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Peninei Halakha > Prayer > 03 - The Place of Prayer

03 – The Place of Prayer

01 – The Mitzvah to Pray in a Synagogue

When a person prays in a synagogue with a congregation, his prayer is heard (see Berachot 6a). Even someone who missed praying in a minyan has a mitzvah to pray in the synagogue, since it is a permanent and special place of holiness in where prayer is more accepted (Shulchan Aruch 90:9).

However, when the minyan is held in a different place, it is preferable to pray with the minyan rather than individually in the synagogue. If there is a small minyan in the synagogue and a larger minyan elsewhere, although there is merit to praying in the company of many, the value of praying in a synagogue is greater (Pri Megadim; Mishnah Berurah 90:27-28).

Every community has an obligation to fulfill the mitzvah of building a synagogue which will be their mini-sanctuary (mikdash meat) and where people can pray in a minyan. As it is written (Ezekiel 11:16), “I have been for them a small sanctuary,” and Rabbi Yitzchak interpreted, “These are synagogues and study halls” (Megillah 29a).

Reish Lakish says whoever has a synagogue in his city and does not pray there is called a bad neighbor. Moreover, he brings exile upon himself and his descendants. Those who arrive early to synagogue to recite Shacharit and are late to leave after praying Ma’ariv merit long life (Berachot 8a; Shulchan Aruch 90:11).

It is a mitzvah to run to synagogue just as it is a mitzvah to run to perform every mitzvah, in order to express one’s passion for matters of sanctity, as it says (Hosea 6:3), “We will race on in order to know Hashem.” Likewise, when one leaves the synagogue, he should walk slowly, so that he not appear happy to leave the synagogue (Shulchan Aruch 90:12).

02 – Establishing a Regular Place to Pray

It is a mitzvah to choose a synagogue and pray there regularly. One should not change his place of prayer needlessly. This was the custom of Avraham Avinu who designated a place to pray, as it is written (Genesis 19:27), “Avraham woke up early in the morning [to go] to the place where he had stood before God,” implying that he had a regular place where he would stand before Hashem. The designation of a place of prayer illustrates that one’s connection to Hashem is absolute. Everything else in the world can change, but one’s connection to Hashem is the most permanent and stable reality and should therefore transpire in a permanent place. The Chachamim say, “Whoever assigns a set place to pray, the God of Avraham helps him, and his enemies fall beneath him” (Berachot 6b, 7b; see Maharal, Netiv HaAvodah, chapter 4).

However, it is not sufficient to designate a synagogue in which to pray. According to most poskim, even within the synagogue, every person must designate a permanent place to pray (Shulchan Aruch 90:19). The primary importance of establishing a place to pray pertains to the recital of the Amidah prayer (Ben Ish Chai, Miketz 4). When there are benches that move back and forth slightly, it is not necessary to measure one’s seat in centimeters, rather the whole radius of four amot (approximately two meters; approx. 6.56 ft) is considered one place. However, when every person has his own chair, l’chatchilah it is best to sit specifically in one’s regular seat and to pray the Amidah near it.[1]

Sometimes a guest sits in the seat of one who prays in the synagogue regularly. If there is no reason to suspect that the guest will be insulted, he may be asked to move to another seat. However, if there is a chance he may be hurt, it is better to sit elsewhere instead of possibly humiliating him. Ideally, the gabba’im (synagogue coordinators) should greet the guests and find them seats.

The mitzvah to establish a set place to pray does not obligate a Jew to live his whole life in the same location in order to continue praying in his designated seat. Rather, if a person needs to move to another home, or thinks he may be able to pray with more kavanah in a different synagogue, he should change his place of prayer, and choose a new regular seat for himself.

If a minyan does not assemble in one’s regular place of prayer, he should go pray elsewhere, for the virtue of praying in a minyan is more important than the virtue of establishing a regular place to pray.[2] If, while one is praying in his regular seat, his concentration is disrupted by children playing nearby, it is preferable to switch to a different seat for the duration of that prayer service (Aruch HaShulchan 90:22; Kaf HaChaim 118).

A person who needs to recite Shacharit in one area and Minchah and Ma’ariv in another and designates one place to pray Shacharit and a different place for Minchah and Ma’ariv is still considered one who has established a place for prayer. Similarly, one who needs to designate a place in one synagogue on Shabbat and in another on weekdays is still considered establishing a place for prayer (Halichot Shlomo 5, note 2).

[1]. The Mishnah Berurah 90:60, based on the Magen Avraham, writes that within four amot is considered one place, because ones place cannot be measured exactly. However, it seems that when each person is assigned his own specific seat, the feeling of the permanent place pertains to that particular chair, as is written in the responsa of Yosef Ometz, 30. Nonetheless, if a guest takes a person’s place and there is an empty seat next to him, in order not to make the guest feel bad, he should sit in the empty seat alongside the guest, since as long as he is within four amot, he is considered to be sitting in his regular seat.

[2]. However, the Eshel Avraham Butshatsh, Tinyana Edition, 90:19, is uncertain about this ruling. In extenuating circumstances, one may rely on that uncertainty and pray in his permanent place rather than in a minyan. Also see Halichot Shlomo 5:2, who writes that if a person is late for prayer, it is preferable that he skip Pesukei d’Zimrah in order to pray in his regular synagogue, instead of going to a different place where he could pray all of Pesukei d’Zimrah.

03 – In Which Synagogue Is It Preferable to Pray?

When a person chooses a permanent synagogue, he must take into consideration several factors. If the choice is between a beit midrash (study hall) and a synagogue, it is better that he establish his place in a beit midrash, for it is holier, and prayers recited there are more accepted (Shulchan Aruch 90:18). Even when there are fewer people praying in the beit midrash than in the synagogue, the beit midrash is preferable (Mishnah Berurah 90:55). However, if he cannot assign a set seat for himself in the beit midrash, it is better that he designate a place in the synagogue.

When he has the option of praying in either of two synagogues, he should choose the one that offers more Torah classes, since it is considered more like a beit midrash. In addition, it is preferable to join the congregation that places greater emphasis on Torah study.

If there are two synagogues, one in which many people pray and the other in which few pray, a person should prefer the one with many, for “B’rov am hadrat Melech” (“In a multitude of people is a King’s glory.”) However, if it is difficult to hear the chazan clearly in the larger synagogue, it is better to choose a synagogue in which one can properly hear the chazan (Mishnah Berurah 90:28). Therefore, as a general rule, it is best that synagogues be as large as possible, so as to augment the respect of Heaven. Nevertheless, there is a limit, since when there are more than a few hundred congregants it is difficult to hear the chazan clearly.

If in one synagogue people regularly chatter during prayer and in another they don’t, a person should opt for the synagogue that shows more respect for prayer, for he will be able to concentrate better there (Sefer Chassidim 770).

The most important element of prayer is one’s kavanah. Therefore, above all other rules established by the Chachamim, the place in which one can personally concentrate better is the appropriate place to choose (see Radvaz, part 3, 472).

Similarly, it is proper for a person to pick a synagogue in which the congregation prays in his family’s nusach. However, if he knows that in a different synagogue he will have more kavanah, he should choose the synagogue in which he can have proper kavanah (see further in this book 6:3).

A person is rewarded for every step he takes on his way to synagogue. Therefore, even if the preferred synagogue is farther away from his house, he should not be concerned with the trouble that it takes to walk there, because he is rewarded greatly for each step.[3]

[3]. We learn about the reward gained for steps taken to come to pray from the story of a widow who walked to Rabbi Yochanan’s distant beit midrash (Sotah 22a). It is implied from many Acharonim, among them the Mishnah Berurah 90:37, that if a person has to choose between two synagogues, all things being equal, there is an enhancement of the mitzvah in opting for the one farther away in order to merit the reward for steps taken. However, some Acharonim write that only if the farther synagogue is preferable anyway – whether it is because it has more people, or because it is a beit midrash, or because he can concentrate better there – he gains the reward for steps taken to walk there. However, when there is no advantage in going to the farther one, he does not receive reward for his steps taken to walk there (Petach Einayim, Sotah 22a; Divrei Malkiel 5:19; Maharshag 1:27).

04 – 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]

[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.

05 – 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).

06 – 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]

[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.

07 – 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]

[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.

08 – 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).

09 – 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]. 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.

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).

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