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The Gates of Heave


The heavenly gates mentioned in this week’s parasha are the subject of this week’s article. What are those Divine Gates? Why do we pray facing Jerusalem? What is the thought that goes along with the direction we face in prayer? Is the direction for prayer important only for the Shemone Esrei, or for all prayers? In shuls with a variety of seating directions, is there a preferable one? What is the significance of the Mizrach, making it one of the most common motifs in Judaica? A shul was built wrong by mistake and the Torah ark is not situated in the proper direction for payer. How do we pray there? Where should the rabbi’s seat be? Why are shuls in New York built differently from shuls in Hong Kong or Australia? Do we pray towards the Western Wall or towards the Holy of Holies in the Mikdash? In which direction does one pray when standing at the Kosel? Of this, and more in the coming article.


In this week’s parasha we read about Yaakov’s journey to Charan. Realizing he had passed his forefathers’ prayer site, he turned back, hoping to pray there. G-d brought night earlier than expected and Yaakov bedded down to sleep at that spot. In his sleep Yaakov beheld prophetic visions and awoke with the understanding that it was no ordinary spot. It was: “…The house of G-d, and this is the gate of heaven” (Bereshis 28:17) to which Rashi explains it is: “A place of prayer, where their prayers ascend to heaven.”

Practical Ramifications

Since prayers ascend to heaven through these gates, we stand facing them in prayer. This is the reason for the halacha requiring us to stand facing the Land of Israel when praying outside of it; towards Jerusalem for those in the Holy Land; and facing the site of the Mikdash for those praying in (Old) Jerusalem. People in lands west of Israel face east in prayer and those in countries east of Israel face west. South African Jewry faces northeast in prayer, and Russian Jewry basically faces south.

The Gemara (Brachos 30a) derives this halacha from the prayer Shlomo Hamelech pronounced at the Mikdash’s inauguration ceremony: “…And pray to You toward their land, which You gave to their fathers, the city that You have chosen, and the house which I have built for Your Name” (Melachim I 8:48); and: “…And pray to the Lord toward the city that You have chosen, and (toward) the house that I have built for Your name” (ibid 44); and: “…And they will come and pray toward this House” (Divrei Hayomim II 6:32). Even one standing in the Mikdash needs his prayers to enter through the Gates of Heaven which is the Holy of Holies, as Shlomo Hamelech’s prayed: “…And they shall pray toward this place” (Melachim I 8:35).


European Jewry, situated west of Israel, prays facing east, or in Hebrew, mizrach. This resulted in the front row in shul became the coveted mizrach vant – the first row reserved for honorees, as well as the Mizrach sign that indicates the direction of prayer. Mizrach symbolizes a Jew’s yearning and the desire to return to the Holy Land and rebuild the Mikdash, as Rabbi Yehuda Halevi expressed it in his famous poem “Libi Bamizrach – My heart in in the east, but I myself am in the far ends of the west.”

The Levush (OC 94:1) notes that the term “Mizrach” is technically incorrect because Israel is southeast of Eastern Europe, not east. In prayer we are required to pray towards the Holy Land, not simply towards the east.

The Aruch Hashulchan, who lived in Russia, notes (OC 94) the Levush’s opinion, but maintains that Jews customarily pray facing east, not south or southeast, even in Eastern Europe and Russia.

This difference in opinion is rooted in the different approaches to the reason for facing the Mikdash. According to some, the reason is to arouse the proper kavana – connecting in thought to the Mikdash in Jerusalem. Following this approach, the general direction is sufficient. The other approach that sees the Mikdash as the Gates of Heaven calls for directing one’s prayers to the exact direction of the Mikdash to allow prayers to ascend on high.

The Levush follows the latter opinion and provides clear instructions how to determine the direction according to the sun’s rays during the vernal and autumnal equinox (for lack of accurate compasses in many communities).

The Taz (94:2) maintains the former opinion, but adds a caveat: those in western countries should face the exact direction (southeast or southwest) so as not to resemble sun-worshipping nations who face east towards the rising sun.

The Lechem Chamudos (Brachos 4:19) agrees that the general direction is sufficient, and the Aruch Hashulchan (OC 94) provides numerous sources to support it.

The Mishna Brura (94:11) notes both approaches and rules that where possible, following the Levush is preferable.

In summary: If building a synagogue facing Jerusalem accurately is possible, it is preferable. However, if it is impossible or difficult, there is room for leniency.

Wisdom or Wealth

An interesting halacha seems contradictory to the previous noted halacha. The Gemara (Bave Basre 24b) writes that one who wishes to acquire wisdom should pray facing south, while one praying for wealth one should face north.

The Rama (OC 94:2) notes the contradiction and resolves it that in praying for wisdom or wealth one should, indeed, change his direction of prayer. The Mishna Braura (94:12) explains that the general direction should be towards the Mikdash, but with a slant south or north, accordingly.

Therefore, the Mishna Brura concludes, worshippers in shul must face the Torah ark which should be built in the direction of Eretz Yisroel/Jerusalem/the Beis HaMikdash. In an Eastern European shul built according to the Levush’s opinion (facing southeast) one can pray for wisdom in the same direction as the congregation because he has a south-facing slant. If the shul is built according to the other opinions, one can turn slightly north or south, whichever he prefers (the same is true in shuls built directly east or west of Jerusalem.)

The Mishna Brura adds that in shuls that face north (in the Israeli Arava region or South Africa for example) facing south during prayer is forbidden because it involves turning one’s back to the Torah ark. The same is true when praying for wealth in Moscow or the north of Israel — turning one’s back to the Torah ark in order to face north is forbidden.

