The Shulchan Aruch, states in section 94, Clause 1, that “When preparing to pray, if one is in the Diaspora, one should face towards the direction of Eretz Yisrael and, also, focus one’s thoughts towards Jerusalem…”
The Mishnah Brurah, explains in Sub Clause 3, that this which was said above, i.e. “To focus one’s thoughts towards Jerusalem,” is referring to a case where one does not have the ability to know the proper direction, therefore in that case, it will be sufficient just to focus one’s concentration in the direction of Jerusalem.
In clause 2, the Shulchan Aruch states that “if praying while facing in one of the global directions”, i.e. (North, South, etc. this could be in a case where one is riding on a donkey and therefore cannot face in the proper direction, or also in a case where this is the custom of the Synagogue, (Baer Hatave) perhaps the Ark was built in the wrong direction, and everyone is facing the Ark), in such circumstances, “one should turn their head towards the direction opposite Eretz Yisrael.”
The Ramah adds to this that “since we live West of Israel, we should therefore face towards the East, and we will thereby be facing Israel.”
We see from the above that, the mitvah of prayer is to be facing towards Israel and Jerusalem, and therefore if one is not standing with their body in this direction, and one is unable to turn their entire body to face in the “proper direction,” they are however obligated to turn their head in the “proper direction”, i.e. facing Jerusalem. We will also soon see that “East”, the direction that most of us are accustomed to face, is not so precise. Also, we will see the laws concerning the Ark.
The Ramah continues that “For those, however, who face towards the East, they should not position the Ark in the direction of “direct” East, so that it will not appear that they are praying to the rising sun…”
The Mishnah Brurah states that, since East is the direction to pray, i.e. “opposite Israel,” people would place the Ark in the same Eastern wall. But, the Mishnah Brurah continues in the end of Sub Clause 9, that “If the Ark could not be placed in the Eastern wall, then when praying, one should turn his head to face East, i.e. (Israel), even though one’s body is facing the Ark.
We see from this, that the mitzvah is not to pray in the direction of the Ark, but rather as we learned in section 94, 1; to pray in the direction of Jerusalem. At the same time, we do not want to show disrespect to the Ark by turning away from it, so therefore, even in a situation where we are facing the Ark together with all of the congregants, we are obligated however, to turn our heads and focus in the direction of Jerusalem.
In response to the Ramah’s statement, that “Those who live to the West of Eretz Yisrael should pray facing East, the Beor Halacha quotes the words of the Lavushe, that “Since all of the lands where we presently live are not West of Israel, but more precisely North-West, we should therefore face towards South-East, and place the Ark in the wall facing this direction so that we will be facing opposite Eretz Yisrael. The Mishna Brurah then states that all of the Acharonim agree with this statement of the Lavushe.
We see from the above that:
- The mitvah of prayer is to be done while facing in the direction of Israel and Jerusalem, and not in the direction of East. In all circumstances where one must pray while facing in an “other” direction, one should however turns one’s head in the “proper direction”
- It is proper to place the Ark in the wall facing Jerusalem so as not to show disrespect to the Ark by turning away from it during prayers. But, the mitzvah is to pray towards Jerusalem, and not the Ark.
- When the Ark, (as is found in many Synagogues) could not be built in the wall facing Jerusalem, many follow the custom to continue to face one’s body in the direction of the Ark so as not to show disrespect to the Ark and/or not to be contrary to the other congregants. However, as we learned in Section 94, 1; that while praying, one should turn his head in the direction of Jerusalem. This means that the body is facing the Ark, and the head is turned towards the “right direction”… Jerusalem.
One of the major poskim of Jerusalem was asked concerning this question above, and he stated that there are different customs concerning the Ark. In some Synagogues, where the Ark was not built into the proper wall, many of the congregants turn their entire body in the direction of the Temple Mount. Some will turn their bodies partial way. In this case, there is not a problem of being contrary to the other congregants, since the purpose for turning away is public knowledge and, therefore, everyone knows. Also, this posek’s own shul faces towards North and not the Temple Mount, and he therefore, when praying, stands with the Ark to his left, while facing his entire body in the direction of the Temple Mount.
Here is an article that appeared in the Hebrew edition of the Hamodia in Israel. Someone in the previous issue had submitted a letter with “good advice” on how to locate the “East” for davening. In this issue below, someone wrote in with the proper reply.
It is entitled, “Not East but Jerusalem”
Here is the translation:
In the last edition, you gave good advice on how to locate the “Mizrach”, (the East), by observing the direction of the solar panels on the tops of people’s homes.
It is important to point out that we do not pray in the direction of the East, but rather in the direction of Jerusalem, therefore, this advice is only applicable to those who live West of Jerusalem, such as those in the Gush Dan where Jerusalem is located in their East.
And those who live in the South of Israel, they will face the North when praying. And those who live in the North of Israel such as Tiberia and Emannuel who are located North of Jerusalem, they will face toward the South when davening. Those who live in Betar, will face in the direction of North-East.