At the beginning of parshas Vayeitzei, the Torah teaches that Yaakov reached “the place,” vayifga bamakom, and he stopped there, because the sun had already set (see Rashi). The Gemara explains the word vayifga to mean he prayed. As Rashi notes, the word bamakom means that he stopped at a specific place, yet the Torah does not identify which place. Chazal explain that he stopped at the place where the akeidah of his father had occurred, which is the place from which Adam Harishon was created and the location of the mizbei’ach of the Beis Hamikdash, toward which we daven three times daily.
To quote the Rambam: “The location of the mizbei’ach is very exact… this is the holy place where Yitzchak was bound… We have a tradition that the place where David and Shelomoh built the mizbei’ach is where Avraham had built the mizbei’ach upon which Yitzchak was offered, and is the same place where Noach built the mizbei’ach after he exited the ark. This is the same mizbei’ach upon which Kayin and Hevel offered, as did Adam Harishon, and it is the place from which he was created” (Hilchos Beis Habechirah 2:1-2).
The Gemara (Berachos 6b) asks: “What is our source that Avraham assigned a place for prayer?” The Gemara responds: “‘Avraham arose early in the morning and went to the place where he had stood before Hashem’ (Bereishis 19:27). The expression ‘where he had stood’ alludes to prayer, as it says, ‘Pinchas stood up and prayed’” (Tehillim 106:30).
We see that Yaakov stopped to pray because he was continuing the practice of his grandfather, Avraham. Thus, we can see the importance of where we pray and to associate our davening with the Beis Hamikdash.
Toward the Mikdash
The Gemara (Berachos 30a) teaches that someone davening outside Eretz Yisrael should face Eretz Yisrael, someone within Eretz Yisrael should face Yerushalayim, someone within Yerushalayim should face the Beis Hamikdash, and someone within the Beis Hamikdash should daven facing the Kodesh Hakadashim. It even specifies how one should face within the Kodesh Hakadashim. Someone who has this shaylah should not be reading my article for instructions, but should check the Gemara.
Window on Yerushalayim
The room where one is davening should have some windows or doors open that face Yerushalayim (Rambam, Hilchos Tefillah 5:6; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 90:4). This halacha is derived from a verse in Daniel (6:11): “He had windows open, facing Yerushalayim, in the upper story of his house, and three times a day… he prayed to Hashem” (Berachos 31a, 34b).
Rashi explains that looking heavenward through the windows influences one to be increasingly humble.
This ruling prompts the following question of the Magen Avraham (90:4): Why should we daven in a house that has windows? One is supposed to daven looking downward, to avoid distraction. So, logically, would it not be better if a shul deliberately did not have windows? Yet, Daniel davened in a room with windows.
The Magen Avraham answers that the windows are there so that if one is having difficulty concentrating while praying, he can look heavenward for inspiration. Similarly, Rashi may mean that immediately prior to davening one should look heavenward, but that, in general, while davening one should not be looking around or upward.
The Machatzis Hashekel shares with us several other reasons why davening should be in a room with windows. Some explain that this is a practical consideration, for ventilation, since being physically comfortable facilitates having proper focus when davening. Others explain that there should be windows facing Yerushalayim, not to provide a view, but to remind us that our tefillos travel first to Yerushalayim and then to heaven.
It is interesting to note that the Kesef Mishneh quotes a responsum of the Rambam, wherein he explains that the requirement that there be windows applies when davening at home, but not in shul. When the Mishnah Berurah (90:8) quotes this halacha, he similarly explains that this law applies primarily to a house, although he also applies the law to a shul, which is the prevailing custom. The later authorities note that having windows in a shul is implied by the Zohar, and contend that the Shulchan Aruch, the author of the Kesef Mishneh himself, followed this approach (Pri Megadim, Eishel Avraham 90:4; Kaf Hachayim 90:19).
The Zohar states that it is proper that a shul have twelve windows. Upon quoting this, the Beis Yosef says that the reason is based on deep kabbalistic ideas. Thus, although we do not understand the reason for this ruling, we should try to follow it. Therefore, when Rav Yosef Karo, the author of the Beis Yosef, subsequently wrote the Shulchan Aruch, he ruled that a shul should, preferably, have twelve windows (Orach Chayim 90:4). The Pri Megadim rules that it does not make any difference which direction the twelve windows face, as long as at least one faces Yerushalayim. This is based on the fact that Daniel’s prayer room had a window facing Yerushalayim.
