Truth, Understanding, Insight

Praying Towards Jerusalem

30th January 2004, hej


1) Why do we orient ourselves?

Humans use the co-ordinate directions North, South, East and West to locate themselves on the globe. To the modern mind North is the most important direction. Yet the word ‘orientation’ is about East, not North. The ‘Orient’ is the East. To orient oneself was to mark the rising of the sun (The North position at 12 noon is hard to establish without an accurate clock).

But our orientation is more than a sense of relative position. When we orient ourselves there is meaning. For the Europeans building Church edifices the East-West axis was important as the sun’s rising become the son’s rising. For them direction had meaning. According to architectural historian V.Scully (1991) the light from the East over the choir was from the heavens but the Western entry was for glory of the king.

Yahweh Values Orientation

An investigation shows Yahweh, though everywhere, values orientation. The Tabernacle in the wilderness was a tent. There is no reason why it had to face a particular direction. However, each time it was re-erected it was to be orientated with the entrance to the East. Not only was the tabernacle orientated but the encampment was arranged to the compass co-ordinates around the tabernacle at the centre.

Numbers 2:3 And on the East side toward the rising of the sun shall they of the standard of the camp of Judah pitch Numbers 3:38 But those that encamp before the tabernacle toward the east, before the tabernacle of the congregation eastward, Moses and Aaron and his sons, keeping the charge of the sanctuary

The whole encampment was orientated by the tabernacle. It is not surprising then, to read that Solomon’s temple also was designed to be entered from the East with the Most Holy to the West

Ezekiel 8:16 And he brought me into the inner court of the LORD’S house, and, behold, at the door of the temple of the LORD, between the porch and the altar, were about five and twenty men, with their backs toward the temple of the LORD, and their faces toward the East; and they worshipped the sun toward the east.

Yahweh is totally consistent in His design, for we also find that though the Temple in Ezekiel’s prophecy is square, which does not favour one orientation over another, we find that the East gate is again special

Ezekiel 46:1 Thus saith the Lord GOD; The gate of the inner court that looketh toward the East shall be shut the six working days; but on the sabbath it shall be opened, and in the day of the new moon it shall be opened. and the prince shall enter by the way of the porch of that gate without, and shall stand by the post of the gate, and the priests shall prepare his burnt offering and his peace offerings, and he shall worship at the threshold of the gate: then he shall go forth; but the gate shall not be shut until the evening. Likewise the people of the land shall worship at the door of this gate before the LORD in the sabbaths and in the new moons.

Also the waters proceed from under this gate:

Ezekiel 47:1 Afterward he brought me again unto the door of the house; and, behold, waters issued out from under the threshold of the house eastward: for the forefront of the house stood toward the East.

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.