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.

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4 Responses to “The Location of the Ark and the Tradition of Facing East”

  1. avatar

    In a day and age when we are so obsessed with de-anthropomorphizing God that we are robbing our Liturgy of some of its poetry and inspirational power, we should at least be consistent in living out our theology that God is EVERYWHERE. Sanctuaries should face in random directions to prove the point that directing worship towards God requires no specific physical directionality. I don’t outright deny the phenomena of “holy spaces” and “holy objects”, but I don’t think that as Reform Jews we can seriously consider the notion that God’s Presence or Holiness can be particularly concentrated in Jerusalem, on the Temple Mount, or even at the Western Wall. What’s more, even if it were, it would still be avodah zarah to direct worship towards that area.

    The act of praying with kavanah invites God’s Presence into whatever space is being used, no matter which direction people are facing. When we pray with sincerity, we create our own “holy of holies” in our midst, and the Ark and Scrolls in the room become holy for us because of our devotion. The direction in which the sanctuary faces has no effect on this, positive or negative. Therefore, while of course existing buildings should be left alone, we should avoid selling out to an orthoprax standard of Jewish authenticity when building new sanctuaries. We can be holy no matter which direction we face, thank you very much, because God can confer upon us the necessary sanctity in response to our reaching out in prayer.

  2. avatar

    My physical compass is based on N-E-S-W, with no arrow pointing to “random,” but my spiritual compass tells me that the God who is everywhere emanates from Jerusalem.

    When we pray communally, we are connecting not only to God, but also to our fellow-Jews across time and space, so our Talmudic instruction to turn our hearts (and our eyes) toward one place makes perfect sense.

    As Rabbi Battis reminds us, the keva of the ark’s placement is an important consideration in building or remodeling a prayer space. I would hate to think that any Building Committee would “make a statement” by purposely refraining from the Jerusalem orientation where it is a practical option; and I am frankly appalled at the responsum that suggests we mustn’t reconfigure space when we can to avoid offending the memory of those who originally designed it otherwise. Any sanctuary that was built even thirty years ago was built for a Reform Judaism very different from what we have today — built for a congregation that was an audience, rather than one where everyone is part of the cast.

    • avatar

      God is indeed everywhere, and I’d call it heresy to suggest that God could emanate from any specific place. How arrogant, indeed, given the vastness of the Universe, to think that God specifically emanates from Jerusalem! That might possibly be the most blasphemous thing I’ve read on this blog in the few years I’ve been following it! You are truly in ideological “mitzrayim”–constricted by a narrow, deadeningly naive perspective.

      Why does it bother you that it has been suggested that we avoid re-configuring the sanctuaries in historic buildings? Is it worth destroying the architectural beauty of a holy space just to face Jerusalem? That does violence not only to the memory of those who built the sanctuaries, but also to the rationalistic spirit of non-Orthodox Judaism. Even if facing Jerusalem is the strongly preferred orientation, we must remember that there is no supernatural difference–our prayers will not less reach God in a different direction, nor will we be cut off from connecting with our fellow Jews across space and time. Spiritual communication knows no directionality–and I can’t fathom how anyone alive could think otherwise.

      Regarding your nauseatingly slanderous claim about the Reform Judaism of “even thirty years ago”, all I can say is that it’s simply untrue. The website of Temple Emanu-El in New York says it best:

      “It is unfortunate that too many in our time believe that the worship experience consists of the clergy as performers, the congregation as the audience and God as the prompter. In a more theologically correct understanding of worship, it is God who is the audience, the members of the congregation who are the performers and the clergy who are the prompters. And because it is the Holy One who is really the audience, the ultimate challenge of prayer is not merely in reciting it but in living it to what it demands.”

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