Orientation in Prayer

Parshat Terumah begins to tell the story of the various utensils used in the Mishkan. It also begins to tell us about their placement: “Place the table outside the curtain, and the menorah next to the table, on the south side of the Mishkan; and the table on the north side” (Shemot 26:35).

From this geography the gemara learns an interesting law of prayer: “Rebbe Yitzchak said, if you want to become wise, face south; to become wealthy, face north. This is symbolized by the table which was in the north and the menorah in the south” (Bava Batra 25b). The table is arrayed with loaves of bread, symbolizing wealth; the menorah casts light, symbolizing wisdom.

This opinion assumes that there is a dichotomy between wisdom and wealth. When we turn towards the one, we turn away from the other. The Mishna expresses a similar sentiment, “Not all who engage in much commerce become wise” (Avot 2:5). While the mishna merely states that not all become wise, most commentators understand that the mishna is telling us that in general the pursuit of much wealth is at the expense of Torah learning.

The gemara continues: “Rebbe Yehoshua ben Levi says, always face south, for wisdom will bring wealth, as it is written, ‘Length of days in the right hand, and in the left wealth and honor’” (Mishlei 3:16). At first glance this verse supports Rebbe Yitzchak’s idea of a dichotomy: The right represents length of days, which Rebbe Yehoshua ben Levi identifies with wisdom, for when we acquire wisdom, our days themselves are long and filled with meaning. And the left represents wealth. However, the key difference is unlike north and south which are neutral, the left is always considered subordinate to the right. Indeed, on Shabbat 63a the gemara states that if the left hand has wealth, then the dominant right must have even more!

Rebbe Yehoshua ben Levi concedes that wisdom and wealth don’t contradict each other. But they can still not be together as equals. If we respect wealth and Torah as equal values, we will have to choose between them; only if we make Torah the principle goal, our right hand, can we benefit from wealth as well.

The gemara continues further: Did not Rebbe Yehoshua ben Levi state that the Divine Presence is in the west? How then can he face south? Rather, the meaning is that we should tend slightly to one side. In other words, it is unthinkable that we should acquire wealth or wisdom by turning away from the Divine presence. Yet there is another implication: that turning towards G-d in prayer doesn’t contradict the quest for these. Our principle orientation must be towards HaShem, but we may also squint in the direction of other values, particularly Torah learning.

This ruling is mentioned in the Rema on OC 94:2. The Rema rules like Rebbe Yitzchak, seemingly giving legitimacy for a desire for wealth as long as a person’s primary orientation is towards the Divine presence.

Rabbi Meir’s book Meaning in Mitzvot is now available as an e-book through Amazon, ibooks, Google Play and B&N.