The Location of the Ark and the Tradition of Facing East
by Rabbi Jordi Schuster Battis
My heart is in the east
and I in the uttermost west
– Yehudah Halevi (c. 1141)
In this way all Israel will be turning their hearts towards one place.
– Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 30a
In talking about Jewish prayer, we often follow in the steps of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and make a distinction between keva, the fixed and routine aspects of liturgy, and kavanah, the intention and directionality we put behind our words.
We can use this dichotomy in thinking about the spaces in which we pray, as well: the keva of the walls, art, ritual objects, and other physical artifacts of our synagogues versus the kavanah that those fixtures evoke in us. Nowhere is this more pointed than in the physicality and directionality of that universal synagogue object, the ark (Aron HaKodesh) in which the Torah scrolls are kept and toward which we turn to pray. In almost every synagogue around the world, the Aron is the focal point of the sanctuary, at the front, center of the prayer space. Often raised above the community on the bimah, in many synagogues the Aron is itself a work of art. Almost always, the ner tamid (eternal light—a lamp that is never extinguished) hangs above it, symbolizing the fire that burned on the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem before it was destroyed nearly 2,000 years ago.
For millennia, the tradition has been to place the Aron such that, in facing it, those praying would face Jerusalem. This was true in many ancient synagogues, where the ark was not a fixed part of the architecture, but was brought in and out of the worship space and set at the Jerusalem-facing wall. Later prayer spaces were built with a stationary Aron as the focal point.
Indeed, in Berakhot 30a we learn the specifics of where to turn—and, thus, of where to ideally locate the Aron in a sanctuary space:
If he is to the east (of Jerusalem), he should turn his face to the west (i.e., toward Jerusalem); if to the west, he should turn his face to the east; if to the south, he should turn his face to the north; if to the north, he should turn his face to the south.
So, while in America and in Europe the Aron is typically built on the eastern (or southeastern) wall to face Jerusalem, in the ancient Jewish center of Babylonia (present-day Iraq), a synagogue’s ark could be found on the west. And, within the land of Israel, and in Jerusalem, synagogues’ arks face in whichever direction points them to Jerusalem and then toward the Temple Mount itself.
Although this tradition corresponds to a physical ideal—that is, an ideal for the keva of which direction to face—other passages make clear that it is the kavanah of facing Jerusalem that is most important. Thus, the Mishnah teaches (M. Berakhot 4:5), “One should turn one’s face, but if one cannot turn one’s face, one should direct one’s heart toward the House of the Holy of Holies (the Temple in Jerusalem).” Likewise, in the Talmud, we learn (BT Berakhot 30a):
If one is standing outside the land of Israel, he should turn his heart towards the land of Israel… If he stands in the land of Israel, he should turn mentally towards Jerusalem… If he is standing in Jerusalem, he should turn mentally towards the Sanctuary [of the now destroyed Temple]… If he is standing in the Sanctuary, he should turn mentally towards the Holy of Holies.
Not only does this allow for turning one’s individual intentions toward a traditionally meaningful physical space, but, by each person maintaining the orientation of body or heart toward the Holy of Holies, “all Israel will be turning their hearts towards one place” (BT Berakhot 30a). This aspiration is echoed in the 1979 responsum of the Reform movement regarding the physical orientation of synagogues, which maintains:
We may, therefore, conclude that synagogues should be oriented east or south in accordance with tradition, whenever this is possible. This would express our spiritual unity with the Jewish people throughout history and our love for Jerusalem and Israel.1
It is important to note that there have always been exceptions to the rule that the Aron should be on the Jerusalem-facing wall. Many synagogues, ancient and contemporary alike, were affixed along different axes, depending on particulars of geography or local customs. Another CCAR responsum advises in the case of an American synagogue built long ago not pointed toward the east, that to restructure the space simply in order to charge the orientation “would seem to cast aspersions upon the Jewish commitment of those who erected, paid for, and maintained the structure,”2 and therefore, that the restructure should not be undertaken. Further, in that case, “since the Ark with its scrolls is the synagogue’s focus of sanctity, the congregation should turn toward it during the service.”3
Thus, both in ancient Jewish tradition and in contemporary Reform thinking, the keva of the Aron’s placement is important, but it is the kavanah, toward sanctity and toward the community of K’lal Yisrael, that is the orientation most important of all.
1. Walter Jacob, et al., “18. Orientation of the Synagogue (1979),” in Central Conference of American Rabbis, American Reform Responsa: Jewish Questions, Rabbinic Answers (NY: CCAR Press, 1990).
2. W. Gunther Plaut and Mark Washofsky, “Ark Located on Synagogue’s North Wall
5752.4,” in Teshuvot for the Nineties: Reform Judaism’s Responses for Today’s Dilemmas (NY: CCAR Press, 1999).
3. Ibid. Emphasis mine.
Rabbi Jordi Schuster Battis is the Interim Campus Rabbi at Fiedler Hillel at Northwestern University. She lives with her husband, Seth, and their infant son, Gershom. On the eastern wall of their living room hangs a “mizrach” (a sign indicating “east”), as a continual reminder of where to turn both body and heart in prayer.
Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah.