Misconception: One may daven facing a mirror, reflective window or family pictures.
Fact: Even with one’s eyes closed, one should not daven facing a mirror, nor should one daven facing pictures of people or a reflective surface such as a glass breakfront or a window at night.
Background: There are many halachot governing the physical setting in which one prays. For example, the Rambam (Hilchot Tefillah 5:6) writes that there should be windows or openings facing Yerushalayim in the room in which one prays. The Shulchan Aruch (OC 90:5) rules that one should not pray in an open area such as a field [or street], in an “unclean” area (OC 90:26), or within eight tefachim [handbreadths; about two-and-a-half feet] of a shul entrance (OC 90:20). Additionally, while praying, one should not face drawings on clothes or walls (OC 90:23) or stand immediately behind one’s teacher (OC 90:24).
Must a Shul Have Windows?
As mentioned, the Rambam requires one to daven in a room with windows, which Rashi (Berachot 34b, s.v. chalonot) explains enables worshippers to look heavenward and thereby focus their attention on God. The Prisha (OC 95:5), quoting the Terumat Hadeshen, explains Rashi’s words to mean that quick glances heavenward could help one have kavanah, but that one should pray looking downward and not stare out the window.1 The Prisha further notes (OC 90:4) that the talmidei Rabbeinu Yonah explained that the windows are beneficial when praying, not for the purpose of looking heavenward but rather to provide good air and light that will enable one to settle his mind and pray with focus. In the Kesef Mishnah (Hilchot Tefillah 5:6), Rabbi Yosef Karo (author of the Shulchan Aruch) quotes a responsum of the Rambam (Teshuvot HaRambam; see the Blau edition, vol. 2 , p. 216) that the requirement to pray in a room with windows applies only to a private house and not to a shul;2 however, in the Shulchan Aruch (OC 90:4) Rabbi Karo implies that a shul should also have windows. The Mishnah Berurah (90:8) explicitly states that a shul should have windows.3
Driven to Distraction
Regarding the rule about not davening facing pictures, Rabbi Karo in the Beit Yosef (OC 90, s.v. v’katav) quotes the Abudraham (Dinei Shemoneh Esrei, s.v. v’amrinan nami), who cites a responsum from the Rambam (no. 20 of the Freimann edition ; no. 84 in the Yosef edition ). There the Rambam states that when one finds himself facing a picture while davening, the custom is to close one’s eyes to avoid being distracted. In a similar vein, the Rema (OC 90:23) writes that siddurim should not be illustrated, in order to avoid distractions. The inclination to illustrate siddurim—and rabbinic opposition to it—has been around a long time. When asked if it is proper to include drawings of animals and birds in machzorim, Tosafot (Yoma 54a, s.v. keruvim) responded that drawings are improper, as the one praying will look at the images and not direct his attention to his Father in Heaven.4 The Kaf Hachaim (Rabbi Yaakov Chaim Sofer; OC 90:137) advises that in order to avoid being distracted during prayer, it is best if one looks into a prayer book or closes one’s eyes. Anything that is likely to distract—drawings and images being just one example—should not be in one’s line of vision during davening. Piskei Teshuvot (712-713), provides examples, stating that one should not daven near a shul bulletin board or a bookcase, as these are likely to draw one’s attention away from the prayers.
The Magen Avraham (OC 90:37) states that pictures should not be painted on the walls of a shul5 unless they are above the worshippers’ line of vision, defined as above three amot (Aruch Hashulchan, OC 90:28). In response to a question about hanging a portrait of Theodor Herzl in a shul, Rabbi Malkiel Tannenbaum (d. 1910; Shu”t Divrei Malkiel 6:2:3) ruled that one should not hang portraits in shul in general. Based on this ruling, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, the current Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, opined (Yalkut Yosef, 5750, vol. 2, 150:13-14) that portraits of gedolim should not be hung in the sanctuary but rather in the lobby.6 Rabbi She’ar Yashuv Cohen (1927-2016), the former chief rabbi of Haifa, noted that there are different customs regarding this matter; he observed (personal letter, July 9, 2001) that the large guest room of his esteemed teacher Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook was lined with portraits of gedolim and was used as a shul. For Rabbi Cohen, that served as sufficient proof that it is acceptable to adorn a shul sanctuary with portraits. Rabbi Ben-Zion Abba Shaul (1924-1998) ruled that praying facing pictures of people is prohibited even with one’s eyes closed because it could appear as if one is bowing to the image (Ohr L’Tzion, fn. to 2:7:11). This issue often arises when davening in homes (for example, in a house of mourning7), in which family portraits are present.
