Prayer Essentials

For the week ending 16 July 2016 / 10 Tammuz 5776

How to Stand in Prayer

by Rabbi Yitzchak Botton
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When praying the Shemoneh Esrei one needs to bend his head slightly so that his eyes are pointed downward in order to see the ground. One should also have in mind that he is standing in the Beit Hamikdash, with his heart directed towards Heaven. (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 95:2)

The source for bending one's head towards the ground is a verse in which G-d tells Shlomo Hamelech, “My eyes and heart shall be there (the Beit Hamikdash) all the days (Yevamot 105b).” Since G-d's eyes are towards the Beit Hamikdash, we must place our eyes to there as well. Accordingly, one looks down towards the ground in the direction of the Beit Hamikdash, the direction which we face when we pray.

The idea of standing in the Beit Hamikdash should fill one with a feeling of awe and trepidation, as Yaakov said when he awoke from his prophetic dream, “How awesome is this place; it is none other than the abode of G-d, and this is the gate of the Heavens!”

In preparation for prayer one should have in mind the mortality of man when looking down towards the ground. In contrast, while directing his heart towards Heaven he should consider the immortality of the soul, which our Sages says was carved out from under G-d's “throne of glory”. With the above in mind, one will place his focus on praying for what will help him fulfill his true purpose, and not follow his heart that can lead him to ask for the wrong things.

The poskim (authorities in Jewish Law) discuss an apparent contradiction with an earlier ruling that requires a Beit Knesset (Synagogue) to have windows. According the Rashi one is meant to look out of these windows towards the sky in order to strengthen his prayers. The Bach explains that one is to look out the windows before beginning the Shemoneh Esrei, but not during. Others explain that if one becomes distracted during the Shemoneh Esrei he may look up to help him concentrate, but the rest of the time he should be looking towards the ground. (Mishneh Berurah 90:8; see also Beit Yosef in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak Abuhav)

The custom of the Arizal was to pray the Shemoneh Esrei with his eyes closed. On this point the Chida explains that a person should do what will be best for his concentration. One who prays better with his eyes closed should do so, and someone who will concentrate better using a Siddur should do so. According to all opinions it is certainly inappropriate to look around at what is going on while praying the Shemoneh Esrei.

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