8. A Proper Place to Pray
One should pray in a room with windows, and l’chatchilah it is good that a window facing Jerusalem be open (Shulchan Aruch 90:4). When someone is in a place with no windows, he should pray in a well-lit place, since some explain that the reason for praying in a room with windows is that the light settles the thoughts of the person praying (Talmidei Rabbeinu Yonah).
In a synagogue, there are those who enhance the mitzvah by building twelve windows (Shulchan Aruch 90:4). The windows should be high, so that it is possible to see the sky and not see things that may distract people from the prayer service.
A person should not recite the Amidah in open areas, and one who prays in an open place is called insolent (Berachot 34b). The reason for this is that in an open area one’s thoughts scatter, and in a closed and modest place the King’s awe is upon him, and his heart is humbled (Shulchan Aruch 90:5). Furthermore, in an open space, people may pass by him and disturb his concentration.
Those who are traveling are allowed to pray along their way, and if there are trees there, it is better to pray between them (Mishnah Berurah 90:11). Similarly, it is preferable to pray next to a wall and not in a completely open area (Eshel Avraham Butshatsh 90:5). It is even better to pray in a courtyard surrounded by walls, since the main principle is to have a nearby partition, even without a ceiling (Mishnah Berurah 90:12).
One may pray in the plaza of the Kotel (the Western Wall) because it is surrounded by walls on three sides. Moreover, the exalted holiness of the site strengthens one’s love and awe of Hashem causing one’s prayer to be said with more kavanah. Yitzchak Avinu practiced this way as well. He recited Minchah on Mount Moriah, the gateway of prayer, which was then an open field, as it says, "Yitzchak went out to meditate in the field" (Genesis 24:63; Berachot 26b).
When it is not possible to pray in a synagogue, for instance, when it is occupied by a different minyan, it is permitted to pray behind the synagogue, on condition that one faces the direction of the synagogue and Jerusalem. It is also permitted to pray alongside the synagogue when facing Jerusalem. However, it is forbidden to pray in front of the synagogue because if he faces the direction of Jerusalem, his back will be disrespectfully turned towards the synagogue, and if he faces the synagogue, his back will be turned to Jerusalem (Shulchan Aruch 90:7).
9. Areas Free from Excrement and Foul Odors
It is forbidden to say or think matters of sanctity in a place that contains feces or other foul smells, as it is written (Deuteronomy 23:14-15), "You will return and cover your excrement. This is because God your Lord walks among you in your camp…Your camp must therefore be holy." This law consists of many details, and we will learn a few of them.
Anything within four amot (approximately two meters or 6.56 ft) of a person is considered to be within the confines of his camp. Hence, if there is excrement in his four amot, his camp is not holy and he is forbidden to pray there. If the excrement is in front of him, as long as he sees it, he is not allowed to pray. If the smell spreads, he must distance himself by four amot from where the smell ends. 10 Even one whose sense of smell is impaired is required to distance himself like others who smell the odor (Shulchan Aruch 79:1).
The above law regarding human excrement applies to anything rancid whose stench causes people to be revolted. Therefore, one must distance himself from a carcass and from malodorous animal excrement, just as he must distance himself from human feces (Mishnah Berurah 79:23). Foul-smelling vomit follows the same law as excrement. But if the vomit does not smell bad, there are those who are lenient and do not consider it like feces (see Mishnah Berurah 76:20 and Ishei Yisrael 51:12).
If a person recited Shema or the Amidah within four amot of feces, he did not fulfill his obligation and the Shema or the Amidah must be repeated. Even if he was unaware that there was excrement there, but there was a fair chance that the place would contain excrement, and he neglected to check its cleanliness before beginning to pray, he did not fulfill his obligation. However, if the place was unlikely to contain excrement, b’dieved he fulfilled his obligation (Shulchan Aruch 76:8; Mishnah Berurah 31).
The poskim are divided regarding a person who recited the berachot of Keriat Shema and other berachot within four amot of excrement. Some say that because he transgressed a biblical prohibition, he did not fulfill his obligation and he must go back and recite the berachot again (Mishnah Berurah 185:7; Bei’ur Halachah there). Others maintain that it is only necessary to be stringent concerning the recital of Shema and the Amidah, but concerning other berachot, b’dieved he fulfilled his obligation (Chayei Adam 3:33; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 5:10; Kaf HaChaim 76:37, 185:14). Since it is a matter of dispute, one may not go back and repeat the berachah.
10. Additional Laws
A person is permitted to pray facing the bathroom, as long as the door is closed and no foul odor reaches him. However, if the door is open, he is prohibited from praying there (Mishnah Berurah 83:5).
Feces of young infants do not emit a stench and therefore the law regarding them is unlike that of excrement. When a child reaches the age that he can eat a kezayit (an olive’s volume of food) produced from grain in the amount of time it takes to eat half a loaf of bread (approximately 6-7 minutes), it is necessary to distance oneself from his excrement, just as one is obligated to do regarding an adult’s feces (Shulchan Aruch 81:1). There are those who write that this starts at one year of age. All this pertains to extenuating circumstances; l’chatchilah it is good to distance oneself from the excrement of a baby of any age, even one who is eight days old (Mishnah Berurah 81:3; Kaf HaChaim 1:6).
When praying near a baby at least one year old who defecates in his diaper, it is proper to initially verify that no foul odor is present. As long as no foul odor exists, it is permissible to pray next to him, for even if he did defecate, since he is covered in a diaper and clothing, and no scent reaches the person reciting matters of sanctity, there is no prohibition to pray there (see Halichot Shlomo, Tefillah 20:4-5). If a bad smell did reach the one praying and despite this he continued to pray, he must go back and repeat his prayer.
At times, a sewer near the synagogue emits a bad smell which may reach the synagogue, in which case it is prohibited to pray inside. Occasionally, closing the windows that face the sewer helps, but when the foul odor lingers, spraying air freshener can be used to eliminate it. In the past, people would offset the smell by burning a garment (Kaf HaChaim 79:20).
The laws concerning distancing oneself from different odors depend on the accepted local norms. In the past, sewage, including feces and urine, would flow down the sides of the streets and the air in the densely populated cities was full of foul odors. Even so, prayers would be recited in the synagogues and in the houses near the sewage canals. Because everyone was accustomed to them, those routine smells were not considered foul. Only on summer days, or when the sewage canals were blocked, would the foul odor intensify and people would not pray where it existed (see Mishnah Berurah 79:5). However, nowadays, sewage is drained, the air is purer, and we are more sensitive to bad smells, hence, wherever we sense a foul odor by today’s standards, it is forbidden to pray.
In rural areas with barns, the smell that wafts from the barns to the houses and the synagogue is not offensive to those who live there. However, in the city, this odor may be considered foul, and it would be prohibited to pray as long as it persists. Those who are guests in communities like these should follow the custom of the place.
People who pray outside must be careful not to pray in close proximity to garbage bins that smell. Even when the garbage cans do not emit a foul odor, it is proper not to pray within four amot of them or when they are directly in front of the person.
11. The Prohibition of Reciting Matters of Sanctity in Front of "Ervah"
It is prohibited to recite matters of sanctity in front of ervah (nakedness), as it says (Deuteronomy 23:15), "Your camp must be holy. Let Him not see any ervah among you and turn away from you." Regarding a man who sees another man, or a woman who sees another woman, it is prohibited to recite matters of sanctity only in front of the specific organs of ervah itself (the private organs). However, concerning a man who sees a woman, the Chachamim teach (Berachot 24b), "A tefach of a woman is considered ervah." What they meant is that it is forbidden to reveal any part of a woman’s body which is normally covered, and that if a part is exposed, one is prohibited from reciting matters of sanctity in front of it. (The specifications of this law are explained in Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim section 75 and in Penieni Halachah, Likutim Mishpachah 6:3-6).
Although we must educate girls to dress modestly starting from a young age, the prohibition against reciting matters of sanctity in front of a tefach that is normally covered begins from the time the girl starts to mature.
Likewise, regarding the hair on one’s head, the Chachamim teach (Berachot 24a), "A woman’s hair is ervah." This refers to a married woman, for if her hair is not covered, one may not recite matters of sanctity before her. (The specifications concerning the laws of hair covering are clarified in Peninei Halachah, Likutim Mishpachah 6:14-15.)
Regarding one who must pray, recite berachot, or learn Torah, and there is a woman facing him who is revealing a tefach of areas that are normally covered, l’chatchilah, he should turn away so that he cannot see her. If he cannot turn away, he must look into his siddur, or close his eyes, and only then say the matters of sanctity (Shulchan Aruch 75:6; Mishnah Berurah, paragraphs 1 and 29).
Concerning hair covering, some Acharonim write that since, unfortunately, many married woman do not cover their hair, uncovered hair does not arouse impure thoughts, and b’dieved one may recite matters of sanctity in front of it. This only pertains to hair, regarding which the rule is more lenient than other normally covered parts, as single women are not obligated to cover their hair. However, concerning the normally covered parts of the body, as we have learned, one may not be lenient. Only in extenuating circumstances may one close his eyes or look in a siddur without looking at the exposed part (Aruch HaShulchan 75:7; Ben Ish Chai, Bo 12; Igrot Moshe, part 1, 44; see Peninei Halachah, Likutim Mishpachah 6:16).
Similarly, one may not recite matters of sanctity near a woman who is singing (Shulchan Aruch 75:3). However, according to some Acharonim, b’dieved, hearing a female singer on the radio does not prohibit reciting matters of sanctity (see Peninei Halachah ibid., 6:11).
^ 10.When the odor spreads to another domain, or when the excrement is covered (for example, feces in a diaper), it is forbidden to recite matters of sanctity in any place that it can be smelled. The poskim disagree as to whether or not one must move four amot away from the place that the smell dissipated. The Rashba says that it is not necessary to move four amot away because it is considered a foul odor that does not have substance, but according to the Roke’ach, it is a bad smell that does have substance. The Acharonim also differ on this matter. (The Yalkut Yosef, part 1, p. 130, note 16 writes that one may be lenient, for that is the opinion of most Acharonim.) Additionally, see the Mishnah Berurah’s introduction to section 79, the seventh law, as well as Mishnah Berurah 79:17, 76:3, and Kaf HaChaim 79:1, where it is implied that l’chatchilah one should be stringent.