Chapter 11: The Place of Prayer

01. The Place of Prayer

The Sages instituted that men pray with a minyan and in a synagogue, but they did not institute that women pray with a minyan. Clearly there is value in praying with a minyan in a synagogue for women as well, because the divine Presence dwells within the minyan and the synagogue is a place dedicated for prayer. Additionally, if a woman prays with a minyan she has the opportunity to answer “amen” Kaddish and Ĥazarat Ha-shatz, to participate in the recitation of Kedusha and Modim, and to hear Birkat Kohanim. Nevertheless, the Sages did not institute prayer with a minyan for women, in order to prevent conflict between the obligations prayer with a minyan in a synagogue and care for her family, for devotion to the family is more important (above, 3:2). As we learned, women are obligated to pray because they too must ask for mercy. 1 However, the institution of prayer with a minyan is not linked to the actual request for mercy; rather, it is an separate matter mitzva that demands more time. Women are thus exempt (see above, 3:8-9, regarding the conceptual difference between men’s and women’s prayer).

On Shabbat and festivals, when there is more free time, many women habitually pray in the synagogue. Likewise, there are women, mainly older women no longer burdened by family demands, who enhance the mitzva by praying every day in the synagogue. Below (20:1-2; 22:7) we will expand on the virtue of prayer with a minyan in a synagogue.

  1. This is based on Ramban’s approach, as explained above, 2:2 n. 1, where we learned that according to Ramban and most poskim, the Sages instituted Shaĥarit and Minĥa as obligatory for women. Even though these prayers are time-bound mitzvot, women are required to recite them, since they too must request mercy. Rambam (according to the accepted interpretation) maintains that prayer is a biblical commandment independent of time, whose obligation is once a day, regarding which women are commanded from the Torah. Following the establishment of the specific times for the prayers by the Sages, women must also pray at the designated times for Shaĥarit or Minĥa, as explained above, 2:3 n. 2. 

02. Establishing a Regular Place to Pray

It is a mitzva to designate a permanent place for prayer. This is what the patriarch Avraham did, as it is written: “Avraham woke up early in the morning [to go] to the place where he had stood (amad) before God” (Bereishit 19:27), implying that he had a regular place where he would stand before God. The primary importance of establishing a place to pray pertains to the recitation of the Amida (lit. “standing”) prayer (Ben Ish Ĥai, Miketz 4).

The designation of a place of prayer expresses the complete connection that we have with God. Everything else in the world can change, but one’s connection to God is the most permanent and stable reality and should therefore transpire at a fixed place. The Sages say: “Whoever sets a place to pray is helped by the God of Avraham, and his enemies fall to him” (Berakhot 6b, 7b; see Maharal, Netiv Ha-avoda, ch. 4).

Men fulfill this mitzva by establishing a set place to pray in the synagogue (SA 90:19). Women fulfill it by establishing a permanent place to pray at home, a place where she tries to pray constantly. A woman whose house bustles with people or children should set a place to pray in a secluded corner, so that her concentration is not disrupted (see SA 90:20).

One must pray in a room with a window, and le-khatĥila it is good that a window opens toward Jerusalem, so that if her kavana is disrupted, she can look up towards the heavens (SA 90:4; MB 90:8). However, one should not establish her place of prayer next to a window with a view of the public domain, for whatever is happening on the street is likely to disturb her prayer (SA 90:20).

If she is in a place with no windows, she should pray in a well-lit place, since some poskim explain that the reason for praying in a room with windows is because the light that comes in settles the thoughts of the person praying (Talmidei Rabbeinu Yona); therefore, good lighting can be considered a substitute for a window.

03. Praying next to a Wall

Ideally there should be no barrier between one praying the Amida and the wall, so that nothing distracts her from prayer. Permanent furniture standing against the wall, such as a closed cupboard, is not considered a barrier since it does not cause distraction, and le-khatĥila one may pray next to it (SA 90:21; MB 63:65).

Pieces of furniture which were made for praying purposes, like shtenders (lecterns), are not considered barriers. Likewise, a table on which one puts her siddur is not considered a barrier. However, when the table is of no use, it should not be allowed to divide the person praying from the wall (MB 90:66; Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 3 n. 6).

