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Beit Midrash Prayer

Chapter three-part two

Where we should not pray? (part one)

241
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4. One May Not Pray in a High Place
A person who stands before HaKadosh Baruch Hu in prayer should know that his life is dependent on Hashem’s kindness, and should therefore stand before Him humbly. That is what the Chachamim meant when they said (Berachot 10b), "A person may not stand on a chair, on a stool, nor on any other high place and pray, because there is no haughtiness before the Omnipresent, as it says (Psalms 130:1), ‘From the depths I called You, Hashem.’" In contrast, a synagogue must be built on the highest location in the city, in order to confer respect and superiority to the synagogue (Shabbat 11a; Peninei Halachah Likutim I 6:4). However, the person praying must stand before God in humility, and therefore standing on a high place is forbidden. The Talmud (Ta’anit 23b) relates a story about Rabbi Yonah who was known as a righteous person whose prayers were answered. When he was requested to pray for rain, he went to a low place in order to fulfill the words, "From the depths I called You, Hashem." There he prayed until he was answered and rain began to fall. For that reason it is customary in some congregations to lower the chazan’s place, which explains why the chazan is described as "descending before the ark."
As a rule, the Chachamim prohibited an elevated place higher than three tefachim (24 cm; approx. 9.45 in) above the ground. However, in practice, it is forbidden to pray even on a less elevated place, for two reasons. First, a person standing on a stepstool or rock, even only one tefach in height, is worried about losing his balance and cannot have the proper kavanah while praying. Second, if the floor is even, elevating oneself on pillows, cushions, or anything else, suggests a sense of haughtiness and it is improper to pray in such a manner. Nevertheless, praying on rugs and mats which are normally laid out on the floor is permitted l'chatchilah. Likewise, whoever prays on uneven ground may stand on the elevated parts, as long as they are not three tefachim higher than the rest of their surroundings. 4
A sick or elderly person who has trouble getting out of bed may pray in bed, even though it is elevated from the ground.
If the high place stands on its own – for instance, it is wider than four amot by four amot (approximately two meters by two meters or 6.56 ft x 6.56 ft) – one is permitted to pray on it, because it is not measured in relation to other places, rather it is considered its own domain. Therefore, when a synagogue has two levels, if the higher floor is at least four amot by four amot, it is permissible to pray on it.
Even an area which is smaller than four amot is considered to be its own domain if it is surrounded by partitions, and it is permissible to pray on it. This is the law regarding congregations in which it is customary to build a bimah (pulpit) in the center of the synagogue on which the chazan stands. If the bimah is surrounded by partitions, or is larger than four amot by four amot, then it is permissible to pray on it, since we do not measure its height in relation to other parts of the synagogue. However, someone who prays there does not fulfill the enhancement of the mitzvah in the verse, "From the depths I called You, Hashem." Even so, these congregations prefer to build a bimah for the chazan and forsake the enhancement of "descending before the ark" so that the congregation can hear the chazan’s voice clearly. 5

1. 5. One Should Enter Two "Doorways"
The Chachamim teach, "A person should always enter through two doorways in the synagogue… and then pray" (Berachot 8a). There are three interpretations of this statement and all were accepted as halachah (Shulchan Aruch 90:20).
The first explanation of Chazal’s words is that one must enter inside the synagogue at least a distance equal to the width of two small doorways (approximately 64 cm or 25.2 in), since one who prays next to the entrance makes it seem that prayer is a burden to him and that he is standing there in order to leave immediately (Rashi). However, if a person’s permanent seat is near the entrance, he is permitted to pray there, for everyone knows that that is his spot and he is not standing there in order to exit quickly (Talmidei Rabbeinu Yonah).
Based on this, it is clear that l’chatchilah one should not pray in the entrance hall of the synagogue, for if Chazal say not to pray inside the synagogue near the entrance, all the more so, one should not pray in the hallway adjacent to it.
The second explanation is that one should not sit close to the entrance, so as not to look outside and be distracted from ones prayers (Maharam of Rotenberg). Accordingly, it is also not proper to sit next to a window facing outside.
The third explanation is that the person coming to pray must pause a few seconds, equivalent to the amount of time it takes to enter two doorways, before beginning to pray, in order to devote his thoughts to prayer (brought by the Rosh).
Additionally, Chazal’s words here allude to two spiritual doorways through which a person must pass before he starts praying. In the first doorway, he must rid his mind of worldly matters troubling him, and in the second doorway, he must direct his kavanah to serving Hashem (see Maharal Netiv HaAvodah, chapter 5).

