By: Rabbi Ari Enkin
One should always face the Land of Israel, and more specifically, Jerusalem, when praying. The source for facing Jerusalem when one prays derives from the prayer of King Solomon who requested of God that He answer all prayers that are recited while facing Jerusalem. Additionally, the Temple Mount is poetically referred to as “Talpiot” which is a play on words for “the mount to which the mouths face”.
It is interesting to note that facing Jerusalem was not always something that was practiced or even encouraged. In fact, the Talmud offers a number of options as to which direction one should face while praying, each with its own appealing incentives. For example, we are told that those who desire to become rich should face north when they pray, while those who seek to become wise should position themselves facing south! This idea is based on the fact that in the Mishkan, the Table, which represents abundance, was placed in the North and the Menora, which represents wisdom, to the south. Yet other authorities argue that the direction one faces during prayer is unimportant as God’s presence is to be found everywhere.
In order to resolve the apparent contradiction of whether to face Jerusalem or some other direction, some authorities suggest that one face Jerusalem when praying but to also tilt one’s head towards one of the other suggested directions. This is considered to be complying with the requirement to face Jerusalem while still being able to reap the benefits that facing other directions have to offer.
Unless one has a tradition otherwise, one should always face Jerusalem when praying regardless of all other considerations. One need not trouble oneself to be positioned at the exact angle and degree as the city of Jerusalem – simply positioning oneself in the general direction is all that is required. Indeed, historically the direction of Jerusalem was referred to as the “Mizrach”, facing east, in spite of the fact that Jerusalem was more of a southwardly direction than an eastern one. It is considered meritorious for those who are able, to face Jerusalem and even the Temple Mount as accurately as possible.
If one began praying and only later realized that one wasn’t facing Jerusalem, one should tilt one’s head as best as possible towards the direction of Jerusalem. If for whatever reason this is not possible, such as if one is facing west, then one should focus one’s heart toward Jerusalem and the Holy of Holies. Similarly, if one is unable to determine which way is Jerusalem then one should simply meditate on facing Jerusalem and the Holy of Holies or even just meditate on God.
Occasionally it happens that a synagogue is constructed in such a way that the front of the sanctuary and by extension, the Holy Ark, does not face Jerusalem. Authorities are divided whether or not one who is praying in such a congregation should deviate from the natural direction of the congregation and turn towards Jerusalem. There is a general rule known as “lo titgodedu” which teaches that one must not deviate from the practice of the congregation and therefore one should face the same direction just like everyone else. All agree however that one may not pray with one’s back towards the Holy Ark.
 O.C. 94:1
 II Chronicles 6:34-35
 Berachot 30b
 Bava Batra 25a
 Rema O.C. 94:2. See the Beit Yosef O.C. 94 for the opposite compromise
 O.C. 94:1
 Bava Batra 25b, Aruch Hashulchan
 Rabbeinu Yonah, Mishna Berura, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 18
 O.C. 94:2
 Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 18
 Mishna Berura 94:3,9, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 18:10, See Aruch Hashulchan O.C. 94:8, Sefer Chassidim 18
 O.C. 94:3
 Mishna Berura 94:9
 Kaf Hachaim OC 94:6
 Mishna Berura 94:10
 Aruch Hashulchan O.C. 94:5