If a person is standing between a woman praying and the wall, if that person is also engaged in prayer, he is not considered a barrier. However, if he is not engaged in prayer, he is indeed considered a barrier (SA 90:22; Rav Kook in Tov Ro’i on Berakhot 5b).

It is not proper to pray facing pictures, lest it be a distraction (SA 90:23). However, if the picture is above eye level it is permitted, for then there is no concern that people will be distracted by it while praying (MA 90:37; MB 71).

One may not pray facing a mirror because one who does so looks like she is bowing to her own reflection. Therefore, even if she were to close her eyes, it is still forbidden (MB 90:71). Le-khatĥila, one should not pray at night in front of a window in which her image is reflected, since looking at her reflection will likely disturb her kavana. But if there is no alternative, she should close her eyes or look in the siddur. Since the window does not reflect her image clearly like a mirror does, she does not really seem to be bowing to her reflection (see Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 3 n. 7).

04. One May Not Pray in a High Place

One who stands before God in prayer should know that her existence and all of life’s blessings are dependent on God’s kindness and that God is not required to fulfill her requests; hence, she should stand before Him humbly. That is what the Sages meant when they said (Berakhot 10b): “One may not stand on a chair, on a stool, or on any other high place and pray, because there is no haughtiness before the Omnipresent, as it says (Tehilim 130:1): ‘From the depths I called You, Lord.’” The Talmud (Ta’anit 23b) relates a story about R. Yona who was known as a righteous person whose prayers were answered. When he was asked to pray for rain, he went to a low place in order to fulfill the verse: “From the depths I called You, Lord.” He prayed there until he was answered and rain began to fall. For that reason, it is customary in some congregations that the ĥazan’s place is lower. This also explains why the ĥazan is described as “descending before the ark” (“yored lifnei ha-teiva”).

As a rule, the Sages prohibited an elevated place higher than three tefaĥim (c. 24 cm) above the ground. However, in practice, it is forbidden to pray even on a less elevated place, for two reasons. First, one standing on a stepstool or rock even only one tefaĥ in height is worried about losing her balance and cannot have the proper kavana 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 le-khatĥila. Likewise, one who prays on uneven ground may stand on the elevated parts, as long as they are not three tefaĥim higher than the rest of their surroundings (Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 3 n. 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, for that does not display haughtiness.

If the high place stands on its own – for instance, it is wider than four amot by four amot (c. two meters by two meters) – one may pray on it, because it is not measured in relation to other places. Rather it is considered its own domain. Even an area which is smaller than four amot squared is considered to be its own domain if it is surrounded by partitions, and it is permissible to pray on it.

05. One May Not Pray Near His Primary Rabbi

One may not recite the Amida prayer too close to his primary rabbi (“rav muvhak”), for if he prays alongside him, and certainly in front of him, he presents himself as his rabbi’s equal at least. On the other hand, he may not pray behind his rabbi, for should the rabbi finish praying before he does, the rabbi will feel uncomfortable because he cannot take three steps backwards – and it would be terrible for one to make his mentor feel uncomfortable. Furthermore, the student may appear as though he is bowing down to his rabbi (SA 90:24; MB 74).

If the student distances himself by four amot (c. two meters), it is permitted. However, if he prays behind his rabbi, he must distance himself four amot and another three paces (c. 60 cm), so that even if he were to prolong his prayer, his rabbi would be able to take three steps backwards.

Who is considered one’s primary rabbi? The one from whom she has learned the majority of her wisdom in one area of the Torah. One of the great Torah leaders of the generation has the same status. Likewise, the rabbi of a place is considered a primary rabbi (AHS YD 242:29; see also Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 3 n. 8). Some say that during the time period that one is learning from a certain rabbi, even if he did not teach her most of her knowledge, at that time, the teacher has the status of her primary rabbi (Divrei Malkiel 2:74).

Concerning a rabbanit (a rabbi’s wife, who is often a teacher and religious guide in her own right), there is a prohibition on praying alongside her in two situations: 1. when she is married to one’s rav muvhak or to one of the prominent Torah leaders of the generation, and her main goal is to assist her husband in his sacred mission; and 2. when she herself is an educator and most of her students’ Torah knowledge or teaching has come from her, in which case, her students must relate to her as they would to a rav muvhak.

Some say that these rulings apply only in a situation where the student chooses to pray next to the rabbanit. But if they were seated near each other in the women’s section, she may pray there, for there is no question of arrogance on the part of the student. In times of need, one may rely on this opinion (Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 3 n. 9). Certainly when the rabbanit invites the student to sit next to her or agrees to the student sitting next to her there is no prohibition or concern of arrogance on the part of the student, and she may pray there.

06. Prayer in Open Areas

One should not recite the Amida in an open area, and one who does so is called “insolent” (Berakhot 34b), because in an open area one’s thoughts scatter, whereas in a private place place the King’s awe is upon her and her heart is humbled (SA 90:5). Furthermore, in an open space, there is concern that people will pass by and disturb her concentration. Those who are traveling may pray along their way, and if there are trees there, it is better to pray among them (MB 90:11). Similarly, it is preferable to pray next to a wall than in a completely open area (Eshel Avraham [Buczacz] 90:5). A courtyard surrounded by walls is considered a private place, almost like a house, since the defining factor is the presence of walls, not a ceiling (MB 90:12).

It is permissible le-khatĥila to pray in the plaza of the Kotel (the Western Wall) because it is surrounded by walls on three sides. Moreover, the holiness of the site reinforces one’s love and awe of God, causing one’s prayer to be said with more kavana. The patriarch Yitzĥak did this when he recited Minĥa on Mount Moriah, which was then an open field, as it says: “Yitzĥak went out to meditate in the field” (Bereishit 24:63; Berakhot 26b; Midrash Tehillim §81).

It is forbidden to pray in front of a synagogue because if person praying faces the direction of Jerusalem, her back will be disrespectfully turned towards the synagogue. If she faces the synagogue, her back will be turned to Jerusalem, in the opposite direction towards which the congregants inside are praying. However, one may pray alongside the synagogue or behind it when facing Jerusalem (SA 90:7).

07. Cleanliness of the Area from Excrement and Foul Odors

It is forbidden to say or think about sacred matters in a place that contains feces or other foul-smelling substances, as the Torah states: “You will return and cover your excrement. This is because Lord your God walks among you in your camp…. Your camp must therefore be holy” (Devarim 23:14-15). This law contains many details, and we will learn only a few of them.

Anything within four amot (c. two meters) of a person is considered to be within her “camp.” Hence, if there is excrement within her four amot, her camp is not holy and she may not pray there. If the excrement is in front of her, as long as she sees it, she may not pray. If the smell spreads, she must distance herself four amot from the place where the smell dissipates. Even one whose sense of smell is impaired must distance herself, like one who smells the odor (SA 79:1).

This law applies to anything rancid whose stench revolts people. Thus, one must distance herself from a carcass and from malodorous animal dung just as she must distance herself from human feces (MB 79:23). Foul-smelling vomit has the same status as excrement, but if it does not stink, some rule leniently and do not consider it like feces (see MB 76:20 and Ishei Yisrael 51:12).

When the odor spreads to another domain, for example, from the bathroom into the next room, one may not recite sacred words anywhere that the smell pervades. Some poskim are stringent and maintain that even when the foul odor comes from another domain, one must move four amot away from the place where the smell ends, and le-khatĥila this opinion is worth following (MB 79:17 and Kaf Ha-ĥayim 79:1; Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 3 n. 10).

08. What is the Law Be-di’avad?

If one recited the Amida within four amot of feces, she did not fulfill her obligation, and the Amida must be repeated. Even if she was unaware that there was excrement there, but there was a reasonable concern that the place would contain excrement, she acted negligently by not examining the cleanliness of the place before praying, and therefore she did not fulfill her obligation. However, if the place was unlikely to contain excrement, since she was not required to check, she fulfilled her obligation (SA 76:8; MB 76:31 and 81:13).

The poskim disagree about one who recited berakhot within four amot of excrement. Some say that because she transgressed a biblical prohibition, she did not fulfill her obligation and must repeat all the berakhot (MB 185:7; BHL ad loc.). Others maintain that the Sages are only strict about the recitation of Shema and the Amida, but concerning other berakhot, be-di’avad she fulfilled her obligation (Ĥayei Adam 3:33; Kitzur SA 5:10; Kaf Ha-ĥayim 76:37, 185:14). Since this is a matter of dispute concerning berakhot, and repeating the berakha raises concerns about making a berakha le-vatala, the principle of leniency in matters of uncertainty about berakhot (“safek berakhot le-hakel”) applies, and she may not repeat the berakha. It is best that she meditates on the words of the berakha, for some poskim maintain that one fulfills the obligation to recite a berakha just by thinking it (Rambam), and the prohibition to recite a berakha le-vatala does not apply to thought.

09. The Law Concerning a Baby

Feces of young infants do not smell that bad and therefore it does not have the status of excrement. When a child reaches the age that he can eat a kezayit of cereal grain within a shi’ur akhilat pras (the time it takes to eat half a loaf of bread; c. 6-7 minutes), one must distance herself from the excrement as she would from an adult’s excrement (SA 81:1); some write that this starts at one year of age. Speaking sacred words near a baby’s feces is only permitted in extenuating circumstances. Le-khatĥila it is better to distance oneself from the excrement of even a week-old baby when speaking sacred words (MB 81:3; Kaf Ha-ĥayim 1:6).

When praying near a baby at least one year old who is still in diapers, one should first make sure that no foul odor is present. If there is a foul odor and it reaches the person praying, she must stop her prayers. However, as long as the child does not smell, she may pray near him, for even if he did defecate, since the feces are covered in a diaper and clothing and there is no scent, it is not forbidden to speak sacred words near him. 1

When a woman is in the middle of the Amida and her child comes to her with a dirty, smelly diaper, she may not continue praying. If someone else can take care of the child, she must signal with her hands that they should distance the child from her, and then she can continue her prayers. However, when no one else is present to care for the child at that moment, she should, if possible, place him in a crib or in a different room where he can play until she completes her prayer. If no such option is available – for example, if the child is crying and requires her attention – since she is prohibited from continuing to pray while he is next to her anyway, she must stop praying, clean the child, change his diaper, and wash her hands. She should try to return to her prayer as quickly as possible, because if the interruption is shorter than the time it takes for her to recite the whole Amida, she may continue praying from the place where she stopped. If in her estimation, however, the interruption lasts longer that the time it would take her to recite the entire Amida, from start to finish, she must begin the Amida from the beginning (SA 104:5).

If a soiled child approaches a woman while she is reciting a short berakha, she should distance herself from him to a place where the odor cannot be smelled and then finish the berakha. If she is reciting Birkat Ha-mazon, which takes more time to say, and she cannot distance herself from him long enough to complete all four berakhot of Birkat Ha-mazon because he is crying and she needs to pick him up to calm him down, since she cannot continue her berakha while she smells his excrement anyway, she should clean him, change his diaper, wash her hands, and continue from the beginning of the berakha at which she stopped (SA 65:1; BHL 183:6, s.v. “Afilu”).

  1. The poskim disagree about feces that are in a different domain or are covered. All agree that it is forbidden to speak sacred words anywhere the odor reaches. The dispute is about whether it is necessary to distance oneself by four amot from the place where the smell ends. Some are stringent, though most poskim are lenient (see Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 3 n. 10). This also applies to the feces of a baby that are covered in a diaper and undergarments: one may not speak sacred words anywhere the foul odor reaches, and the poskim disagree about whether one must distance herself by an additional four amot from there. If the baby’s odor is completely undetectable, there is no need to move away, and it has the status of covered feces (SA 79:1-2). Therefore, as long as one does not smell a bad odor from the child, there is no need to check the child’s diaper; this is the prevalent custom. MA 81:1 rules very stringently that one may not pray next to a baby under any circumstances. However, this opinion was not accepted by most poskim, as explained in SAH 76:6 and Kaf Ha-ĥayim 81:7.

    R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Halikhot Shlomo: Prayer 20:4-5) also rules that one may pray near a baby who does not smell and there is no need to check him. However he adds a novel insight: If the person praying knows that the baby defecated in his diaper, the diaper has the status of a graf shel re’i (a vessel that holds feces, such as a chamber pot), which in turn has the status of actual feces even if it does not smell. Thus, one must move four amot away from a baby with a dirty diaper unless there is another piece of clothing on top of the diaper and there is no foul odor. If the baby urinated in his diaper, even if he is not wearing clothes, one may pray near him as long as there is no foul smell. Some disagree and maintain that since diapers are either disposable or cloth, and is thrown out or laundered after each use, they are not considered a graf shel re’i (R. Nisim Karelitz, cited in Ve-zot Ha-berakha p. 150. R. Auerbach further states that one may bring a baby to synagogue when he is diapered and dressed, and there is no need to be concerned that he might defecate.