Mirror, Mirror on the Shul Wall
The question of davening in front of a mirror does not appear in the halachic literature until the sixteenth century, but is subsequently cited by innumerable halachic authorities.8 The earliest source to discuss the prohibition to pray opposite a mirror seems to be Rabbi David Ibn Zimra, the Radbaz (1479-1573; Radbaz 4:107[=1178]9).10 He inter alia takes it as a given—buried deep in a lengthy responsum about images and statues on shul walls—that one may not daven facing a mirror11 because, he asserts, it could appear as if one is bowing to oneself.12 This, he says, is similar to the prohibition against davening behind one’s rebbe, in order to avoid the appearance of bowing to him.
Because of this concern, Elya Rabbah (OC 90:28), Be’er Haitev (90:30), Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (Gantzfried; 18:8), Kaf Hachaim (Sofer; 90:138), Mishnah Berurah (90:71), Yaskil Avdi (YD 19:4), and Rabbi Haim David Halevy (Makor Chaim, vol. 1, p. 220) all concur that davening in front of a mirror is prohibited even if one were to close his eyes.
Concern about appearing as if bowing to one’s own reflection comes up in another halachic context as well. The halachah (Chullin 41b; Shulchan Aruch, YD 11:3) states that one may not slaughter an animal over a bucket of clear water lest others suspect him of slaughtering the animal to the image in the reflection.
Rabbi Chaim Benveniste (1603–1673; Shayarei Knesset Hagedolah, Hagahot Beit Yosef 90:10) agrees with Radbaz about not permitting one to daven in front of a mirror. He adds a second rationale for the prohibition, which is that it could be distracting. The Machatzit Hashekel (OC 90:37) concurs that a reflected image is no different than any other image and can be a distraction.
Maharsham (Rabbi Sholom Mordechai Schwadron [1835-1911]; Da’at Torah, OC 90:23) rejects the Radbaz’s rationale for not davening in front of a mirror because, he argues, when one bows in front of a mirror, the image bows back. Therefore one is obviously not bowing to the image. Rather, he said, the problem with davening in front of a mirror is that it can be distracting; and therefore, if there is a need, one may daven in front of a mirror with his eyes closed. Rav Ovadia Yosef was not convinced by this argument, but agrees that when one has few options, one can rely on this leniency (Yabia Omer 4: YD 35:3).
The halachah of not davening facing a mirror has little relevance in shuls, where mirrors are not commonly found, but is important when davening in a home. According to some sources, the custom to cover the mirrors in a shivah house developed in order to avoid this halachic issue, as prayers are traditionally held in a house of mourning.13
This halachah might also apply to mirror-like objects, i.e., picture frames, breakfronts, windows, glass mechitzot and shiny objects. As noted, the Shulchan Aruch (OC 90:4)—based on the Gemara (Berachot 31a, 34b), which in turn is based on Daniel 6:11—rules that one should pray in a house with windows. But at night, if one davens facing an uncovered window, it will often appear as if one is facing a mirror. In the last century or so, posekim have addressed this topic as well as other related questions, including pictures with glass frames and Shiviti signs (decorative, often glass-covered signs featuring the phrase from Tehillim 16:8, “Shiviti Hashem l’negdi tamid—I have set Hashem before me always”) usually placed in front of the amud or on the wall next to the aron.
