The first thing we need to make clear is that we don’t necessarily face east; we face Jerusalem. And even when our compass or map shows that Jerusalem is to the east of our location, we still may end up facing another direction.

Sounds confusing? Let’s start from the beginning.

Facing Israel, Jerusalem and the Holy Temple

Shortly after King Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, he prayed to G‑d that the place be an eternal abode for the Divine Presence: “When heaven is shut up, and there is no rain . . . and they shall pray toward this place and praise Your name, and repent of their sin, so that You may answer them.”1

Based on this verse (and others found in the rather lengthy prayer), the Talmud understands that Jews in the diaspora should face toward the Holy Land when praying, those in Israel should face toward Jerusalem, those in Jerusalem should face toward the Temple Mount, and those on the Mount should turn toward the Holy of Holies.2

Indeed, Daniel, who lived during the Babylonian exile, faced Jerusalem: “Daniel . . . went into his house—now, his windows in his upper chamber opened toward Jerusalem—and he kneeled upon his knees three times a day, and prayed . . .”3

Indeed the notion that our prayers ascend to heaven through the Temple Mount is rooted in the Book of Genesis, where Jacob states regarding the Temple Mount, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of G‑d, and this is the gate of heaven.”4

Thus, we see that it is important to face toward Israel, Jerusalem, the Temple or the Holy of Holies, depending on your location, but not necessarily toward the east.

So why is there such a prevalent conception that we face east? Because the cradle of the Ashkenazic and Sephardic cultures, France and Spain respectively, are roughly west of Israel.

Credit: Google Maps
Credit: Google Maps

Other Directions—Riches or Wisdom?

It is also noteworthy that although it is the universal contemporary practice to face Israel and the Temple when praying, the Talmud cites some divergent opinions.

Some say that it is preferable to face west, since the Shechinah (G‑d’s Presence) is in the west. One sage had the custom of facing any direction but east, since the pagans started facing east when they prayed. Others hold that since G‑d is everywhere, one can pray in any direction.

Additionally, the Talmud goes on to tell us that “one who wants to become wise should turn south [during prayer]; one who wants to become rich should turn north . . . Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: ‘One should always face south because from becoming wise, one will become rich.’ ”5

Accordingly, some archaeological finds of ancient synagogues, especially from Talmudic times, face alternative directions.

Practically, Which Direction Should I Pray?

● Despite the alternative customs, as we mentioned earlier, it has become the almost universal practice to pray toward Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. If one desires to follow one of the other customs, it is suggested that he either stand with his feet facing Jerusalem and his face turned toward the other desired direction, or vice versa.6

● Most hold that when praying in a synagogue that was built facing a direction other than Jerusalem, one should nevertheless turn toward Jerusalem while praying.7

● One who is unable to determine the correct direction should direct his heart to his Father in heaven, as it is written, “And they shall pray to G‑d.”8 9

● If one starting praying in the wrong direction, he continues his prayers and directs his heart to our Father in heaven, relying on the other opinions about which direction to pray and just trying to turn his face toward east. If however, one accidentally faced west, he need not try to turn his body or face toward east, as it won’t quite work.10

Calculating the Most Direct Route to Jerusalem

When trying to figure out the direction to Jerusalem, it is important to keep in mind that due to the spherical nature of the earth, the process of calculating the most direct route can be complicated.

There are two potential ways to calculate the distance between two points on the globe. The first way is to project the globe’s surface onto a flat plane (Mercator map) and basically follow the straight line drawn on the map (“rhumb line” or “compass route”).

There are many who have used this method to determine which direction they should pray, and indeed, especially if one lives relatively close to Israel (e.g., France), doing so makes sense, since for short distances this line is not terribly inaccurate.11

The Great-Circle Route

There are, however, downsides to using this method for further distances.

On a globe, the compass route is not the shortest distance between two points, which lies along what mathematicians term a “great circle.” In layman’s terms, if you were to hold two ends of a string to two points on a a globe and pull tight, the string would follow the great-circle route. This is the actual shortest distance between those two places. (You may have noticed this arc-like line mapping the trajectory of your flight on long-distance trips.)

The Shulchan Aruch Harav12 and many others13 rule that this is the preferable method of calculating which direction to pray. In fact, the Shulchan Aruch Harav provides some instructions on how the calculation is to be made. Today, there are many helpful websites that can do this for you.

To illustrate the difference in using the two methods:

The shortest route between New York City and Jerusalem is to use the great-circle route from New York with an initial heading of 54 degrees east-north. This route is about 5,686 miles. If one were to travel using the compass route, they would travel a much longer distance of 6,091 miles at a heading of about 95 degrees east-south.

So although Jerusalem is southeast of New York, the shortest way to get there is by heading northeast, and that is the direction in which we should pray.

(It should be noted that although for simplicity sake we are using the term “shortest route” in truth, when praying, we are not interested in traveling and not really concerned about a longer or shorter route of travel—we are only concerned about facing directly towards Jerusalem. This distinction is important since for a person living very much North, the shortest route might be North (Over the North Pole) to Jerusalem. But when it comes to the direction of prayer however, no one would face directly North or South - unless he lived directly South or North of Jerusalem). From our perspective, the north and south stretch endlessly, rather than curve. To better understand this see footnote14)

Credit: Google Maps
Credit: Google Maps

However, the way the Shulchan Aruch Harav is worded, it is seemingly referring to how to calculate where to place the ark in the synagogue. So in general, while one needs to pray in the proper direction based on the above calculations, it need not be precise and recalculated every time we pray.15 (And bear in mind that if using a compass to determine where you should be facing, the magnetic north varies significantly from the “true” north, and how much this varies can vary as well.)

Of course, regardless of which method you use to calculate the proper direction, the most important thing while praying is to have the proper intention. May all our prayers be answered, including the ultimate prayer for the rebuilding of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem!