The Proper Place for Praying: Of Windows and Valleys
Yeshivat Har Etzion
The Proper Place
Of Windows and Valleys
By Rav Yitzchak Blau
Rabbi Chiya bar Abba said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: "A person should only pray in a house with windows, as it says: 'And the windows of his upper chamber were open toward Jerusalem' (Daniel 6:11)." Rav Kahana says: "A person who prays in a valley is brazen."
Although one might have thought that the above statements are purely aggadic, they are both cited in halakhic literature. Rabbi Yosef Karo codifies in his Shulchan Arukh (O.C. 90:4-5) both that a shul should have windows and that one should not pray in an open area. Of course, this still leaves us with the aggadic question regarding the theological significance of these two ideas.
Why should one pray in a house with windows? Talmidei Rabbeinu Yona maintain that the visual component enables a person to focus his or her attention toward Jerusalem. Thanks to the windows, Jerusalem is not just an abstract idea, but a concrete entity towards which ones eyes can turn. On the other hand, Rashi suggests that looking out at the heavens and seeing the grandeur of the created order subdues the heart to God; praying in an open area, however, can inspire feelings of total freedom and arrogance, while the enclosed structure of a building reminds the praying individual of restrictions and subjection to the Divine. According to Rashi, the twin statements reflect an attempt to inspire, without losing the sense of subjugation.
Rav Kook (Ein Aya) offers a different interpretation. Prayer essentially occurs in the heart and mind of the individual praying. In prayer, an individual stands before the King, affirms basic Jewish beliefs and commitments, sings hymns of praise and pours out his heart in supplication. All of the above can generate a very powerful religious experience. However, that power also creates the danger of the praying individual losing himself or herself in a flight of devotional rapture and forgetting about the worth and significance of the outside world. Ideally, the inspiration gained through prayer should lead to a renewed commitment to realize the broader arena of human endeavors. Thus, the windows remind the person praying both not to reject the outside world and that ultimately the worth of the tefilla will be determined according to its ability to act as the catalyst for sanctifying the totality of human life.
How should we understand the problem with praying in an open valley? Rav Kook takes the analysis in another direction, but I would like to build upon Rav Kook's first point to explain this issue as well. When we fully internalize the need for windows, the possibility of an opposing danger emerges: we might become so enamored of the broader playing field that we would refuse to see any value in ever receding from that broadness in the interest of seclusion and narrowness of focus. Those who pray out in the wide expanse of the open valley may indeed have arrived at this mistaken conclusion. On the other hand, those inside the structure of a building understand that sometimes, a person does have to leave the world behind in order to stand alone before his Maker.
This fine balance between narrowness and broadness extends beyond the question of prayer: I would say that it applies quite powerfully to learning in a yeshiva. Yeshiva life involves a certain intensity of focus on a personal, particular religious goal. This in itself is quite valuable, but it should come with the understanding that the inside of the beit midrash must have a positive impact on the outside. The windows of our batei midrash remind us that our learning should enable us to bring knowledge, ethical excellence and sanctity to the working world, to our families and to the entire community.