Slowly Positioned

Since our parsha shares with us Yaakov’s Avinu’s prayer prior to his confrontation with Eisav, I thought it appropriate to discuss some laws of tefillah.

Slowly Positioned

Question #1: Why windows?

Why does a shul have windows? Does this not create a distraction that one should avoid?

Question #2: A ruined davening!

When traveling, is it better to daven inside the ruins of a building or to pray outdoors?

Question #3: Strange title!

What does the title of this article have to do with its topic?

Answer:

At the beginning of parshas Vayishlach, the Torah teaches that one of the ways that Yaakov prepared for his encounter with Eisav was through prayer. This provides ample reason to discuss some of the laws regarding tefillah.

In Chapter 5 of Hilchos Tefillah, the Rambam discusses many important aspects of prayer that he terms “non-essential components,” meaning that if they were not done, one has still fulfilled his mitzvah to pray. Furthermore, someone unable to fulfill these laws is required to daven without observing them.

Correct location

The Rambam groups many of these rules under a heading he calls “the proper location in which to pray” (Rambam, Hilchos Tefillah 5:6). We can organize these laws into the following mnemonic heading:

Set place

One should have a set place where he davens.

Low

When standing to daven shemoneh esrei, one should stand in a low place. Certainly, one should not pray while standing on top of something.

Outdoors

One should not daven outdoors.

Wall

When praying, one should face a wall.

Lodging

One should not pray in a destroyed building, called, in Hebrew, a churvah.

Yerushalayim

In the room where one is davening, some windows or doors should face Yerushalayim and should be open.

As I mentioned above, these are all categorized as non-essential components of prayer. This means that although meeting these requirements is important, circumstances may dictate that one daven without observing them. We will now discuss the details of these six categories.

Set place

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 exceedingly righteous and a disciple of Avraham Avinu (Brachos 6b). This passage of Gemara is subsequently quoted verbatim by the Rif and the Rosh, and its conclusion is quoted by all the halachic authorities.

What does the Gemara mean when it says one should pray in an “established place”? This is disputed by the rishonim. Rabbeinu Yonah explains that the main thrust here is that one should pray in a place that is specially set aside for prayer, such as a shul. On the occasions when one cannot daven in shul and one must pray at home, he should have a set place at home where he prays. This should be a place where he will not be disturbed (see Magen Avraham 90:33). However, Rabbeinu Yonah rules that there is no requirement to daven in the same place in shul, which is usually referred to as a makom kavua, since the entire shul is established for prayer. Furthermore, according to Rabbeinu Yonah, it does not seem to make any difference which shul one attends, since one is, in any event, davening in a place that has been established for prayer. According to this approach, the reason why one who establishes a place for his prayer is promised such special rewards is because he was always careful to daven in a shul. On this basis, many rishonim note that someone who is unable to join the tzibur should still opt to daven in a shul, rather than at home (Rabbeinu Manoach, Hilchos Tefillah 5:6, based on Rambam, Hilchos Tefillah 8:1).

However, other rishonim have a different interpretation of “a set place” to pray. For example, the Rosh contends that even in a shul, one should have a set place where he prays. Rabbeinu Manoach explains that someone who has several shullen in his neighborhood from which to choose should not randomly daven at different ones. He implies that one should always daven in the same shul, and that this is included in the Gemara’s recommendation that one “establish a place for one’s prayer.” If we combine these two approaches, to be rewarded with the special brocha, it is insufficient for one always to be careful to daven in shul – one also must be careful to daven in the same place, in the same shul, at all times. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 90:19) concludes that one should always have a set place to daven, whether at home or in shul. By the way, this law applies equally to women – a woman should have a set place in the house, out of the way of household traffic, where she can daven undisturbed.

Low

Daven from a low place

From the well-known words of Tehillim (130:1) Mima’amakim kerasicha Hashem, “from the depths I call out to You, Hashem,” the Gemara (Brachos 10b) derives that whenever one prays, one should endeavor to do so from a low place. For this reason, in many old shullen, the place from which the chazzan davened was somewhat sunk into the floor. This is also hinted at in the words of the Gemara (Brachos 34a) when it says that the chazzan is yoreid lifnei hateivah, descends when he leads the services.

There are two reasons why one should not stand on something while praying (Mahari Abohav, quoted by Beis Yosef, Orach Chayim 90):

  1. Acting this way shows a degree of haughtiness.
  2. It is distracting to do so, because the person is afraid he may fall.

