4

A Beraita is cited in Berachot 30a as follows:

ת"ר סומא ומי שאינו יכול לכוין את הרוחות יכוין לבו כנגד אביו שבשמים שנא' והתפללו אל ה' היה עומד בח"ל יכוין את לבו כנגד ארץ ישראל שנא' והתפללו אליך דרך ארצם היה עומד בארץ ישראל יכוין את לבו כנגד ירושלים שנאמר והתפללו אל ה' דרך העיר אשר בחרת היה עומד בירושלים יכוין את לבו כנגד בית המקדש שנאמר והתפללו אל הבית הזה היה עומד בבית המקדש יכוין את לבו כנגד בית קדשי הקדשים שנאמר והתפללו אל המקום הזה היה עומד בבית קדשי הקדשים יכוין את לבו כנגד בית הכפורת היה עומד אחורי בית הכפורת יראה עצמו כאילו לפני הכפורת נמצא עומד במזרח מחזיר פניו למערב במערב מחזיר פניו למזרח בדרום מחזיר פניו לצפון בצפון מחזיר פניו לדרום נמצאו כל ישראל מכוונין את לבם למקום אחד א"ר אבין ואיתימא ר' אבינא מאי קראה כמגדל דויד צוארך בנוי לתלפיות תל שכל פיות פונים בו

Our Rabbis taught: A blind man or one who cannot tell the cardinal points should direct his heart towards his Father in Heaven, as it says, And they pray unto the Lord. If one is standing outside Palestine, he should turn mentally towards Eretz Israel, as it says, And pray unto Thee towards their land. If he stands in Eretz Israel he should turn mentally towards Jerusalem, as it says, And they pray unto the Lord toward the city which Thou hast chosen. If he is standing in Jerusalem he should turn mentally towards the Sanctuary, as it says, If they pray toward this house. If he is standing in the Sanctuary, he should turn mentally towards the Holy of Holies, as it says, If they pray toward this place. If he was standing in the Holy of Holies he should turn mentally towards the mercy-seat. If he was standing behind the mercy-seat he should imagine himself to be in front of the mercy-seat. Consequently, if he is in the east he should turn his face to the west; if in the west he should turn his face to the east; if in the south he should turn his face to the north; if in the north he should turn his face to the south. In this way all Israel will be turning their hearts towards one place. R. Abin — or as some say R. Abina — said: What text confirms this? — Thy neck is like the tower of David builded with turrets [talpioth], the elevation [tel] towards which all mouths (piyyoth) turn.

(Soncino translation)

Given a spherical Earth, if I am situated to the west of Israel I will be facing Israel whether I face east or west, as you can see below:

Map showing an eastward path towards Israel

Map showing a westward path towards Israel

This leaves me with several options:

  • The author of this Beraita was not aware that the Earth was spherical, and therefore assumed that in order to face Israel from any given point in the world, there was only one specific direction that you could face.

  • The author of the Beraita was aware that the Earth is spherical, and the point being conveyed is that (even though you can be facing Israel even if you face a different way) you have to face Israel in the most direct way, i.e. whichever way is closer.

  • The Beraita is not fully precise, and indeed the terms "east" and "west" (and "north" and "south") don't mean much when the Earth is spherical, and you can in fact face Israel in whichever way you want as long as you are actually facing it.

The differences in these options can result in different halachic conclusions. The second option in particular, if taken to the extreme, would mean that someone would have to determine the precise point in the Pacific Ocean where the shorter direction changes.

This Beraita is codified by all the major codes, yet I did not find any of them, or the standard commentaries thereon, discuss this aspect. Rambam's formulation in Hilchot Tefilah 5:3 may avoid the whole issue, as he leaves out the end of the Beraita which discusses the actual directions:

נכח המקדש כיצד היה עומד בחוצה לארץ מחזיר פניו נכח ארץ ישראל ומתפלל היה עומד בארץ מכוין את פניו כנגד ירושלים היה עומד בירושלים מכוין פניו כנגד המקדש היה עומד במקדש מכוין פניו כנגד בית קדש הקדשים סומא ומי שלא יכול לכוין את הרוחות והמהלך בספינה יכוין את לבו כנגד השכינה ויתפלל

Facing the Temple: What is implied?

A person standing in the Diaspora should face Eretz Yisrael and pray.

One standing in Eretz Yisrael should face Jerusalem.

One standing in Jerusalem should face the Temple.

One standing in the Temple should face the Holy of Holies.

A blind person, one who is unable to determine direction, or one travelling in a boat should direct his heart towards the Divine Presence and pray.

(Touger translation)

This could be taken to mean that you can face any direction as long as it is towards Israel, since he doesn't mention any specific direction that must be faced.

So, to conclude, which (if any) of my three options above are correct?

Is this issue addressed in Rabbinic Literature?

Are any of my geographical assumptions incorrect?

