to whether it is preferable to pray toward the ark with its Torahs or to turn toward Israel.  In all cases, the sage urgeus not to cause controversy and to follow the established practice of the congregation.  If it is possible to face the ark and also, by standing at an angle, face Jerusalem, very good, but one should not turn their back to the ark in order to be holier than everyone else in the congregation.


We, who live in the West, usually think of offering our prayers toward the East.  The Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem speaks of turning toward Zion in the East and the great Spanish-Jewish doctor, poet and philosopher, Yehudah Halevi (1075 – 1141) has that wonderful line, “My heart is in the East and I am at the end of the West.”However, if you have been on the other side of the world, you may know that one prays toward the West if one isstanding east of Jerusalem, south if one is north, and north if one is in the south.  One finds ruins of ancient synagogues in the Galilee oriented toward Jerusalem in the south and modern synagogues throughout Israel are all directed toward Jerusalem. As stated, if one doesn’t know exactly the precise direction, one should in any event direct one’s heart toward the correct place and, of course, ultimately toward God. Reflecting on this matter of the direction of prayer and east and west, I was wondering at what point as one travels east of Jerusalem and turns west to pray, does one actually arrive at the “end of the west” and need to turn around and face east.  Someone must have determined that point halachically, independent of our scientific system of lines of longitude and the establishment of that zig-zag international date-line. (You should know, by the way, that there are multiple rabbinic ideas about where precisely a new day begins and all sorts of complications regarding the observance of Shabbat and holidays because of these disagreements.)



It is interesting to note that Muslim scholars also go to great lengths to calculate the precise direction toward the city of Mecca and the Qa’aba itself within the city for their prayers and their opinions on the matter sound very similar to those of our rabbinic authorities. Early in Islamic history, the qibla or direction of prayer was actually toward Jerusalem, but after Mohammed left Mecca, on a particular date in 623, I understand, the qibla was changed to Mecca. I was surprised to learn that not only Jews and Muslims have a set direction for prayer, but some Christians, mostly in the Orthodox church, also have a custom of praying toward Jerusalem and they set a cross on the wall in their churches to indicate the proper direction.


Just as our Muslim neighbors provide these qibla compasses near areas designated for Muslim prayer as an aid for worshipers, some people hang a sign known as a “mizrach” from the Hebrew word for East on the eastern wall of their synagogues or in their homes, to indicate the proper direction in which to offer our prayers.  Such mizrach plaques are often quite decorative and frequently feature images of Jerusalem or quotations such as the well-known verse from Psalm 137, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning…” Others offer elaborate calligraphy of various sacred prayers and Kabbalistic meditations.


In the Kedushah prayer, we quote the verse from Isaiah from the prophet’s vision in the Temple in Jerusalem of God sitting on a high and exalted throne as angels surround Him singing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts, the whole earth is filled with His glory.”  Even though we conceive of God’s presence filling all of Creation, we’ve recognized that by creating Temples and synagogues, special places to represent the divine presence in our midst, we are better able to feel a sense of holiness among us.  Thus, the concept of a special direction for prayer helps us connect with the divine presence in the world.  We turn toward the land of Israel, direct our prayers to the place that God singled out as His holy city, and focus our attention on the place where once our Temple stood.  Within that ancient shrine, the holiestspot was the Kodesh HaKodashim, the Holy of Holies, entered but once a year on Yom Kippur by the Kohen Gadol, the hIgh priest.  By directing our prayers to that very same place, by concentrating our hearts and minds on God’s presence among us, we send our prayers to God on high.  As Solomon suggested, when we pray toward that holy spot, our heartfelt words will rise before the heavenly throne and elicit a response from the Almighty.


We have now entered the month of Av,” Menachem Av” as the rabbis called it, Av the Comforter.  We take time out in the week ahead to mark the fast of Tisha B’Av, to reflect on the tragic events of Jewish history, to mark the destruction of both the first and the second Temple, through the reading of Eichah, the book of Lamentations, and the collected poems, Kinot, that bewail tragedies through the centuries that befell our people.  Out of those memories of loss and destruction arise our hopes for future redemption of the world, for a time when there will be an end to sinat chinam, the pointless hatred of various factions and denominations which led to the ancient destructions and still tear at the fabric of Jewish life, and divide people throughout the world.  Every day we continue to turn toward that sacred spot, to offer our prayers to God on high even as we recall God’s House, the Holy Temple that once stood in Jerusalem.  The description by the prophet who wrote Eichah of the desolation of the ancient city is no longer accurate. But the forces of division and dissension unfortunately are stlllthere.  We pray toward Jerusalem and we pray for Jerusalem. To quote the Psalmist, “Sha’alu sh’lomYerushalayim, seek the well-being (the peace) of Jerusalem, may those who love you, be at peace.  May there be well-being within your ramparts, peace in your citadels. L’maan achai v’reiai adabra na shalom lach, for the sake of my brethren and friends, I pray for your well-being and for the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I seek your good.”

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