The Gemara mentions that it is inappropriate to daven outdoors (Berachos 34b). Although Chazal imply that Yaakov davened outdoors, his situation was different, because he was traveling. A traveler may daven outdoors, particularly if there is no more appropriate place for him to pray. In addition, even if a person has a place indoors to daven, but it is a place where he might be disturbed, it is better that he pray outdoors. If he has two places where he can daven undisturbed, one under trees and the other not, it is preferable to daven in the place where there are trees overhead (Pri Megadim, Chayei Adam, Mishnah Berurah).
Tosafos cites an opinion that the concern is not to daven in a place where someone will be disturbed by travelers, but one may daven outdoors in a place where he will not be bothered. The Beis Yosef (Orach Chayim 90) mentions this Tosafos, but questions it, implying in Shulchan Aruch that should someone have two choices where to daven undisturbed, one indoors and one outdoors, it is preferred to daven indoors.
The Gemara (Berachos 10b) rules that one should not daven from an elevated place. Quite the contrary, it is proper to pray from a low place, as the pasuk states, “from the depths I call to You, Hashem” (Tehillim 130:1).
Set place — Makom kavua
A person should daven regularly in the same place, as the Gemara states: Whoever establishes a place for his prayer, the G-d of Avraham will assist him. Furthermore, upon his passing, they will say about him that he was exceedingly humble and righteous and a disciple of Avraham Avinu (Berachos 6b).This passage of Gemara is subsequently quoted verbatim by the Rif and the Rosh, and its conclusion is quoted by the halachic authorities (Rambam, Hilchos Tefillah 5:6).
What does the Gemara mean when it says one should pray in an “established place”? This is the subject of a dispute among the rishonim; I will quote three approaches:
Daven in shul
(1) Rabbeinu Yonah explains that it means to pray somewhere set aside for prayer, such as a shul. When someone cannot daven in shul and must pray at home, he should have a set place where he can pray undisturbed (see Magen Avraham 90:33). Rabbeinu Yonah rules explicitly that an established place does not mean a specific place in a shul — the entire shul is established for prayer. In his opinion, there is no requirement to have a specific seat in shul where one always davens.
Furthermore, according to Rabbeinu Yonah, it does not seem to make any difference which shul one attends, since one is, in any instance, davening in a place that has been established for prayer. According to this approach, the special rewards that the Gemara promises to someone who establishes a place for his prayer are because he was always careful to daven in a shul.
Based on Rabbeinu Yonah’s approach, many rishonim note that someone who is unable to join the tzibur should still daven in a shul, rather than at home (Rabbeinu Manoach, Hilchos Tefillah 5:6, based on Rambam, Hilchos Tefillah 8:1; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 90:9).
Set place in shul
(2) Other rishonim disagree with Rabbeinu Yonah’s approach. The Rosh contends that, even in a shul, one should have a set place where he prays – the way we traditionally use the term makom kavua (Rosh, Berachos 1:7; Hagahos Maimaniyos, Hilchos Tefillah 5:10; Tur Orach Chaim #90). The poskim note that it need not be the exact same seat or location. Rather, anywhere within four amos (approximately seven feet) is considered to be the same place (Mishnah Berurah 90:60). If a guest is sitting in your seat, it is improper to ask him to sit elsewhere, since any nearby seat fulfills makom kavua.
For the occasion when someone must daven at home, he should have a set place where he can daven undisturbed (Magen Avraham 90:33). A woman should also have a set place in the house, out of the way of household traffic, where she davens undisturbed.
Daven in the same shul
(3) A third approach is advanced by Rabbeinu Manoach, who explains that establishing a place in which to daven means that someone should not daven randomly in different shullen, but should always daven in the same shul.
If we combine these three approaches, to guarantee the reward that the G-d of Avraham will assist him and that upon his passing, they will say about him that he was exceedingly humble and exceedingly righteous and a disciple of Avraham Avinu, a person should be careful to daven in the same place, in the same shul, whenever he can, and, certainly, on a regular basis.
The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 90:19) concludes that one should always have a set place to daven, whether at home or in shul. He does not mention davening in a specific shul, implying that he is following the view of the Rosh, the second of the three opinions that I quoted. This fits the Shulchan Aruch’s general halachic opinion of ruling according to one of the three, main accepted poskim of Klal Yisrael: the Rif, the Rambam and the Rosh.
Notwithstanding this halachic ruling, the authorities conclude that it is permitted to change your place (either the beis haknesses, or the place therein) when there is reason to do so (see Tur Orach Chaim 90; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 90:19). The Pri Megadim (Eishel Avraham 90:33) mentions that, in places that have two separate structures for the tefillos, one for winter and another for summer, changing from one to the other does not run counter to this halacha.
Rav Shelomoh Zalman Auerbach ruled that one may daven each of the three daily tefillos in different shullen, as well as the weekday prayers in one shul and the Shabbos tefillos in another (Halichos Shelomoh, Tefillah, Devar Halacha 5:2). It is unclear whether Rav Shlomoh Zalman understood that this approach accommodates Rabbeinu Manoach’s understanding of the Gemara, or that the Shulchan Aruch and later authorities do not follow Rabbeinu Manoach’s ruling.
Another very important consideration is a ruling of the Avnei Neizer (Orach Chaim #32), that it is forbidden to daven in a room that is underneath the residence of a non-Jew, out of concern that the non-Jew has an idol or icon in his home, an assumption he makes in his time and place, 19th century Russia. In today’s world, this may still apply, depending on the faith of the upstairs neighbor.
Choice of Shullen
There is discussion in the Gemara and poskim concerning what is the preferred shul that one should choose to daven in. Of course, we are assuming that all the choices are conducive to davening with proper focus.
Closer or farther?
The Gemara (Bava Metzi’a 107a) quotes a dispute between Rav and Rabbi Yochanan, whether it is preferable to attend a shul that is closer, so as to regularly be among the first ten in shul (Toras Chaim, ad loc.), or a more distant shul, to receive reward for each step getting there. The poskim conclude that it is preferable to go to the shul that is farther away and receive the extra reward for every step (Magen Avraham 90:22; Graz 90:12). As we know, most people choose to daven at the most convenient, nearest shul. We should rethink this practice.
Larger or smaller?
Another consideration in choosing shullen is which one has the larger regular attendance. This is based on the concept of “berov am, hadras melech” – “a multitude of people is the King’s glory” (Mishlei 14:28).
Shul or Beis Hamedrash
The Gemara (Berachos 8a) asks: “What is the meaning of that which is written: ‘Hashem loves the gates of Zion more than all the sanctuaries of Yaakov’ (Tehillim 87:2)? Hashem loves the gathering places in which halacha is determined. This accords with what Rav Chiya bar Ami reported, quoting Ulla: Since the day that the Beis Hamikdash was destroyed, Hakadosh boruch Hu has nothing in His world but the four amos of halacha.” The Gemara says that some amora’im were particular to pray “between the pillars where they learned,” referring to the pillars upon which the study hall was supported (Rashi). The Gemara specified “between the pillars,” indicating that not only did they daven in the study hall, as opposed to the beis haknesses, but they davened in the exact location where they studied (Ma’adanei Yom Tov, Berachos 1:7:70).
We see from this that there is preference to daven in a beis hamedrash where Torah is studied, as opposed to a beis haknesses used solely for davening (see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 90:18).
What is the best choice for a makom kavua? The best option is for a person to daven in a beis hamedrash, particularly the one where he usually studies Torah, or in a beis haknesses, with a minyan. These choices are preferable to davening with a minyan elsewhere, such as at home, a simcha hall or an office building (Mishnah Berurah 90:27). However, none of these are greater priorities than the ability to concentrate on the davening. Therefore, should someone find that he cannot focus on his davening in shul but can do so in a minyan in someone’s home, it is preferable to daven with the home minyan (Mishnah Berurah 90:28).
If a person cannot attend shul to daven with a minyan, he should daven at home at the same time that they are davening in shul. This means that he should begin his shemoneh esrei at the same time that the congregation with whom he usually davens begins theirs. This is because the time that the tzibbur is davening is considered to be an “eis ratzon,” a time of Divine favor (Pri Chadash 90:9; Pri Megadim 90, Eishel Avraham #17).
Man was created by Hashem as the only creation that has free choice. Therefore, our serving Hashem and our davening is unique in the entire spectrum of creation. Three times a day, we merit an audience with the Creator of the Universe, a golden opportunity to praise, thank and beseech Hashem. As the Kuzari notes, every day should have three very high points — the three times that we daven. We should gain our strength and inspiration for the rest of the day from these three prayers.
Understanding how much concern Chazal placed on the relatively minor aspects of davening should make us even more aware of the fact that davening is our attempt at building a relationship with Hashem. How much preparation should this entail? Is it proper to merely jump into the davening without any forethought? Through tefillah we save lives, bring people closer to Hashem, and overturn harsh decrees. Certainly, one should do whatever one can to make sure to pay attention to the meaning of the words of one’s tefillah. One of the necessary preparations for tefillah is choosing where to daven. This sets the tone and contributes towards a successful prayer session. Let us hope that Hashem accepts our tefillos, together with those of all Klal Yisrael!