6. Nothing Should Separate a Person from the Wall While Praying
Ideally there should be nothing standing between a person praying the Amidah and the wall, so that nothing distracts him from praying. Permanent furniture standing against the wall, such as a cupboard, is not considered to be a partition, and l’chatchilah, one may pray next to it (Shulchan Aruch 90:21; Mishnah Berurah 63:65).
Pieces of furniture which were made for praying purposes, like tables and shtenders (lecterns), are not considered partitions (Mishnah Berurah 90:66). 6
There are those who say that people can also be considered partitions. However, this opinion is nothing more than an enhancement of the mitzvah, for it is impossible for all the congregants in the synagogue to pray facing a wall (see Mishnah Berurah 90:69). Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook, interpreted this ruling as not to pray behind a person who is not engaged in prayer; however, praying behind one who is engaged in prayer is permitted l’chatchilah (Tov Ra’ayah Berachot 5b).
It is not proper to pray in front of artwork lest it be a distraction (Shulchan Aruch 90:23). Therefore, the synagogue wall across from which people pray should not be decorated with artwork. However, if the artwork is above eye level it is permitted, for then there is no concern that people will be distracted by it while praying (Magen Avraham 90:37; Mishnah Berurah 71).
It is permissible to decorate the parochet (curtain) and the aron kodesh in the accepted manner, for people are accustomed to the decorations on them and the artwork does not distract them from praying.
It is forbidden to pray in front of a mirror, so as not to appear as one who is bowing down to his own image. Therefore, even if a person were to close his eyes, it is still forbidden to pray in front of a mirror (Mishnah Berurah 71). L’chatchilah, one should not pray at night in front of a window in which his image is reflected, since looking at his image will likely disturb his kavanah. However, if he were to close his eyes or look into the siddur, he would be permitted to pray there. Since the window does not reflect his image clearly, he does not appear to be bowing down to his reflection. In any case, it is good to install curtains over the windows facing the people praying, in order to cover the windows before the Ma’ariv service. 7

7. One May Not Pray Near His Primary Rabbi
A person may not recite the Amidah prayer too close to his primary rabbi, for if he prays alongside him, he presents himself as his rabbi’s equal. An even greater prohibition exists against praying in front of one’s rabbi, so as not to appear arrogant (yohara). Nor may one pray behind his rabbi, for should the rabbi finish praying before he does, the rabbi will feel uncomfortable when he cannot take three steps backwards. Furthermore, the student may appear as though he is bowing down to his rabbi (Shulchan Aruch 90:24; Mishnah Berurah 74).
Who is considered a person’s primary rabbi? The one who teaches him most of his wisdom. 8 The same ruling applies in relation to a prominent Torah leader of the generation.
If the student distances himself by four amot (approximately two meters or 6.56 ft), it is permissible. However, if he prays behind his rabbi, he must distance himself four amot and another three steps (approximately 60 cm or 23.62 in), so that even if he were to extend his prayer, his rabbi would be able to take three steps backwards.
There are those who say that all these rulings refer to a situation in which the rabbi and his student are praying individually, or in a congregation where the student is the one who chooses to pray next to his rabbi. But if the gabba’im seat the student near his rabbi, or if that is the only vacant seat left in the synagogue, he is allowed to pray there, and there is no question of arrogance on the part of the student. In extenuating circumstances, one may rely on this opinion, but l’chatchilah, a person should try not to establish his seat close to his rabbi. 9
^ 4.The poskim are divided regarding whether or not it is permitted to stand on a utensil, bench, or anything similar, less than three tefachim high. The Bach and Taz say it is allowed, while Mahari Abuhav, Eliyah Rabbah, and others maintain that it is prohibited. See the Mishnah Berurah 90:2 and Kaf HaChaim 3. According to all poskim, when there is a feeling of fear and instability one may not pray. If he is on cushions and pillows most poskim say it is prohibited because it looks like haughtiness, as brought by the Mishnah Berurah 614:9 and Kaf HaChaim 21, and even the Bach agrees with this. When the ground is not level, there is no prohibition against praying on any spot lower than three tefachim as long as there is no feeling of instability. B’dieved, even one who prays on a high place (more than three tefachim) fulfills his obligation, as explained by the Pri Megadim, Mishbetzot Zahav 90:1, based on the Rambam. According to this, it is clear why the law permits the chazan to stand on a chair and make his voice heard when necessary (Shulchan Aruch 90:1).

^ 5.Kaf HaChaim 90:14 writes that according to the Rambam, the bimah must be surrounded by four partitions, and according to Ben Ish Chai, Yitro 3, three are sufficient. The Aruch HaShulchan 90:3 writes that even if it is only surrounded by partitions on two sides, it is permissible to pray there, for it looks like a place of its own.
^ 6.The Mishnah Berurah 90:64 writes that even if the object separating the person from the wall is at a distance of four amot from him, it is still considered a partition. However, according to the Pri Megadim and the Magen Giborim, it is not. The Rama 90:20 holds that only something higher than ten tefachim (80 cm; approx. 31.5 in) and wider than four tefachim (30 cm; approx. 11.81 in) can be considered a partition. The Kaf HaChaim writes in the opinion of the Shulchan Aruch that even something smaller than that is a partition. The Mishnah Berurah 68 cites the opinions of the Pri Chadash and Ma’amar Mordechai who also disagree with the Rama.
Regarding what the Taz writes, that all furniture connected to prayer are not considered partitions, the Or L’Tzion, part 2, 7:10, writes that this is true only when they are being used for prayer. However, if a person is not using the shtender in front of him, it is indeed considered a partition. Nevertheless, it is customary not to rule this way since shtenders are made to be used in prayer and they are considered permanent furniture, as written in the Mishnah Berurah 90:68.
^ 7.The source for not praying in front of a mirror so as not to appear as bowing down to his own image is in the Radbaz 106. Many Acharonim cite it, including the Mishnah Berurah 90:71 and Kaf HaChaim 138. However, Maharsham in Da’at Torah 90:23 is uncertain regarding this prohibition because when praying in front of a mirror, one's reflection is also bowing down to him, and therefore he is lenient in extenuating circumstances. As for a window in which the reflection of a person’s image is not clear, even according to the Radbaz, there is no prohibition. So writes Or L’Tzion, part 2, 7:11 and this is what we practice as well. See Yalkut Yosef, part 2, pp. 227-229.

^ 8.His primary rabbi is the person from whom he gained most of his wisdom. The Rambam implies that this means most of his Torah learning. Maharik 169, explains that the person who showed him the path of truth and integrity and taught him how to decide halachic issues is considered his primary rabbi. The Shach, Yoreh De’ah 242:12, based on the Rivash and the Shulchan Aruch, explains that a person can have a number of primary rabbis in different areas of Torah, such as Tanach, Gemara, and Agadah. Similarly, the Aruch HaShulchan 242:19 writes that a person can have a few primary rabbis, one that taught him his comprehensive knowledge, and another, his sharpness, and a third, how to bring matters to a proper halachic conclusion.
The responsa of Divrei Malkiel 2:74 clarifies that the entire distinction between a primary rabbi from whom one gained most of his knowledge and a non-primary rabbi only applies when he is not learning from him, but during the time period that a person is learning from a certain rabbi, that teacher has the status of his primary rabbi. According to this, the rosh yeshivah and the ram who teaches him are thought of as his primary rabbis (see the Rama, Yoreh De’ah 242:6). Consequently, the Aruch HaShulchan, Yoreh De’ah 242:29, writes that a primary rabbi who has been appointed the mara d’atra, the local rabbi to teach and to judge, is considered by the people of that place to be the primary rabbi.

^ 9.The Rama 90:24 mentions the opinion of the Sefer HaMeorot and Ohel Mo’ed who say that when his permanent seat is near his rabbi, it is permissible. In practice, the Rama writes that it is good to be stringent and not to pray behind one’s rabbi, in order not to cause him grief. However, the custom is to be lenient, as written in the Mishnah Berurah 77. The Bei’ur Halachah cites the Eliyah Rabbah based on the Levush, that in practice it is correct to be stringent. The Beit Yosef writes that the stringent opinion should be taken under consideration with regard to prayer in a congregation (where there are permanent seats) and he therefore does not mention the lenient opinion in the Shulchan Aruch. This is also what the Kaf HaChaim 143 writes.
If his rabbi is behind him, the Beit Yosef, Orach Chaim 90:24, writes that one must be stringent even farther away than four amot, since even then this can be expressed as arrogance (yohara) towards his rabbi. The Shulchan Aruch in Orach Chaim does not mention this, but in Yoreh De’ah 242:16, states explicitly that even when his rabbi is behind him, four amot are sufficient. That seems to be the opinion of the Rama as well who refers to Yoreh De’ah. Therefore, in practice, the Shulchan Aruch retracted what he wrote in the Beit Yosef. However, the Kaf HaChaim 144 writes that one should be stringent when he can.
Additionally, the ruling regarding one’s father is like the law concerning one’s primary rabbi, as brought by the Mishnah Berurah 73, in the name of the Chayei Adam. However, fathers are usually happy that their children pray next to them. Therefore, anyone who knows that his father wants him to sit next to him is permitted to sit there and fulfills a mitzvah by doing so, for when a father relinquishes his honor, his honor is relinquished. But one may not pray behind his father or in front of him, unless his father explicitly tells him he may pray there.
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