  • 2
  • In the back of my mind I seem to recall that you face east regardless of where in Chutz LaAretz you are. Is that not correct? – DonielF Feb 3 at 14:01
  • @DonielF That’s discussed by the poskim. But let’s assume not for the sake of this question. – Alex Feb 3 at 14:02
  • Your second bullet, by stating closer, seems to take the side of the great circle route and ignores the commonly (universally?) practiced Rhumb line approach. – user6591 Feb 4 at 21:33
1

Based on the halachic principle of following proximity (הולכין אחר הקרוב) derived from the law of the עגלה ערופה (see, e.g., Bava Bathra 23b), it would seem that the longer route is irrelevant. Notably, the maps you provide don't convey this entirely accurately, at least according to the view of Rav Yechiel Zilber (see MyZmanim.com that also cites Rav Yisrael Belsky, z"l, who used more traditional map projections to determine davening direction; see also here). See instead below a map that indicates the actual direct, shortest distance prayer directions. Azimuthal Equidistant Map Projection centered at Temple Mount

Related: Israel-centric map projection

| improve this answer | |
  • I’m not sure I understand your answer. Are you saying that you have to face the shortest route because of the principle of קרוב? – Alex Feb 3 at 11:52
  • רוב וקרוב הולכים אחר הרוב. If most Jews face one direction I’d think you should as well even if for you there’s a closer way to face. – DonielF Feb 3 at 14:03
  • So, from the OP's Oklahoma panhandle location, the shortest distance to Israel is to the north-east along a geodesic (shortest line on the surface of a sphere) that crosses Greenland and Iceland. – Ray Butterworth Feb 3 at 14:42
  • 3
    הולכים אחר הקרוב is for Safek. Perhaps you are right but very strange to cite a Gemara treating for safek, Rov and Karov etc... – kouty Feb 3 at 15:18
0

There is a general rule דברו חכמים בהווה, the Sages spoke about what normally happens. It is true that for someone in the Pacific Ocean he could face either East or West (following the rhumb line, a constant compass direction) or any direction (following the great circle, the shortest distance, see here). But most people are in places where there is a clear direction which is towards Israel and a clear away.

If East and West are meant to say that one should face only the cardinal directions, or if they are just examples and one should face directly towards the Temple; that is a question that has nothing to do with a spherical Earth. It is dealt with in MB 94:11, where he claims that it is unanimous that one should face directly towards Israel.

| improve this answer | |
  • This is false for almost everywhere. There is not a "clear" direction which is "towards Israel". There are several possibilities. For example, from New York, if you follow the shortest path to Israel, you're facing north-east. gcmap.com/mapui?P=JFK-TLV – magicker72 Feb 12 at 1:12
  • @magicker72, as I said I'm not getting into great circle as opposed to rhumb line. See the link. I'm saying that on the great circle and using the two rhumb lines (basically East and basically West) one direction is usually much shorter than the other. – Mordechai Feb 13 at 20:27
-2

In Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Bet Habechirah 7:8, Maimonides explains that Jews should refrain (or abstain) from facing west whenever they are going to sleep or using the bathroom. The reason for this is that the direction is facing the holy of holies in the west of the Temple. This law also prompts Jews to recall the Temple, for it is proper to do so. Can we apply this notion to Beraita? I think so. It is not that the Beraita or Maimonides were uneducated about the shape of the earth. It has halakhic ramifications since we need to remember the Temple with respect.

| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    Can you clarify how this addresses the point that I can face the Temple in multiple directions? – Alex Feb 4 at 23:25
  • @Alex I think the Rambam understood that the world could be round and that it does not matter whether or not the Talmud understood this. The issue at hand is halakhic. It is important to face the temple when making a certain blessing. But not in the shower, because of the genitals. But this prayer does not concern itself with the shape of the earth but respect to the Temple. – Turk Hill Feb 4 at 23:41
  • But how does one halachicly face the Temple? – Alex Feb 4 at 23:44
  • @Alex Face whatever direction is the closest to the Temple [Jerusalem]. If Israel is closer to you by the west, face west. If it's by the east then face east. – Turk Hill Feb 4 at 23:53
  • How do you know that? That’s the main thrust of my question. – Alex Feb 4 at 23:57
-5

Maimonides understands that G-d has no need for a temple and only allowed it for the sake of humans, as a concession. Many people will reject this view. But should they do so?

Does it make any difference whether or not the author of Beraita was unaware that the earth was spherical? I think that it makes no difference. Thus, Maimonides said that the sages could be mistaken in matters of science. Understood this way all difficulties are removed. And while this view may be difficult for some people, it is not difficult for Maimonides.

We can probably face anywhere we want as long as we understand the Beraita to be poetic. For G-d is no more present in Israel than anywhere else. G-d is not restricted to a single place. G-d is everywhere.

| improve this answer | |
  • 3
    So there's no special kedusha to Eretz Yisrael or the Har HaBayt? That seems to go against much of Jewish thought, practice and law – Josh K Feb 3 at 6:34
  • 1
    Of course God has no need for a temple or sacrifices or anything. But people have a need for them. – Heshy Feb 3 at 11:44
  • 2
    *Understood this way all difficulties are removed.” What difficulties are removed? The question already granted the possibility that the Sages may have been mistaken in matters of science. – Alex Feb 3 at 11:57
  • 2
    Maimonides (like everyone else) agrees that you have to face the Temple sefaria.org/… – Heshy Feb 3 at 15:10
  • 1
    G-d neither needs nor wants sacrifices, but that's completely irrelevant, because G-d neither needs nor wants people to be moral either. G-d commanded people to be moral, to not eat meat cooked with milk, to not work on Saturday, and to bring sacrifices. We do those things because G-d gave the commandments to us for our benefit. – Heshy Feb 3 at 15:41

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .