By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
Then there was the ancient belief, based on a pilpulistic interpretation of a verse from the Biblical book of Nehemiah, that God’s presence, the Shekhina, actually dwells in the west. If that’s the case then, one obviously would want to face God’s presence, rather than, God forbid, turn one’s back to the Shekhina, and therefore one would face west when praying.
And there are still other, even more curious customs. So, for example, in yet another tractate in the Talmud, we learn that “one who wants to become wise should turn south [during prayer]; one who wants to become rich should turn north… Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said, ‘One should always face south because from becoming wise, one will [also] become rich.’ Obviously.
Rabbi Yishmael, a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva and a leading sage of the first century, tried to make peace between the many schools of thought by positing the opinion that one could actually face in any direction, since God’s presence was everywhere.
Not surprisingly, however, the arguments do not end with this. Not by a long shot. In the middle ages, Maimonides, Joseph Caro (author of the Jewish law compendium, the Shulchan Aruch) and many other wise rabbis were spending an enormous amount of time on this very dilemma. To face east, as was the custom of many pagans, or west, and away from Jerusalem? And if you did face in another direction, would it be a fair compromise to turn your face to the east, even if your feet pointed elsewhere?
The question becomes even more complex in the 16th century, when it first became the custom to house the Torahs in an Ark that was actually inside the sanctuary. Prior to this time, the Torahs were carried into the sanctuary in their storage cases from rooms that could have been anywhere else. Once inside, the Torah was placed on a bimah—a raised platform—that was in the middle of the room, in the midst of the congregation, so that when it was read everyone faced inward, toward this center, rather than in any another direction. The chiddush—this novelty—of building an in-house Ark and placing it against the eastern wall, set a whole new set of arguments in motion.
We know, however, that by the late 19th century, nearly all synagogues were being built to face east. In “Fiddler On The Roof,” Tevye’s deep aspiration to sit at the eastern wall reflects the by-then-established custom of honoring leaders of the community—rabbis, cantors, and the very rich—in this manner.
But the question was still not resolved, and the arguing continued back and forth. And I really don’t want to complicate it any further, but one of the questions that came up was not whether one should face Jerusalem, which was a given, but rather, should one face in the direction of the shortest route to Jerusalem, since, on a spherical world, the shortest route isn’t always the compass route. For example, the compass distance between New York and Jerusalem is about 600 miles longer than the great-circle distance. Which is why airlines that fly from the US to Israel fly over Greenland, well into the Arctic, before turning due south. It may not be the in the precise direction of the east, but it is the shorter route, and isn’t that what really counts when you really want to get somewhere fast.
In the words of our beloved Reb Tevye, these are all questions that would cross a rabbi’s eyes, and in the end, one would have to spend far more time calculating and measuring than actually praying, and that of course would defeat the whole purpose of prayer.
But another interpretation of King Solomon’s prayer regarding the Temple does offer us yet another possibility: This lesson takes the phrase, “They shall pray to you b’chol l’vavam u-v’chol nafsham (‘with all their heart and with all their soul’)” to mean that a person may direct his or her prayers to God’s dwelling within their heart and within their soul.
This answer takes a lovely turn in a lesson taught by the Chassidic Rebbe, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, who said, “You should know that every shepherd has a unique song, all his own; and know, too, that each and every blade of grass has its own, unique, song. It is from the song of the grass that the shepherd’s song is created. How beautiful it is when we hear this song, how lovely when we pray to its tune and serve God in awe. For this song of the grass causes the heart to awaken; and when the heart awakens, it longs and yearns for its home in the Land of Israel. And then, the Land responds, and a great, wondrous light emerges from the Land of Israel and rises toward the heart, and then the song becomes the Prayer of the Heart.”
Our befuddled NASA rabbi would have known all this; he would have known that in the space shuttle, time was coordinated to match the time zone in Houston, so no matter how many sunrises he saw, he only had to lay tefillin once a day, not every 90 minutes.
And as to what direction to face, if you ever do find yourself floating in the vast majesty of outer space, perhaps the best advice to follow would be Rabbi Nachman’s, who taught us to look for God’s presence inside our hearts, and to make our prayer The Prayer of the Heart, Ha-t’fillah she-balev. And then, when we let our prayer join the prayer that comes from the heart of the person sitting next to us, and the one next to him or her, when all these prayers merge into one song, then that song rises to Heaven, in fulfillment of the line in Psalm 150 that reads, “Let every soul praise God, Halleluyah.”
That, I would say, would be the right way to pray.
May our prayers all rise and be acceptable to God today and every day of our lives.
L’shana tova tikateivu, may we all be inscribed for a good and sweet New Year, Amen.