Which Way to Pray?
I live in Israel where it seems to me that all the shuls face toward Jerusalem. Recently I was in England and the U.S. where it seems all the shuls face east, even though from there, east is not toward Jerusalem. I would have expected the shuls to face south-east in the direction of Israel. When I asked people about it, the basic response was, “That’s how we do it.” Could you clarify what this is about?
It sounds like this was a very disorienting experience for you, but perhaps I can help point you in the right direction.
The source for the practice you are used to, namely facing toward Jerusalem, is the Talmud (Berachot 30a):
“One who stands in Israel should direct his heart to Jerusalem, as it says, ‘And they shall pray to G-d towards the city that you have chosen’ (I Kings 8:44). One who stands in Jerusalem should direct his heart to the Temple, as it says, ‘And they shall pray to this house’ (II Chronicles 6:32). One who stands in the Temple should direct his heart to the Holy of Holies, as it says, ‘And they shall pray to this place’ (I Kings 8:35).”
According to this, wherever a person is in Israel, he should face Jerusalem, the Temple and the Holy of Holies. If, for example, he’s in the Golan Heights which are northeast, he should face southwest; if he’s in the southwest, like in Ashkelon, he should face northeast; and the same goes for being in Jerusalem itself – he should orient himself in whatever direction would be a straight line toward the Temple Mount, the place of the Temple and Holy of Holies. As you note, most shuls in Israel are built such that the front wall of the shul with the Aron Kodesh, defining the direction of prayer, be in the direction of Jerusalem.
The same teaching prescribes a similar rule for prayer outside the Land of Israel:
“One who stands outside the Land [of Israel] should direct his heart to Israel, as it says, ‘And they shall pray to You by way of their land’ (I Kings 8:48)....One west of Israel should turn his face to the east; one south of Israel should turn his face to the north; one north should turn his face to the south, so we find that all of Israel are directing their hearts to the same place.”
However, as you mention, many shuls outside of Israel are oriented simply east and not more directly toward Israel, Jerusalem, and the Temple.
The explanation of the widespread custom to pray to the east seems to be based on several sources’ injunction to pray toward the Shechina, or Divine Presence, which is described variably as being concentrated between, or in, both the east and west.
For example, the Talmud (Bava Batra 25a) suggests that whether one is to the north, south or east of Israel, one should pray westward, toward the Shechina. The implication of this teaching is that one should pray toward the Shechina even if the prayer will not be directed exactly toward Israel.
Conversely, since praying westward toward the Shechina in a location significantly west of Israel would result in people’s turning their backs to Israel and Jerusalem, communities in those locations pray toward the Shechina in the east, which is also in the general direction of Israel, even though the prayer will not be directed exactly toward Israel. However, the same teaching also discourages praying toward the sun, as was done by idolaters of old, so these communities will often have the shul facing slightly away from the direct line of the rising sun.
It is important to note that even when praying in shuls in the west that face east, one may orient himself diagonally to face southeast, even though he’ll be turning slightly away from the Aron Kodesh and the direction that the community is facing. In fact, some attempt a compromise by simultaneously orienting their body to the east in the direction of the shul and the Shechina, while directing their face and head toward Israel, Jerusalem and the Holy of Holies.
- Shulchan Aruch, Rema and Mishna Berurah, Orach Chaim 94:1-2
- Aruch HaShulchan, Orach Chaim, 94:1-14