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Parshat Vaera – The place of prayer

Tevet 5783 | January 2023


When Pharaoh acknowledges his wrongdoing and asks Moshe to stop the plague of hail (barad), Moshe agrees and explains he has to leave the city to pray:

“Pharaoh sent and called for Moshe and Aharon, and he said to them, ‘I have sinned this time, the Lord is the righteous one and I and my people are the guilty. Beseech the Lord, enough of the thundering of God and the hail, and I will send you and you will not continue to stand.’ And Moshe said to him, ‘When I leave the city I will spread my hands to the Lord and the thundering will cease and there will be no more hail, so you know that the land is the Lord’s… And Moshe exited from Pharaoh and from the city and spread his hands to the Lord and the thundering and hail stopped and no rain hit the ground.” (Shemot 9:27-33)

His exit from the city is significant enough to be mentioned twice. Why is it significant? Does this teach us anything about the proper place to pray?

Based on the Mechilta, Rashi and Rabbi Avraham ben Ezra state that Moshe left the city to escape the overwhelming presence of idols it contained.[1] Strangely, while the Torah also relates that Moshe left Pharaoh’s presence to pray for the end of the plagues of Frogs and Swarms (Arov), it does not mention that he left the city.[2]

Some commentaries explain that Moshe also left the city on those occasions, but he didn’t need to inform Pharaoh of this because the plague did not stop immediately. However,since Pharaoh asked for the hail to stop immediately, Moshe clarified that there would be a delay because he had to leave the city to pray.[3] Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch adds that Moshe left the city for PR purposes, so it would be clear to all that he was not praying to the idols. Others indicate that he specifically needed to leave the city on this occasion because people had brought their animals into the city from the field, and as the Egyptians worshiped certain livestock the city was unusually full of Egyptian gods.

These commentaries focus on the aspect of “sur me’ra” – turn away from evil – avoiding certain circumstances and environments that are detrimental to proper prayer. Other commentaries focus on “aseh tov” – do good. They explain that Moshe left the city specifically to go to the fields and see the damage caused by the hail, so that he could pray with proper intention.[4]

These two approaches are reflected in the halakhic discourse surrounding the proper place for prayer. There are teachings that focus on “sur me’ra” – turning away from evil and striving to limit possible negative influences in the place we pray. Trumat HaDeshen discusses not only the problem of praying in a place with false gods and idols, but also in a place where people might disturb or distract one’s prayers.[5] The gemara teaches that one may not pray in a space that contains excrement or nakedness, based on verses in Devarim that speak about keeping the Israelite camp sanctified.[6]

Turning to “aseh tov” there are several halakhic considerations to take into account when choosing a place to pray. For example, it’s preferable to pray in a building rather than an open field, because a field has an element of pride. Yet one should not be completely closed off, as we also learn that one should pray in a room with windows. The balance between the two indicates that even though one should not face an unlimited expanse, it is important to have a view of the outside world.[7] Similarly, Rav Chisda teaches that a person should go the “length of two doorways” into the space of the synagogue before praying.[8] Some explain that sitting near the exit can be distracting, or that it looks like the person isn’t comfortable inside the synagogue. Others explain that this achieves two goals – providing both time and physical distance from the outside world creates the space to concentrate on prayer.[9] Then there is the idea of a set place (makom kavu’a) for prayer.[10] Among other things, these conditions try to limit distractions. Moreover, they encourage people to pray in a synagogue.[11]

Alongside the stated importance of eliminating outside influences and creating an intentional framework – a set place, in a building, in a synagogue, with a community – there are sources that indicate there is additional significance to praying within a clear context. For example, the gemara teaches that there is a mitzvah to visit the sick specifically because it encourages one to pray for them in a way that can’t be accomplished without personal knowledge of the extent of their illness.[12] Another gemara tells us that a metzora (someone afflicted with tzara’at) is supposed to inform others they are impure, so they will be moved to pray for mercy to alleviate the metzora’s suffering.[13]

Finding the proper physical and mental space for prayer means striking a balance between these contrary concerns. One must disconnect from the impurities and distractions of the outside world to enter a space of intentional prayer while remaining cognizant of people’s needs in order to pray for them with the proper intention. This tension is reflected in the dispute in the commentaries surrounding Moshe’s exit from the city to the field. Did Moshe leave the city to separate himself from its distractions and impurities? Or did he go out to the fields to connect with the suffering and inspire and focus his prayers? Or is it possible that  he found the balance we all seek when conducting our prayers?

[1] Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael Bo, Massechta d’Pischa Parsha 1

[2] Shemot 8:4-9, 20-27

[3]  Siftei Chachamim Shemot 9:29, Ramban ibid.

[4] Chizkuni, Rav Chaim Paltiel, Riva on Shemot 9:29

[5] Siman 6, and Rema OC 94:9. Mishnah Berurah (30) indicates that the bigger problem is that people will lose focus, as they were already used to praying in places full of idols at that time, nevertheless one should be careful that they do not face the direction of idols.

[6] Devarim 23:10-15, TB Brachot 25b, Shulchan Aruch OC 95:4. The Torah verses instruct the people to distance certain impurities, such as excrement and men who are impure due to nocturnal emissions, from the Israelite camp, because God walks among  the camp, “and should not see ervat davar (an unclean or naked thing) within you.” This is the source of the idea that erva – nakedness – is antithetical to holy speech.

[7] TB Brachot 34b (Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba in the name of Rabbi Yochanan – concerning prayer in a house with weddings, and Rav Kahana about the problem of praying in a valley.)

[8] TB Brachot 8a

[9] Shulchan Aruch OC 90:20

[10] Shulchan Aruch OC 90:19

[11] ibid 9, and Peskita Zutrata Shemot 9:29 when Moshe left the city because he had a House of Prayer outside of it.

[12] TB Nedarim 40a

[13] TB Shabbat 67a

Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

was in the first cohort of the Matan Kitvuni Fellowship program and her book is in the publication process. She has a B.A. in Bible from Hebrew University and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. Adina studied in Midreshet Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Havruta and the Advanced Talmud Institute in Matan. She currently teaches Bible and Talmud at Matan, and at Efrata and Orot colleges. Adina lives in Adam (Geva Binyamin) with her family.