The WORD 10/25/12. With two small words “Lech-L’cha” – usually translated as “go forth” – God introduces Avram (not yet Avraham) and all subsequent generations of our people to the Land of Israel. The full command from God to Avram (Genesis 12:1) is: “Go forth from your land, from your birth place from your father’s home to the land that I will SHOW you.”
Ever since, we – the descendants of Avraham and Sarah – have always had one eye trained toward Israel. Approximately, 3000 years ago, David established Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. His son Solomon built the Temple there and our relationship with the land was cemented.
In I Kings 8:44 – known as Solomon’s prayer – we read the following: “….they will pray to Adonai in the direction of the city which You have chosen, and of the House which I have built to Your name. O hear their prayer and supplication and uphold their cause.” That is the first reference to Israelites or Jews directing their prayers toward Jerusalem.
In the Mishnah, Tractate Berachot 4:5, which was written in about the year 200CE in the Land of Israel, we read the following: “If one prays in the Diaspora, he shall direct himself toward the Land of Israel; in the Land of Israel toward Jerusalem; in Jerusalem toward the Temple; in the Temple, toward the Holy of Holies.”
The Babylonia Talmud (as we can tell from the name, it was recorded OUTside the land of Israel) adds some detail to this teaching: “If a man is east of the Temple, he should turn westward; if in north, southward. Thus all Jews direct their prayers toward one place (BT Berachot 30a).”
It seems pretty clear that the ideal is for Jews to direct their prayers toward Jerusalem.
In terms of early synagogue architecture, the oldest synagogues discovered had their doors on the Eastern wall perhaps in imitation of Ohel Mo’ed (Tabernacle). According to the Bible, its gates were on eastern side (see Numbers 2:2-3) and the niche for the scrolls was on the opposite – or Western wall. The Dura-Europos synagogue from 3rd Century CE on Euphrates river is a classic example of this architecture.
As Jews made their way to North Africa and the Mediterranean, we can understand how the custom became facing East. And, we can certainly understand that as Jews crept North up into Europe, they might keep their tradition of facing East. However, now that we are essentially on the other side of the planet, which direction do we face?
Would it make more sense to face north? After all, the most direct flight path the Israel from the New York area is to head north. Should we somehow face downward through the earth to the other side? Can we face west, which eventually gets us back to Jerusalem – albeit on a less direct path.
This is issue has been raised more than once here at the Summit JCC. Our original Chapel – which is now my office – had the Ark on the eastern wall. When we added our “new” Sanctuary in 1954, our Ark was moved to the northern wall and we faced north until that Sanctuary was dismantled last June. Currently, in our new social hall, we placed the Ark on the southern wall. When our really new Sanctuary is ready some time this winter, the Ark will be on the western wall. We will have literally come full circle.
In truth, the Talmud picks up this discussion in one other place in addition to the citation above. In the Tractate of Bava Batra, page 25a, Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Sheshet agree “Since the Divine Presence is everywhere — Shechinah b’chol makom – the essential commandment is to direct one’s heart to God.” So, no matter which direction we face, we can still find a way to keep an eye on Israel.