Shabbat Parashat Yitro 5779
Ask the Rabbi: Davening in Front of a MirrorRav Daniel Mann
Question: Is the prohibition against davening in front of a mirror or reflective glass a chumra or a serious halacha?
Answer: The matter of not davening in front of a mirror is not a Talmudically mandated halacha, but it is modeled after, an extension, or perhaps even an application of one or more halachot of Chazal.
The Radbaz (IV,107), in discussing davening facing the image of a lion, says that since we forbid davening in front of a mirror because it looks like he is bowing to himself, it is certainly forbidden to daven in front of an image of a lion (which is found in the kisei hakavod). He connects this to the halacha of not davening behind one’s rebbe (Berachot 27b), which, he posits, is in order not to look like he is bowing to him (as one suggestion in Tosafot ad loc. has it). Although he mentions looking like “bowing,” which we do only during Shemoneh Esrei, it likely applies throughout davening (see Machatzit Hashekel 90:37).
Others connect this practice to a different halacha. The gemara (Berachot 5b) says that one should not have a break between himself and the wall when he is davening. The poskim understand that it has to do with creating a distraction (see Beit Yosef, Orach Chayim 90) and posit that it is likewise improper to have colorful pictures or wall hangings in front of him (Shulchan Aruch, OC 90:23). The Machatzit Hashekel (ibid.) says that this is an additional reason not to daven in front of a mirror. (Da’at Torah, OC 90 suggests that only the latter concern is correct.) This problem can be solved by closing one’s eyes or looking only at one’s siddur (Mishna Berura 90:63), which will not work for looking like bowing (Mishna Berura 90:71).
There is some logic for a reason that combines the two (admittedly, this does not seem to be the Radbaz’s intention). When one looks at himself when davening, we view this self-absorption as antithetical to the mindset one should have in davening. While this is not literally bowing to himself, there is an element of it, figuratively.
This “prohibition” is not mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch (Rav Yosef Karo met the Radbaz late in life (in Safed) but apparently did not have access to his scholarship when writing his sefarim). However, many of the classical commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch and related works cite it as a halachic fact (see Mishna Berura ibid.). Therefore, while it may not have the full force of a formal Rabbinical prohibition, it is an accepted minhag related to full halachot, which we do not consider a chumra.
This status makes it more reasonable to look for leniency in cases that are close but not identical to the classic case, when logic so dictates. Several Acharonim are lenient when one can see his image but not in a mirror per se. The Shevet Halevi (IX, 21) justifies the minhag to daven before reflective objects when that is not the object’s purpose (he discusses a “Shiviti Hashem l’negdi tamid” sign situated in front of the chazan). Ohr L’tzion (II, 7:11) says that it is permitted to daven in front of a window, even if the lighting makes his image clearly visible, as long as he closes his eyes or angles himself so he does not see it. The apparent logic is that fear of looking like davening to himself only applies when he puts himself in front of a mirror, which makes him look interested in looking at himself as he davens. However, when the ability to see is incidental, no one will think that one is davening to himself. Admittedly, some poskim are machmir even in the case of davening before a window at night (see Ishei Yisrael 9:(66)).
It would seem that one difference of this not being a full-out Talmudic prohibition could be in a rare case where the only way to daven is opposite a mirror. If it were a full-fledged prohibition based on the first reason, it might be better not to daven at all. Although I did not find sources on the matter, it would seem that indeed it would be better to daven (although he should certainly not look) than not to daven at all, if this is his only option.
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