Rabbi Ben-Zion Abba Shaul (Ohr Letzion 2:7:11) rules that one may daven in front of a reflective window or reflective glass at the chazzan’s shtender with one’s eyes closed or looking to the side. However, he rules, one may not daven in front of pictures of animals or people, even with one’s eyes closed. But, he adds, pictures that one is familiar with, such as the images on a parochet or the photos in one’s own home, are not distracting and thus one may pray in front of them, even with one’s eyes open.
Rabbi Shalom Perlow (d. 1925) writes (Mishmeret Shalom 15:1) that unlike most shuls, in his father’s shul (Rabbi Baruch Mordechai Perlow [1818-1870], the second Koidanover Rebbe) there was no glass-covered Shiviti sign at the chazzan’s amud. He surmises that one reason was because of the halachah that one may not daven facing a mirror.
Two recent popular works on the laws of prayer, Tefillah Kehilchatah (Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Fuchs, chap. 5, n. 38) and Ishei Yisrael (Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Pfeuffer, chap. 9, n. 66) state that one should not daven facing a glass window at night (one could, however, simply lower the blinds). In personal conversations, Rabbi Hershel Schachter (on June 22, 2001), Rabbi David Avraham Spektor (rav in Givat Sharret, Beit Shemesh, on June 22, 2001), Rabbi Rothenberg (rav of Toldos Aharon Chassidim in Beit Shemesh, on June 19, 2001), Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch of Maaleh Adumim (relayed via Rabbi Dov Frimer, September 16, 2001) and Rabbi Efraim Greenblatt (author of Rivevos Efraim, on July 3, 2001) all stated that there is no distinction between a mirror and a reflective window.14
Rabbi Yitzchok Margareten reports that the rosh yeshivah of Telshe in Cleveland, Rabbi Chaim Stein, was known to avoid davening opposite the windows of the beit midrash for this reason. Similarly, it is reported that the Steipler Gaon did not daven in front of a window and advised those praying in the “Lederman” shul in Bnei Brak not to daven opposite the shiny reflective pillars on the sides of the aron kodesh because it was similar to davening opposite a mirror (Orchot Rabbeinu, vol. 1, pp. 184-185).
Rabbi Shmuel David Munk (Pe’at Sadcha, 5761, 2:30) opines that one can indeed daven in front of reflective surfaces in which the reflection is not clear. Citing his proofs for this, he writes that firstly, he reads the Mishnah Berurah (90:71) to be referring specifically to a mirror. Secondly, he understands the rule forbidding slaughtering an animal over a bucket of water to apply only when the reflected image is recognizable.
Rabbi Shmuel Halevi Wosner (Shevet Halevi 9:21:1) opines that a chazzan may daven opposite a glass-covered Shiviti sign because the Radbaz prohibited only an actual mirror which one uses specifically to view one’s reflection. Since everyone knows the Shiviti sign is not used for that purpose, there is no concern that one’s bowing will be misinterpreted.15 It is interesting to note, however, that Chazal did not rely on this leniency when they forbade slaughtering an animal over a pail of clear water.
Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin (personal letter, 9 Elul 5761) also ruled that a window is not the same as a mirror. Rabbi Henkin argued that since a window is not designed to be a mirror, one would not assume that he is bowing to himself while praying and facing a window. He writes that in order to avoid becoming distracted while praying in front of a window, one may simply close his eyes. Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch (personal letter, Tammuz 5761) also felt that if the object in question was not originally designed as a mirror there is no custom to be stringent.
Rabbi She’ar Yashuv Cohen (personal letter, July 9, 2001) states that there is no similarity between facing a reflective window and a mirror. Nonetheless, when facing a window, he advises davening with one’s eyes closed or looking into a siddur so that one’s concentration is not disturbed.
Rav Ovadia Yosef was known to close the blinds when davening facing a reflective window (Yalkut Yosef, She’erit Yosef, 5756, vol. 2, p. 90, n. 42), but said that it was not absolutely required. In addition, in a brief letter (Ohr Torah, Tevet 5746, vol. 213, p. 153) Rav Ovadia writes that davening opposite windows or glass-covered Shiviti signs in which the reflection is not clear is not halachically problematic.
To summarize, there appears to be some disagreement about how to view reflective surfaces that are not actual mirrors. The halachic authorities were concerned with two issues: appearance (i.e., how would the act of bowing in front of a mirror appear to others) and concentration. How the halachic authorities ruled often depended on the quality of the reflected image produced by the particular surface. The poorer the quality of the reflected image, the more likely the posekim took a lenient position. The rule first introduced by the Radbaz regarding not davening opposite a mirror16 is part of a larger body of laws about the proper environment for prayer, which, for the most part, is intended to assist a person in maintaining proper kavanah while davening.
1. Similarly, the Magen Avraham (90:4) writes that while one should be looking downward during davening, if one lost his focus he should look out the windows heavenward for inspiration.
2. Indeed, the Rambam included this requirement in chapter five, which deals with rules of prayer, as opposed to chapter eleven, which deals with synagogue etiquette and architecture.
3. The Shulchan Aruch (OC 90:4) says that “it is good” for a shul to have twelve windows. As long as at least one window faces Yerushalayim, it does not matter in what direction the other windows face (Mishnah Berurah 90:9).
4. Later on in this very long Tosafot, they discuss whether or not such illustrations would violate the prohibition of “making an idol” stated in the Ten Commandments (Shemot 20).
5. Adorning the walls of shuls seems to be a very old practice. The Mordechai (Rabbi Mordechai ben Hillel HaKohen, ca.1250-1298, Germany, Avodah Zarah 840) was asked about davening in a shul with paintings of birds and horses on the walls, and he reports that the shul in Cologne, Germany was instructed to remove drawings of lions and snakes from the walls.
6. Professor Marc B. Shapiro related (Seforim blog, March 11, 2013, n. 21) that as a high school student he hung up a large poster of Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman in his classroom. The principal asked him to take it down, explaining that it was improper to have a portrait on the wall because a minyan was held in the room.
7. Rabbi David Cohen, rav of Congregation Gvul Yaavetz in Brooklyn, New York, has creatively suggested (personal letter, July 11, 2001) that in a beit avel it may be less problematic because everyone knows it is common to have family portraits in a house; thus, one wouldn’t assume that one who is praying is bowing to the image.
8. This is not discussing the general question of a man looking in a mirror. The Shulchan Aruch rules (YD 156:2; YD 182:6) that a man may not preen himself in front of a mirror because of the prohibition of wearing women’s clothing (Devarim 22:5), which includes engaging in feminine behavior. The Shulchan Aruch (YD 156:2), based on Tosafot (Nazir 59a, s.v. gevul), rules that there is a prohibition only if the man is using the mirror for beautifying purposes, and thus it is permitted for purposes such as not cutting himself while shaving. The Rema (ibid.), based on the Ran (Avodah Zarah, ch. 2), says that if local custom is for men to use a mirror there is no prohibition.
An application relevant to shuls is whether one can use a mirror to adjust one’s head tefillin. The Sanzer Rebbe (Rabbi Chaim Halberstam, Shu”t Divrei Chaim, OC 2:6; quoted approvingly by the Tzitz Eliezer 12:6) felt strongly that it was unnecessary, and called using a mirror to check the tefillin placement “divrei borut—the ways of the unlearned.” Rabbi Menashe Klein (Mishneh Halachot 11:29, 11:30) also felt that because Jews have been putting on tefillin without a mirror for three thousand years there is no need to start now, particularly in light of the potential prohibition of using a mirror, and he noted that this is especially true in shul.
Others say that because mirrors are no longer used exclusively by women, there is no problem with a man using one (Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Vayishma Moshe, vol. 1 , p. 35). Rav Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer 3:OC:1:20; Yechaveh Da’at 6:49) ruled similarly that today it is common practice for men to use mirrors and therefore a man may use a mirror to groom himself, and in particular in today’s environment it is important that religious Jews look dignified.