Because of the second reason, the Mahari Abohav prohibits davening while standing atop furniture, even when it is less than three tefachim high, which is a subject of dispute. The Rema and the Elyah Rabbah (90:1), follow the approach of the Mahari Abohav and prohibit praying even while standing atop something lower than three tefachim. On the other hand, the Bach, the Taz and the Pri Chodosh permit this, although the Pri Chodosh qualifies that this is permitted only if the person himself will not be distracted because he is standing on something.

Under extenuating circumstances, or if the chazzan wants to daven from an elevated surface so that people can hear him, one may daven from atop a piece of furniture, as long as one is in a secure position (Beis Yosef, Orach Chayim 90, quoting several authorities).

Outdoors

One of the scholars of the Gemara, Rav Kahana, declared that praying in an exposed agricultural area is viewed as being an act of chutzpah (Brachos 34b). Based on this Gemara, the Tur and the Shulchan Aruch rule that one should not pray in an open area, such as a field (Orach Chayim 90:5).

Why is praying in a field considered arrogant? Rashi explains because praying in a secluded place is more conducive to humility and being in awe of G-d. This is explained by the Mahari Abohav (quoted by Beis Yosef, Orach Chayim 90) as meaning that, inherently, man should be inhibited about talking to G-d, and this should manifest itself in wanting to pray in a place where one has privacy. One who davens where there is nowhere to hide implies that his relationship with G-d is chummy.

An alternative explanation why it is considered chutzpah-dik to pray outdoors is that one who does so implies that, although there are distractions outdoors, he is confident that his concentration will not be affected. This attitude implies arrogance (Magen Avraham 90:6, in his explanation of Tosafos, Brachos 34b s.v. Chatzif).

The dispute how to explain this law has halachic ramifications. For example, may one, lechatchilah, daven outdoors in a place where he will not be disturbed?

According to the Magen Avraham’s reason, this is permitted, whereas according to the Mahari Abohav, it is prohibited when he has somewhere else to daven.

According to both approaches, one may pray under the heavens, provided that he is in an area surrounded by walls, even if there is no roof (Shaarei Teshuvah 90:1, quoting Batei Kehunah, Birkei Yosef, and Mizbach Adamah).

Yitzchak in a field

The commentaries (Tosafos, Levush, Bach) ask: If the Gemara rules that it is arrogant to daven outdoors, why did Yitzchak daven in an open field (Bereishis 24:63, see Rashi)? There are many different answers to this question. According to the Bach (Orach Chayim 90), Yitzchak davened between the trees, and this is considered similar to praying in an enclosed, unroofed area. Others explain that since he was praying on Har Hamoriah, the same holy place where the Beis Hamikdash would ultimately be built, this is not considered the same as davening in an open field (Tosafos, Brachos 34b s.v. Chatzif). A third approach is that Yitzchak davened in a place where no one would disturb him (Tosafos, second answer). This last answer implies that it is permitted to daven outdoors in a place where one will not be disturbed, which, as I mentioned above, corresponds only to the second opinion in the dispute as to why one should not daven outdoors. Some later authorities prohibit praying outdoors even in an area where one will not be disturbed, because they rule according to the other reason, that of the Mahari Abohav (Mishnah Berurah, 90:11).

The Magen Avraham (90:6) rules that the halachic assumption is that travelers may daven outdoors. The Mishnah Berurah (90:11) writes that if they have an option to daven under trees, that is preferable.

Wall

The verse in Melachim II 20:2 emphasizes that Chizkiyahu, the king of Yehudah, turned to the wall to pray. Based on this, the Gemara (Brachos 5b) derives that one should not pray with something intervening between himself and a wall. The Gemara’s example is that one should not pray facing a bed. Tosafos (s.v. Shelo) explains that this law does not apply to davening facing a piece of furniture that is not regularly moved, such as a bookcase (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 90:21; cf., however, Taz 90:5, who explains this idea in a different way).

Why did Chazal advise that one not pray with something intervening between himself and the wall? The Rambam explains that this is so that one not daven facing something that will distract him (quoted by Beis Yosef, Orach Chayim 90). For this reason, it does not apply to something being used to help one daven, such as a shtender, table or desk (Taz, Orach Chayim 90:5). It is also permitted to daven facing something lower than 10 tefachim or less wide than four tefachim (Rabbeinu Manoach, Hilchos Tefillah 5:6; Rema 90:21, quoting Avudraham), although there are authorities who disagree with this (Pri Chodosh; Maamar Mordechai 90:25). It is also permitted to pray facing people (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 90:21 and 98:4).

