MIZRAḤ (Heb. מִזְרָח; "east"), designation of the direction to be faced during prayer, of the wall of the synagogue where seats were reserved for the rabbi and other dignitaries, and of an ornamental wall plaque used to indicate the location of east. The custom of facing the Temple during prayer has biblical origins beginning with Solomon's prayer (i Kings 8:34, 44, 48; ii Chron. 6:34). The Bible also relates that Daniel prayed three times daily in his chamber, the windows of which were opened toward Jerusalem (Dan. 6:11). The rule laid down in the Mishnah (Ber. 4:5) and amplified in the Talmud, is that if one prays in the Diaspora, he shall direct himself toward Ereẓ Israel; in Ereẓ Israel, toward Jerusalem; in Jerusalem, toward the Temple; and in the Temple, toward the Holy of Holies. If a man is east of the Temple, he should turn westward; if in the west, eastward; in the south, northward; and if in the north, southward. Thus all Jews direct their prayers toward one place (Ber. 30a; T.J. Ber. 4:5 8b–c; Tosef., Ber. 3:16). The term mizraḥ, therefore, applies properly to the cities and countries situated west of Jerusalem. Excavations of ancient synagogues generally bear this out, as those houses of worship found in Miletus, Priene, and Aegina, all west of Ereẓ Israel, show an eastern orientation, as has been recorded of Egyptian synagogues (Jos., Apion, 2:10). Those synagogues north of Jerusalem and west of the Jordan River, as *Bet Alfa, *Capernaum, *Hammath, and *Chorazin all face southward, whereas ancient sanctuaries east of the Jordan, such as Val-Dokkī Umm al-Qanātir, Jarash, and *Dura-Europos all face west. In the south, the synagogue excavated at *Masada faces northwest to Jerusalem. The directions frequently varied slightly due to the terrain. Exceptions have been found in the synagogues at Khirbat Summāqa, a village on Mt. Carmel, and at ʿUsifiyyā, where the orientations are not toward Jerusalem. There is no satisfactory explanation for this divergence from the norm. In the early Christian church it was also customary to pray facing toward the Holy Land. For Islam the original direction of prayer (qibla) was toward Jerusalem, but this was subsequently changed by Muhammad in favor of Mecca.
Excavations of ancient synagogues show that the earliest houses of worship had their entrances facing Jerusalem, and portals, therefore, indicated the sacred direction. The remains of the Dura-Europos synagogue on the Euphrates reveal that by the third century c.e. the doors were on the eastern side, and the opposite wall, in which a special niche had been made to place the scrolls during worship, faced Jerusalem. This niche was too small to have been the permanent location of the ark, which was obviously still portable at that time. In Ereẓ Israel the wall facing the Temple site was changed from the side of entrance to the side of the ark in the fifth or sixth century. This change is already found in synagogues at Naaran near Jericho and Bet Alfa. Worshipers came through the portals and immediately faced both the scrolls and Jerusalem. However, in those sanctuaries found in Hammath, Yafa in Galilee, and Eshtemoa in Judea, the sacred direction is properly south in the first two cases and north in the third, while the entrance is from the eastern side. This may be in imitation of the Tent of Meeting, which had its gates on the eastern side (Num. 2:2–3; 3:38), or of Solomon's Temple, the portals of which were to the east (Ezek. 43:1–4), although the precise reason is not known. Maimonides, quoting the second passage in Numbers, states that the doors of the synagogue should face east, while the Ark should be placed "in the direction in which people pray in that city," i.e., toward Jerusalem (Yad, Tefillah, 11:2). The Shulḥan Arukh records the same rule, but to avoid the semblance of worshiping the sun by facing east, it recommends that one turn toward the southeast (Isserles oḤ 94:2; also Suk. 5:4). If a person is unable to ascertain the points of the compass, he should direct his heart toward Jerusalem. This was also the opinion of R. Tarfon and R. Sheshet, who held that, since the Divine Presence is everywhere, the essential requirement is to direct one's heart to God (bb 25a). It is customary in traditional homes to mark the eastern wall to enable a person to recite his prayers in the proper direction. Artistic wall plaques inscribed with the word mizraḥ and scriptural passages like "From the rising (mi-mizraḥ) of the sun unto the going down thereof, the Lord's name is to be praised" (Ps. 113:3), kabbalistic inscriptions, or pictures of holy places are used for this purpose.
Goodenough, Symbols, 1 (1953), 216; F. Landsberger, in: huca, 28 (1957), 181–203; L.A. Mayer, Bibliography of Jewish Art (1967), index; E.L. Sukenik, The Ancient Synagogue of Beth Alpha (1932), 11; idem, The Ancient Synagogue of El-Ḥammeh (1935), 78–81; idem, Ancient Synagogues in Palestine and Greece (1934), 27, 50–52; Y. Yadin, Masada (Eng., 1966), 180, 184.