Shu”t Beit She’arim (OC:28) relates that he heard that Rabbi Velvel Soloveitchik of Brisk and his descendants use a mirror to verify that the tefillin is in the correct location. The story is told that in 1934 when Rav Velvel was in the resort city of Krenitz, not far from Sanz, he was informed by the locals about the position of the Divrei Chaim and responded: “I would rather be called a boor but know that my tefillin are properly located” (Uvdot VeHanhagot LeBeit Brisk, vol. 3 , 179-180). The Lubavitchers have a tradition that Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi once received a silver snuffbox as a gift and he detached the cover and thereafter used it as a mirror to adjust the tefillin on his head (Likkutei Sichos, vol. 3 [Yiddish], 853-854).
9. This is in the recent, complete edition (1972). Many of the earlier sources, e.g., Rabbi Chaim Benveniste’s Knesset Hagedolah give the reference simply as 106 or as in the Be’er Haitev, 1:106. Note that the first edition, published in 1651, had only 300 of the Radbaz’s over 3,000 responsa, and in there it is number 107. That was the only edition available to the Knesset Hagedolah and to Rabbi Yehudah Ashkenazi of Tiktin (d. 1743; Be’er Haitev), as the next (complete) edition did not appear until 1749, and thus “106” is a simple typo for what should have been 107.
10. A possible reason this law was not mentioned earlier relates to the development of quality mirrors. Ancient mirrors were made out of polished metal, like the mirrors donated to make the laver in the mishkan (Shemot 38:8). The invention of glassblowing in the fourteenth century increased the popularity of glass mirrors; however, the reflections were still not clear or sharp. Perfectly reflective mirrors were introduced in the late seventeenth century. And it was not until 1835 that Justus von Liebig developed the silvered-glass mirror, a process that finally enabled mirrors to be manufactured on a much larger scale, and for the first time in history ordinary people could buy a mirror (Charles Panati, Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things [New York, 1987], 11, 229-230 and http://www.mirrorhistory.com/).
11. The Maharsham (Da’at Torah, OC 90:23) suggests that even the Radbaz would agree that one may daven facing one’s shadow because that is not a real image.
12. In a situation where it is inappropriate to bow, e.g., a person with a cross is in front of him or one is in a Christian hospital with a cross hanging on the wall, then one should continue to daven without bowing at the usual places (SA, OC 113:8) or face in a different direction (even though one might not be praying toward Jerusalem) (MB 94:30).
13. This would, of course, not explain why mirrors in the bathrooms and bedrooms are also covered. For four additional explanations of this custom, see Maurice Lamm, The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning (New York, 1969), 102-104. See also Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, Teshuvot v’Hanhagot 2:585 and Yabia Omer 4:YD:35:3. For a detailed history of covering mirrors in a shivah house, see Zvi Ron, “Covering Mirrors in the Shiva House,” Hakira 13 (spring 2012): 271-283.
14. Rabbi Schachter related that when they davened in the room where he used to give his shiur, they would pull the blinds over the windows to avoid this problem.
15. This might be similar to the ruling cited by the Rema (OC 90:24) that if a person and his teacher have regular places in a shul, one may daven behind his teacher since there is no concern that it might appear as if he is bowing to his teacher.
16. One’s reflection, be it from a mirror or a window, can be distracting. Thus it should be avoided during prayer. But at other times one’s reflection may serve a positive spiritual purpose. The Gemara (Sotah 36b) records that Yosef HaTzaddik refrained from sinning after “the image of his father appeared to him in the window.” Why in the window and not merely in his imagination? This can be understood to mean that he saw his own reflection in the window and, since he resembled his father, Yosef saw in that reflection a reminder of Yaakov Avinu and his teachings.
Rabbi Ari Z. Zivotofsky is a professor of neuroscience at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.