Praying in the Direction of Jerusalem and Other Matters of Decorum in Shul


An Atmosphere of Intense Devotion

An Atmosphere of Intense Devotion

Praying toward Jerusalem I consider to be a biblical obligation for a Messianic congregation, even in a case when it is without a functioning synagogue with Ark and Bimah, and even if a person says the service alone at home.

This practice has clear biblical principles and is rooted in the Torah itself. The first manifestation of it is found in Ex. 33: 8-10.

Exodus 33: 8-10
And it came to pass, when Moshe went out unto the tabernacle, that all the people rose up, and stood at his tent door, and looked after Moshe, until he was gone into the tabernacle. And it came to pass, as Moshe entered into the tabernacle, the cloudy pillar descended, and stood at the door of the tabernacle, and HaShem  spoke with Moshe. And all the people saw the cloudy pillar stand at the tabernacle door: and all the people rose up and worshipped, every man in his tent door.

Here we see homage paid to the national Shrine as the place of the Divine Presence. When the Temple is built and dedicated, we see that King Solomon perceives it as a matter of course that even in circumstances where one is unable to pray in the Temple, one can at least pray “toward this city which thou hast chosen, and the house I have built for thy name” (II Chr. 6:34). Prophetically, he extends this to the situation of a future exile (in 6:38). During the Babylonian exile, the prophet Daniel preserved this prayer direction even when the national Shrine was destroyed (see Dan. 6:11). For the place of the Sanctuary had not lost its intrinsic holiness. It was the place to which HaShem had promised his lasting Presence and where the Temple would be rebuilt.

In this respect, our situation is not much different from that of the Israelites in the Babylonian exile, or that of the Jews after the destruction of the second Temple. We too expect the rebuilding of the Temple, and in addition to this the return of Messiah Yeshua. The Second Coming will take place in Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives. Therefore, it is more or less obvious that believers in Yeshua should observe the direction of prayer, as it exists in Judaism.

The orientation of prayer toward Jerusalem obviously leads to a similar orientation of the buildings which nowadays are our houses of worship, the synagogues. The synagogue is, in an admittedly limited way, a small shrine, a reflection of the earthly Temple, as the earthly Temple, in turn, is a reflection of the heavenly Temple. Hence it is convenient that the orientation of the synagogue toward Jerusalem as well as its internal layout and the collocation of the diverse groups of worshippers in it — men, women, rabbis, elders and other officers — is in agreement with their position and function in the congregation during the service.

In particular it follows from the foregoing that the person who leads the service (Chazzan) shouldn’t be stationed over against the congregation, i.e. with his face turned towards them. The service leader is supposed to stand in the direction of the Holy Ark, which is an image of the Holy of Holies of the Temple. The Holy Ark is always in the direction of Jerusalem. During the service the Chazzan should thus turn his back to the congregation and his face toward the Holy Ark. By this arrangement, the theocentric nature of the service will be adequately expressed. In a traditional synagogue, the Chazzan stands in the space between the Ark and the Bimah, with his back to the Bimah and his face toward the Ark. During the Torah Reading, which occurs at the Bimah, the reading too is done facing the Ark. The reader stands with his back to the congregation and faces the Ark. The only exception here is the derasha or sermon. During a sermon, the Rabbi or preacher faces the congregation.

When a local congregation internalizes these general principles of decorum and order during the service, it will be much easier for the leadership to ensure that other requirements of biblical etiquette, such as headcoverings or coverings of female hair, are effectively maintained. These include not only a number of isolated matters such as proper types of hairstyle and proper haircovering for women and hats or skullcaps for men, but a general sense of what is appropriate and which touches all the different roles and functions within the congregation. There is much less danger for all kinds of improper modern cultural frills and fads — for instance women wearing a tallit or kippah — that obscure created distinctions, when the roles and functions of everyone, including the important distinction between the leadership and the other congregational members, are clearly defined and enforced. Each particular group thus has its own identity and honour.

Much annoyance and unnecessary discussion about these things can be avoided if only the leadership takes a firm stance and maintains distinctive seating for men and women. A synagoge is not a living room and a liturgical service is not a family gathering.

One of the difficulties in getting used to the synagogue service format for many Messianics is their Evangelical or Protestant upbringing in denominations with only a very rudimentary liturgical and ritual life. In Protestantism, the liturgy is virtually absent and replaced by a kind of teaching or preaching service, which from a Jewish perspective is a misconception. Learning and studying are part of the Shul activities, no doubt about that, but not primarily so during the divine service. The rabbinical sermon or derasha doesn’t always have a strong teaching content and is usually short. Moreover, it seems that not all Orthodox congregations have a weekly sermon on a regular basis at all. In some synagogues, so I’ve been told, sermons are only given in connection with instructions for approaching holidays, such as Passover and the High Holidays.

