Truth, Understanding, Insight

Praying Towards Jerusalem

30th January 2004, hej


2) Facing Jerusalem towards the Future Temple

However despite the precedent of the Temple built during King Solmon's reign, Jewish synagogues are not oriented East specifically, rather they are orientated to face Jerusalem. In an analysis of ancient Synagogues the historian J. Branham (1992) writes, “Masada, Herodium, Gamla and Delos.. with the Second Temple during the first century. These buildings are not, however, orientated in any unified way. While each may evince a particular expression of orientation to Jerusalem, none employs the same axis” but “After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE many synagogues were built with both entrances and windows facing Jerusalem.” H.A Meek (The synagogue, 1995) points out that the Tosefta required “that the synagogue should be built on high ground, that the ark should have its back to the sanctuary (of Jerusalem) and that the synagogue gates should open to the east.” Branham shows that from the fourth century there was a formal change, “Built during the third century Beth She’arim and Hammath Tiberias, had…main entrances facing southeast toward Jerusalem .. in the fourth century these entrances were walled in and a niche for a Torah was installed…the congregation entered and looked southeast towards Jerusalem. In these later stages the worshippers no longer found an open aperture to the Holy City through which to pray, but instead and enclosure for storing..the scrolls”. In some synagogues they substituted drawings of the temple on the wall facing Jerusalem for the open doors and windows. This tradition of orientation to the Temple has persevered even in recent reform American synagogues, where again the glazing has reappeared around the niche for the Torah.

The explanation for this orientation is not related to the mere fact that in pointing to the absent Temple one is reminded of the Temple, though it does do that. Joseph Gutmann (The Jewish Sanctuary, 1983) points out that the Torah niche is to show the direction of prayer. He adds “Synagogue orientation was linked to a geographic place, with Jerusalem” as it “was to be the site of the ultimate Messianic fulfilment with the re-building of Solomon’s temple and the resurrection from the dead”. Branham quotes research that establishes that the “reason why the doors and windows of (the early) synagogues face the Temple Mount” is “the biblical passage in which Daniel prays in a house through an open window in the direction of Jerusalem.

Daniel 6:10. Now when Daniel knew that the writing was signed, he went into his house; and his windows being open in his chamber toward Jerusalem, he kneeled upon his knees three times a day, and prayed, and gave thanks before his God, as he did aforetime.

Gutmann also cites the opinion of R Hiyya Bar Abba (3rd Century C.E.), who states that it is forbidden to pray in a building devoid of windows”. Azriel Eizenberg (The Synagogue through the Ages, 1974) attributes this requirement for windows in a synagogue directly to the Daniel 6:11 passage. It is to be noted that both the requirements of orientation to Jerusalem and windows are related to prayer.

The significance of prayer in the synagogue service is explained by Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin (To Pray as a Jew, 1980). He writes, “The Shemoneh Esrei (prayer) is the heart of every service”. By reciting it three times a day one fulfils the obligation to pray three times a day. He says, “The Shemoneh Esrei is said while facing the direction of Eretz Yisrael. Worshippers in Eretz Yisrael face towards Jerusalem. Worshippers in Jerusalem face the Temple Mount…(it) is said with feet together (Ezekiel 1:7).., said quietly (1Sam 1:13) we also relate to God as the King of Kings.. three small forward steps are taken before beginning. The idea that one ‘approaches’ God to pray is found several times in the Bible (Gen 18:23, 1 Kings18:36). Similarly one takes three steps backward at the very end..(then).. slightly bow three times from the waist.”

It can be asked, ‘what precisely do they pray for three times a day facing Jerusalem?’ Though much longer, their prayer resembles in structure the Lord’s prayer. They pray for forgiveness, the ingathering of the dispersed, restoration of justice and below is a translation of a focal section,

“To Jerusalem Thy city, return with compassion, And dwell within it as Thou promised: rebuild it soon in our days – an everlasting structure: and speedily establish in its midst the throne of David” and “The offspring of Thy servant David quickly cause to flourish…For Thy deliverance do we constantly hope.” And just in case the point is missed the prayer concludes , “Blessings and thanksgiving to Thy great and holy Name for having given us life and sustained us. So mayest Thou continue..and gather our dispersed to the courts of Thine holy Temple to keep Thy statutes, to do Thy will, and to worship Thee whole heartedly”.

The European Church builders in effect made Temples, though reversing the entry direction from the East to the West, implying they had replaced the Temple. Yet the synagogue, no matter how grand, has never become the replacement of the Temple. It always pointed, as near as possible, not to the absent Temple, but rather to the hope of a re-built Temple. They term the synagogue their ‘little sanctuary’ and quote the passage below

Ezekiel 11:16 Therefore say, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Although I have cast them far off among the heathen, and although I have scattered them among the countries, yet will I be to them as a little sanctuary in the countries where they shall come.

This acknowledges, just as Daniel did, that they are strangers looking forward to the building of a promised sanctuary or ‘rest’. We happen to have been told about it. Ezekiel wrote about it for us.