Question: Why do we pray while facing eastward?
Answer: After building the Bet Hamikdash, the verse in the book of Melachim states that Shlomo Ha’Melech stood up and prayed to Hashem, “And Shlomo stood before the Altar of Hashem facing the entire congregation of Israel and he spread his palms to the Heavens and said, ‘Hashem, G-d of Israel, etc. and they shall pray to you through their land which you have given to their fathers, the city which you have chosen and the house which you have built for your name.’” Our Sages (Berachot 30a) derived from this verse that when one stands to recite the Amida prayer, one must pray in the direction of Jerusalem and the Bet Hamikdash.
Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch (Chapter 94) rules: “When one stands to pray, if one is outside of the Land of Israel, one should face the direction of the Land of Israel. If one is currently in the Land of Israel, one should face the direction of Jerusalem. If one is in Jerusalem, one should face the direction of the Bet Hamikdash.”
The Tur, who lived in Europe, writes: “We face eastward because we live west of the Land of Israel and by turning our faces to the east, we are thereby praying towards Jerusalem.” This is why Ashkenazim and the other Jews of Europe customarily faced eastward while praying.
The Rama quotes this opinion and writes that in all Ashkenazi countries, it is customary to face eastward while praying since Europe is situated to the west of the Land of Israel. It is for the same reason that in the United States, which is situated west of the Land of Israel, it is customary to pray (more or less) while facing east. However, those residing east of Israel, such as in China or India, must pray while facing westward. The same applies to every country and one must always pray in the general direction of Israel. Within Israel, one must always pray in the general direction of Jerusalem. Thus, if one is located in a city north of Jerusalem, such as Shechem (Nabulus), one must pray while facing southward; if one is located in a city south of Jerusalem, such as Hebron, one must pray while facing northward.
Similarly, even if one is in Jerusalem itself, one must pray in the general direction of the place where the Bet Hamikdash stood (however, there is no set direction to which one must face while praying). Some people always look to pray eastward based on the direction where the sun rises and this mistake is based on the saying Ashkenazim have coined of praying facing “Mizrach”. However, in truth, one must always face the Land of Israel, Jerusalem, and the Bet Hamikdash.
When the Bet Hamikdash will be built, speedily and in our days, we shall merit going to pray before Hashem in the holiest of all places and may Hashem hear our prayers and bring about the final redemption, Amen!