By Rabbi Chaim Galfand
Sunday, May 13, is Yom Yerushalayim, or Jerusalem Reunification Day. This Israeli national holiday celebrates the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967 in the wake of the Six Day War. As we prepare to mark this occasion when the Kotel (Western Wall) and the entirety of the Old City came under Israeli control, it seems like a very appropriate time to answer a question that has been posed to me: why do Jews face east when they pray?
One of the more recognized aspects of Jewish prayer, at least in our part of the world, is that prayer should be directed to the east. Ideally, synagogues should be designed and built to face east. Individuals praying alone are likewise supposed to face eastward. We teach this concept to children at a young age, and often display mizrach (east) plaques indicating the appropriate direction. However, depending on an individual’s location, we may actually need to redirect the question — for example, a Jew in China would face west during prayer.
The custom of praying in a particular direction is based on the prayer of King Solomon, in which he said:
When Your people go out to battle against their enemy, by whatever way You shall send them, and they pray to Hashem toward the city which You have chosen, and the house which I have built for Your name, then hear their prayers in heaven. (1 Kings 8:44)
The “city” is of course Jerusalem, and the “house,” the Temple. The reference to praying in the direction of Jerusalem is also supported by a passage from the biblical Book of Daniel, where we read that in the house’s upper level, Daniel prayed three times daily, with windows opened toward Jerusalem. (Daniel 6:10)
The focus on praying in the direction of Jerusalem and the Temple is elaborated upon in the Mishnah, which states that when we are east of the Temple, we should turn westward; when west, we should turn eastward; when south, we should turn northward; and when north, we should turn southward.
The Shulchan Aruch, the Jewish legal code compiled by the great Sephardic sage Rabbi Yosef Caro in the 16th century, states that Jews should pray facing the Land of Israel, and that if they are already in Israel, they should face the site of the destroyed Temple and the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem. And for those in a windowless room who don’t know what direction to face, they should direct their prayers from their hearts “to God in heaven.”
Psalm 137 says, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, then let my right hand forget its own strength.” Together with the previous sources, this psalm suggests that Jerusalem is essential to our identity as Jews — that we are weakened if it is not a part of our active consciousness. Realizing such a connection may involve either body or soul or both. This, in turn, is a microcosm for the entire endeavor of living and learning Jewishly: we can feel the attachment to our heritage whether with our bodies, our hearts or our heads.
Rabbi Chaim Galfand is the school rabbi at Perelman Jewish Day School.