Reciting the Torah during the service thus primarily has the function of liturgical worship and for that reason it takes place in the same manner as the prayers, oriented toward Jerusalem. Messianics from a traditonal or conservative Catholic background are far better aware of this than those who come from Protestantism. The Catholic Mass was traditionally celebrated with the priest turning his back to the people and facing the altar, which was placed against the eastern wall of the church, the same place as is reserved for the Holy Ark in a synagogue. No doubt this Catholic practice has its origin in the earlier Jewish practice, in a similar way as the altar-light in the Catholic Church arose from the Ner Tamid hanging before the curtain of the Ark. From this liturgical perspective, the Protestant way of doing things certainly marks a decline and a sign of secularization. Here the instruction of the faithful instead of the worship of G’d has become the central concern. Not that I want to say that instruction is unimportant, but it should not be confused with the execution of liturgical service. In the Temple there was no pulpit at all.

Today’s visitors of a messianic service usually find themselves in a liturgical arrangement which is neither traditional Protestant nor traditional Jewish, and which, all things considered, is not even liturgically functional, but typically comes from the evangelical world, where all the old church and synagogue traditions were abolished or revolutionized. A “worship team”, as it is called, stands on a platform or stage front, with all kinds of musical instruments, and leads the service, and the congregants simply fill the venue without any division into men and women for instance — or otherwise, in accordance with liturgical norms and functions.

This is an arrangement that has its origins in the world of theater and entertainment and has nothing to do with liturgy properly so called. Many Messianics have no qualms about this, however, and judge that the old Catholic Christian tradition is either wrong or non-authoritative and irrelevant. In this they are victims of a huge misunderstanding and have utterly failed to comprehend that many of these old liturgical principles stem from Judaism and that in this matter one can learn more from the ancient Catholic past than from Evangelical Christianity which dates from the XIX century. They don’t seem to realize that their own practice of returning to Torah and Jewish life is incompatible with evangelical-style worship, which to any traditional Jewish liturgical sense is a form of unheard modernism, and should be termed liturgical vandalism.

The liturgical practices evolved in the evangelical world and rooted in the theater are at odds with both worlds of traditional Judaism and traditional Christianity and are conducive to loosing the atmosphere of reverence and awe. In shul we should behave reverently. In many synagogues we find above the Ark the admonition  written: “Know before Whom you stand”. This admonition evokes an atmosphere of intense devotion that should be cherished and protected by the layout of the room, by clothing and hairstyles according to biblical standards and by a certain traditional etiquette regarding how one behaves in a shrine. As I said, old-fashioned Catholics often have a better eye for this than most Protestants. These things are so important because instilling devotion to and reverence for HaShem are part of the very purpose of our worship. We don’t worship in order to cultivate superficial enthusiasm and modern-style spontaneity.

In some crazy way, even the Hasidic custom of dancing at certain occasions is picked up by modern Messianics. Re-packed in a totally distorted and mutilated form it is now selled as so-called “Messianic dance” or “Davidic dance” and performed during the synagogue service. Men and women dance together, often interchangeably, which in the light of Scripture and from a moral viewpoint is extremely questionable and certainly without historical Jewish roots. Dancing in the synagogue was certainly not part of Judaism in the time of Yeshua and the Apostles.

I mention these things in connection with the issue of the direction of prayer and the layout and orientation of the synagogue because all these matters of style, decorum and etiquette are strongly related to one another. Naturally, these items of biblical and traditional culture cannot be fully appreciated at once. One should be able to grow in them and this takes time. When a Messianic community starts to apply traditional liturgical norms and principles, it will take some time before, on a personal level, everything feels right. Just as one has to get used to the rhythm of the Jewish year if one steps out of the Christian calendar, these things too have to get used to and it takes a while before they get a bond with the emotional life.

One of the most important things here is to realize that the synagoge service is not about subjective expression. This service has an objective status as an official act of the people of G’d. In the conduct of public prayer, I simply exercise my function as a member of the people of HaShem, and I pray only as a representative and part of this people without any input of my own. This remains true if I pray alone, as is often the case for most of us on weekdays. These prayers are not primarily about my personal intentions and devotions but about their integration in the objective prayer intentions of the Assembly, the Body of Messiah. In order not to fall prey to the caprices of the individual the prayers and the synagogue rituals are recorded in liturgical rubrics. The Body of Messiah is the objective instrument of Messiah in this world and the liturgy should reflect and express this fact. Our divine service here on earth is thus a participation and an extension of the service that Messiah himself performs as the head of his Assembly in the heavenly Sanctuary. The liturgy is a work of Messiah himself.

A secondary purpose of the objectivity of tradition and continuity is also to purify all kinds of sloppy, thoughtless, or exaggerated features of our personal devotion and to lead us out of the sphere of narrow self-interest and personal preoccupation.

The default option here is, in my view, to follow the standing Jewish tradition. Not in the sense that it is the ‘only salvific’ one — Sacred Scripture is and remains the highest authority — but in the sense that it is the first halachic and practical option, since it harbours such a longstanding experience. Alternatives ensnare themselves more often than one is inclined to think in halachic errors, which in their turn require corrections later on. Moreover, what is the status of an alternative if it is something just conconcted at random by an individual? What spiritual content has such a concoction and why should others take heed of it and comply with this individual’s subjective understanding rather than with the continuity of a great tradition?


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