Another way to adjust one’s direction of prayer in shul is to choose a seat facing the ark which is in the direction one wants to pray. One praying in a shul facing east should sit in the left side of the sanctuary in order to slant slightly towards the south in facing the ark, or on the right to pray for wealth.

Rabbi’s Seat

The Mishna Brura writes that where the Torah ark is in the east the rabbi should be seated to its left so in turning towards it in prayer he’ll also be facing south to merit extra wisdom. Seating him to the right won’t allow him to turn south because in doing so he will be facing away from the ark. The Mishna Brura adds that if the rabbi’s seat is situated to the right of the ark and rearrangement will cause discord, it is preferable to drop the matter for the sake of peace. Obviously, shuls built facing south don’t have this issue, as do those facing north.

Therefore, in western Europe, the Americas, and the Israeli Dan region the rabbi should be seated to the left of the Torah ark, while shuls in China, India, and Israeli villages east of Jerusalem (Ma’ale Adumim, for example) should seat the rabbi to its right.

Misplaced Ark

What can be done if a shul was built wrong and the ark is not in the direction of prayer? Does the congregation pray towards the Aron Kodesh and away from Jerusalem, or do they face away from the Torah and towards Jerusalem?

The Mishna Brura (94:10, 11, 12) lays out the rules:

Facing away from the Torah is forbidden. Therefore, if the Torah ark is on the western wall instead of the eastern one, the congregation can pray towards the southwest. As long as they are not turning their backs to the Torah, praying in another direction is possible.

Where the congregation placed the Torah ark on the south instead of the east, for example, one must follow the “when in Rome, do as Romans do” rule and follow the crowd. If it is possible to stand with a slant towards the southeast, that is preferable. Similarly, in eastern European shuls built facing east, standing on a slight southern angle is not considered separating himself from the congregation, and doing so is proper.

Modim D’rabonon

Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Si’ach Halacha, I, chapter 25:80) writes that Modim D’rabonon should also be recited facing the Mikdash. Therefore, in shuls that seat worshippers in various directions  — either on both sides of a table, or around the room’s parameter, all should turn towards the ark for Modim, just as they do for Shemone Esrei. The Mishna Brura rules (Machane Yisroel I 39) that optimally, every prayer should be uttered facing Jerusalem. Therefore, where worshippers can choose their seat they should prefer those facing the ark.

Praying at the Western Wall

The Mabit writes (Beis Elikim Sha’ar Hatefila chapter 5) that since Eretz Yisroel is where prayers are accepted, when praying one must imagine himself standing and speaking before G-d, dwelling in the Holy Land. This is why one should face that direction – to make us our aware of our situation: speaking before the Shechinah.

Mekor Chaim (94:1) follows along the same line, adding that this halacha applies also after the Beis Hamikdash is no longer standing, as we find the Gemara (Brachos 30a) refers to the Beis Hamikdash as “Talpiot” because it is a hill (tel) to which all the mouths (piyot) turn in prayer. Since the Shechinah never left the Western Wall, it is towards that spot we must now turn in prayer.

Apparently, these sources indicate turning towards the Western Wall for prayer, not the site of the Mikdash. Accordingly, if one cannot actually face it, he should imagine himself standing before it, and not the site of the Mikdash. This is difficult because the Mishna (Brachos 4:5) writes that one must face the Mikdash and not the Western Wall.

Apparently, this dispute is rooted in another disagreement on the proper kavana in prayer (see the previous two articles). According to the Mabit and Mekor Chaim kavana means feeling like speaking to the holy Shechinah, which is situated, nowadays, at the Western Wall. Therefore, in prayer, one must face the Western Wall or imagine himself standing before it. However, the Mishna Brura (94:2) rules explicitly: “One should think in his heart and his imagination as if he is standing in the Mikdash in Jerusalem, in the place of Holy of Holies.” In every prayer one must feel as if he is standing in the Holy of Holies, where the high priest enters only once a year after extensive purification. Today, having no sacrifices, we can serve Hashem in a way that nobody but the high priest could serve, only once a year – we can “enter” the Holy of Holies every single day.

Practically, the Shulchan Aruch (OC 94:1), along with most poskim up to the Mishna Brura rule that the direction of prayer is towards the Holy of Holies, not the Western Wall.

Praying at the Western Wall

In which direction does one pray when standing at the Western Wall? This question depends upon the numerous theories as to the location of the Mikdash. Some maintain it was in the southern part of Mount Moriah while others — on the northern. While reviewing all the approaches to this question is beyond the scope of this article, we will only point out that many great rabbonim were sighted praying there facing all directions: directly towards the Kosel, at a right, or at a left angle.

Prayer Basics

To conclude this topic we will bring a powerful quote from Machane Yisroel, the Chofetz Chaim’s handbook for Jewish soldiers forcibly conscripted to the Czar’s army, but critical for all of us. The Chofetz Chaim outlines the basics of Yiddishkeit and how to maintain it against the horrible backdrop of Russian army bases. He also adds directives for soldiers should they, G-d forbid, be taken captive, instructing them to pray for salvation: “Prayer is not confined to the Shemone Eesrei, but whenever one wants. And prayer need not be specifically in the Holy Tongue — it can be in any language one is accustomed to use from childhood, but two basic components must not be lacking:

1) Prayer must come from the depth of one’s heart; it should not be mere lip-service. One who can bring himself to tears should do so because, “All the gates are locked, except for the gates of tears.”

2) One should direct his prayer in his mind towards the Holy Land, and from there to Jerusalem, and from there to the Holy of Holies … just as he does for the Shemone Esrei. And when he does this, his prayer will surely not go unanswered.

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