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This is a question I've had for many years, to which I've never received a satisfactory answer:

In Hebrew school, we were taught that idolaters bowed to a idol of their god. They would claim that the idol itself wasn't thought to be physically their deity, but rather a representation of it so they could direct their worship at the statue. We were also taught that Jews don't bow to idols.

Fast-forward to modern-day synagogue judaism. The room where services are held includes an ark for the torah scrolls, and we pray facing it. The congregation even bows in the direction of the ark. I've asked several rabbis about this informally, and I usually get the answer that we're not bowing to the ark but the ark as a representation of God.

My question is: How is this any different from non-Jews bowing to an idol? If Judaism has God who is everywhere, why do we need to bow towards a physical object that's a stand-in for God? Or is this simply human nature, to need to physically see a thing in front of us?

(Please let me know if I can make this clearer, or if I'm stepping on anyone's toes here. Have tried to phrase this respectfully while maintaining clarity.) 

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Just saw this posted today.. it's a worthy read on the topic. torahmusings.com/2011/11/facing-jerusalem –  avi Nov 22 '11 at 13:26
    
@avi - Interesting read, certainly! –  neilfein Nov 22 '11 at 19:05
    
Also related is that which it says in Yevamos 6a-b: "'My Shabbasos keep and my sanctuary fear.' Just like with Shabbas you don't fear it but rather the one Who commanded it, so too with sanctuaries you don't fear it but rather the one Who commanded it." This is a hekesh (see the beginning of this site). –  b a Dec 13 '12 at 21:18

3 Answers 3

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Well, here's what comes to mind.

  1. Bowing is not reserved for G-d. There are many cases in the Bible when prominent Jews bowed to kings such as the prophet Natan bowing to David (Melachim 1:1:23) and Yosef’s brothers bowing to Yosef (Breishit 42:6). Even Avraham (Breishit 18:2) bowed to strangers whom he suspected of being idolaters (Rashi to verse 4).
  2. Bowing in the direction of the Ark (or Aron Kodesh, as I shall call it) is not bowing to the Aron Kodesh at all, but rather bowing in the direction of the Holy of Holies in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem). When there is no Aron Kodesh (like a minyan that is not in a synagogue), we bow in the direction of Yerushalayim. Wikipedia (quoting Rambam and Shulchan Aruch) says:

    "...the Aron Kodesh should be placed "in the direction in which people pray in that city," i.e. toward Yerushalayim. The Shulkhan Arukh records the same rule, but it also recommends that one turn toward the southeast instead of east to avoid the semblance of worshiping the sun".

  3. The law is (not sure if this is across the board) that if the Aron Kodesh is not on the eastern wall (for whatever reason), one faces Yerushalayim irregardless, and does not face the Aron Kodesh.
    The Shulchan Aruch Harav says:

    "...One should turn towards Eretz Yisrael if they are in the diaspora, and to Yerushalayim if one is in Eretz Yisrael, and towards the Temple if one is in Yerushalayim. We are located in the west so we face east, and therefore we put the Aron Kodesh on the eastern wall, however, even if the Aron Kodesh is on a different wall, one should still face east"


As regards why we should pray in a specific direction at all if G-d is everywhere, I seem to remember learning that the main thing is that your heart be pointed (focused on) towards the Holy of Holies because that is where G-d's presence was strongest on earth.

Edit: (Thanks to Tom Shmuel for the source) The Mishna (Berachot 4:5) says that if one is unable to face Yerushalayim:

"he should direct his heart toward Yerushalayim."


As regards what you were taught in hebrew school, my guess is it was probably over-simplified - depending on how old you were. When I was young, I was taught similarly, but the truth is one is forbidden to worship idols in any way. Some idols are worshiped, not by bowing, but by other means, i.e. throwing rocks at them (source here), sacrificing one's children (not Isaac style, they went all the way, (according to some1)), sacrificing animals to them, burning incense, as well as other things we won't mention here. The point is, worshiping an idol in any way that we worship Hashem is forbidden, as well as worshiping them in any way in which they (specifically) are worshiped. But it must be an idol, or the intent must be that it is, for it to be forbidden. Bowing out of respect to someone is not worship.

1: Some do say that they just passed them through fire.

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On your first point, there is also the minhag to bow slightly towards the Torah during hagba. We're certainly not worshipping the scroll - we're showing respect. –  yoel Oct 5 '11 at 13:46
    
IIRC, it's in brachos mishna (4:5) –  Shmuel Brin Oct 5 '11 at 15:36
    
Thanks @tomsmith I'll add that in. –  HodofHod Oct 5 '11 at 17:56
    
This is quite an excellent answer. –  neilfein Oct 6 '11 at 3:12
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@neilfein. That being said, I think there is another great question here. Why do we face/focus on Jerusalem if G-d is everywhere? –  HodofHod Dec 25 '11 at 18:45

We don't bow to the ark. In fact, for bows such as modim derabanan there is no reason to bow in any specific direction. The bows during shmone esrei happen to be towards the ark because at that time we are facing east but only because of the tefilla not the bows.

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commentless downvote? –  Double AA Jan 16 '12 at 4:35
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I upped you bec your 1st 5 words answered the question. not sure you are right about the rest. why is it not prefereable to bow modim or daven towards jerusalem, even if not east? Tephila is towards jerusalem so are the bows. You seem to make them unrelated? –  user1040 Jan 23 '12 at 13:37
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+1 A good answer, plus, I detest commentless downvotes. –  HodofHod Feb 9 '12 at 4:04
    
I concur with @user1040. At least in its current form, your answer does seem to prefer East over Jerusalem, and separate Tefillah from bowing. –  Seth J May 23 at 18:57

As HodofHod said, we bow in the direction of Jerusalem, and that is also the wall on which we place the ark.

I was taught that this means that if you're at the sides of the room (with the ark in the center), you don't bow toward the ark; you bow toward east. In some congregations I see everybody bow toward the ark, forming basically a semi-circle, but I don't know if this is because that's how their rabbis have ruled or if the people on the sides are just imitating the people in the center of the room.

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