Since the Rambam rules that this law is in the category of things that are preferred but not vital, one who davened facing a bed has fulfilled his mitzvah. Furthermore, one who has nowhere to daven other than facing a bed or some other piece of furniture may do so. The Taz (90:5) rules that if the only convenient place to create a minyan requires davening with something intervening before the wall, one may do so. He contends that since the reason not to have something intervening is only to avoid distraction, one may disregard this problem when it is the best option. The Mishnah Berurah (90:63) rules according to this Taz.

Lodging

One should not pray in a churvah, a partially destroyed building. In the context of this halachah, the Gemara (Brachos 3a) presents the following anecdote. Rabbi Yosi said: Once, when I was traveling, I entered one of the wrecked hovels of Yerushalayim to pray. Eliyahu, may he be remembered for good, arrived and remained at the door of the hovel to protect me, until I completed my prayer. When I completed my prayer, I greeted him as one greets one’s teacher…

Eliyahu proceeded to ask Rabbi Yosi why he had entered a destroyed remnant of a building. Rabbi Yosi replied that he had entered in order to pray in a place that he would not be distracted by other travelers. Eliyahu answered him that he should have recited an abbreviated prayer, rather than enter a churvah to pray!

The Gemara proceeds to explain that there are three reasons why one should not enter a churvah.

Someone might suspect him of using the ruins for sinful activity.

The building might collapse.

Evil spirits might be there.

The Gemara (Brachos 3a-3b) explains that all three reasons are valid, and then elaborates on when some of the reasons apply, but not others. The halachic conclusion is that when there are at least two people and the structure looks stable, none of the three reasons apply, and they may enter the churvah. Therefore, a married couple may enter ruins that look stable, since none of the reasons apply (Pri Megadim, Eishel Avraham 90: 8). Also, one may enter a churvah in a case of life-threatening emergency, such as when it is the only place available to provide necessary shelter from the elements.

We should note that all three reasons mentioned for not entering a churvah have nothing to do with praying. A person alone may not enter ruins unless there is a life-threatening emergency, such as the need to rescue people from an imminent building collapse.

Outdoors or in a churvah?

If someone has two options for davening, outdoors or in a churvah, where should he daven? We see from the conversation between Eliyahu and Rabbi Yosi that it is better to daven outdoors than in a ruin (Magen Avraham 90:7).

Yerushalayim

When praying in a room, some windows or doors should face Yerushalayim and should be open, as implied by the verse in Daniel (6:11): “He had windows open, facing Jerusalem, in the upper story of his house and, three times a day… he prayed to Hashem.” From this verse, the Gemara (Brachos 31a) and the Rambam derive that one should pray in a building that contains windows. It is interesting to note that the Kesef Mishneh quotes a responsum of the Rambam that the requirement that there be windows applies only to someone davening at home, but not to a shul. However, the custom is to have windows in a shul. The later authorities note that this 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).

We should note that there appears to be a dispute among early authorities as to whether the primary reason that one should pray in a room with windows is so that one can see the heavens, or whether it is so that one look in the direction of Yerushalayim (see Pri Megadim, Eishel Avraham 90:4). This question will be discussed shortly.

Windows or outdoors?

What should a person do if he has two places in which he could daven, one outdoors and the other indoors in a room without windows. Since the Gemara states that it is a chutzpah to daven outdoors, the Pri Megadim rules that someone with this choice should pray indoors, in the building without windows (Eishel Avraham 90:4). This ruling is subsequently followed by the Mishnah Berurah (90:10).

Twelve windows

There is a practice that a shul has twelve windows. This is based on a Zohar (parshas Pekudei), which is quoted by the Beis Yosef (90) and the Shulchan Aruch (90:4), who says that “it is good” to have 12 windows. As long as at least one of these windows faces Yerushalayim, it does not matter in what the direction the other windows face (Pri Megadim, Eishel Avraham 90:4; Mishnah Berurah 90:9). Some windows or doors that face Yerushalayim should be open (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 90:4).

This ruling prompts the following question of the Magen Avraham (90:4): Why should a shul have windows? After all, one is supposed to daven by looking downward, to avoid distraction. 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. The Machatzis Hashekel explains, differently, that one is not supposed to look out the windows. He explains that the reason for the windows is so that one realizes that, wherever he is, the tefillah travels first to Yerushalayim and then to heaven.

Conclusion

Having studied many of the laws about proper positioning in davening, let us also use the above mnemonic to realize that we should always daven slowly and meaningfully. Understanding how much concern Chazal placed in the relatively minor aspects of davening should make us more aware of the fact that davening is our attempt at building a relationship with 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.