Monday, March 07, 2011

Orientation in Jewish Prayer

Those who have read Fr. Uwe Michael Lang's excellent book, Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer will already be familiar with the subject of orientation in Jewish prayer -- orientation toward Jerusalem, or, in at least some instances, the East. Accordingly, while this will come as no particular revelation to readers of that work, it is still interesting and gratifying to come across such a "rubric" within the specific context of Jewish prayerbooks.

Within my own library I have a copy of a Jewish siddur, or daily prayerbook, specifically, the Ha-Siddur Ha-Shalem translated by Philip Birnbaum (informally referred to as the "Birnbaum Siddur"), and published by the Hebrew Publishing Company in Hebrew and English. Recently I was looking through it and I noted specific mention of such an orienting rubric in relation to the "Amidah", which the Wikipedia article on the same suggests to be a "central prayer of the Jewish liturgy".

The rubric as it appears in the Birnbaum Siddur is as follows:

"The Amidah is recited in silent devotion while standing, facing east."

The aforementioned Wikipedia article makes the following comments about orientation in Jewish prayer generally:

The Amidah is preferably said facing Jerusalem, as the patriarch Jacob proclaimed, "And this [place] is the gateway to Heaven," where prayers may ascend. The Talmud records the following Baraita on this topic:

"A blind man, or one who cannot orient himself, should direct his heart toward his Father in Heaven, as it is said, "They shall pray to the Lord" (Kings I 8). One who stands in the diaspora should face the Land of Israel, as it is said, "They shall pray to You by way of their Land" (ibid). One who stands in the Land of Israel should face Jerusalem, as it is said, "They shall pray to the Lord by way of the city" (ibid). One who stands in Jerusalem should face the Temple...One who stands in the Temple should face the Holy of Holies...One who stands in the Holy of Holies should face the Cover of the Ark...It is therefore found that the entire nation of Israel directs their prayers toward a single location."

In practice, many individuals in the Western Hemisphere simply face due east, regardless of location. In the presence of an ark that does not face Jerusalem, one should pray toward the ark instead.

Of course, all of this brings to mind our own tradition of ad orientem or ad orientem liturgicum. Orientation in liturgical prayer is a rich, significant and deeply embedded aspect of our liturgical tradition, one which we should become more conscious of, teach, and ultimately revive.

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