10. Additional Laws

A woman who is facing the bathroom may recite sacred words and pray as the door is closed and no foul odor reaches her. If the door is open, she may not pray there. However, if her back or side is turned towards the bathroom, as long as no foul smell reaches her, she may pray and recite sacred words (SA 83:1; MB 83:5).

Occasionally, a sewer emits a stench into a nearby home or synagogue. In such a case, it is forbidden to pray inside. Sometimes closing the windows that face the sewer helps, and if the odor lingers, air freshener can be used to eliminate it. In the past, people would eliminate a stench by burning a garment (Kaf Ha-ĥayim 79:20).

The status of a particular smell depends on accepted local norms. In the past, sewage, including feces and urine, would flow alongside streets, and the air in crowded cities was full of foul odors. Even so, prayers would be recited in synagogues and houses near the sewage canals because everyone was accustomed to them and did not consider them foul. Only on summer days or when the sewage canals were clogged would the stench intensify to the point that people would not pray nearby (see MB 79:5). Nowadays, however, 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.

Similarly, in farming communities, the smell from the barns and chicken coops that regularly reaches homes and synagogues is not considered by the local residents to be a bad smell. The same smell in the city may be considered foul, and it is prohibited to pray as long as it persists. Those who are guests in communities like these should follow the local custom.

People who pray outside must be careful not to pray in close proximity to garbage bins that smell bad. Even when the garbage cans do not emit a foul odor, it is proper not to pray within four amot of them or facing them.

11. The Prohibition of Reciting Sacred Words in the Presence of “Erva”

It is prohibited to recite sacred words in the presence of erva (nakedness), as the Torah states: “Your camp must therefore be holy. Let Him not see any erva among you and turn away from you” (Devarim 23:15). Regarding a man who sees another man or a woman who sees another woman, it is only prohibited to recite sacred words in view of the other’s privates. Therefore, if a woman is sitting on the floor or a chair in a manner that conceals her private part, even if she is naked, another woman may pray or speak sacred words in her presence (MB 75:8).

However, from the perspective of modesty, it is not proper for a woman to sit without clothing (above, 4:2). When necessary, it is permissible, and in such a case there is no prohibition for another woman to recite sacred words in her presence.

Concerning a man who sees a woman, the Sages teach (Berakhot 24b), “A tefaĥ of a woman is considered erva.” What they meant is that it is forbidden to reveal any part of a woman’s body which is normally covered, and that if such a part is exposed, one may not speak sacred words its presence (the specifics of this rule are explained in SA §75 and in Peninei Halakha: Collected Essays IIICollected Essays III 6:3-6).

Although we must educate girls to dress modestly starting from a young age, the prohibition against speaking sacred words in the presence of a tefaĥ that is normally covered begins when the girl begins to mature (ibid. 6:7).

Likewise, regarding the hair on one’s head, the Sages teach: “A woman’s hair is erva” (Berakhot 24a). This refers to a married woman, and if her hair is not covered, a man may not recite sacred words in her presence (the specific of the laws of hair covering are detailed in Peninei Halakha: Collected Essays III 6:14-15).

A man who must pray, recite berakhot, or learn Torah and finds himself in the presence of a woman who is revealing a tefaĥ of areas that are normally covered, le-khatĥila, 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 speak sacred words (SA 75:6; MB 75:1, 29).

Concerning hair covering, some Aĥaronim write that since, unfortunately, many married women do not cover their hair, uncovered hair has become, to some degree, something that not everyone is accustomed to covering, and be-di’avad one may speak sacred words in its presence. This only pertains to hair, regarding which has a more lenient status than other normally covered parts, as single women are not obligated to cover their hair. However, concerning the normally covered parts of the body, which even single women must cover, as we have learned, one may not be lenient; rather, he must close his eyes or look in a siddur (AHS 75:7; Ben Ish Ĥai, Bo 12; Igrot Moshe OĤ 1:44; see Peninei Halakha: Collected Essays III 6:16).

Similarly, a man may not recite sacred words near a woman who is singing (SA 75:3). However, according to some Aĥaronim, be-di’avad, hearing a female singer on the radio does not prohibit reciting matters of sanctity (see ibid. 6:11).