Which Right is Rite
Rabbi Moshe Donnebaum

Every movement in our lives, no matter how trivial and unimportant it may seem, is governed by halacha. This world is termed Olam Ha'ma'aseh - the World of Action - because literally every action is governed by rules and regulations. The purpose of these regulations is evident from the well-known mishna, where Rabbi Chanania ben Akashia says, "The Holy One Blessed is He, wished to confer merit upon Israel, therefore He gave them Torah and mitzvos in abundance as it is said, "Hashem desired for the sake of [Israel's] righteousness, that the Torah be made great and glorious." 1

Chazal say, "Kol pinos sheato poneh, lo yehe ela derech yamin", literally, all turns that you make, should only be to the right. 2 Indeed, this dictum (which we shall call the rule of "turning to the right") is one of the general principles that underlie the performance of mitzvos. This principle applies to various areas of halacha, both mitzva and custom. 3 The Poskim discuss and debate the parameters of this rule - the situations in which it applies, and how, precisely, it is performed 4 - and we will endeavour to give the reader a brief overview.

Origins of the rule

The Mizbeach (altar) had a ramp on its south side, and in order to perform the avoda, (service) in the Beis Hamikdash, the kohen would ascend up this ramp. The procedure is described in the Mishna: "All those who ascend to the Mizbeach ascend toward the right and go around and descend on the left."5 That is, after ascending the ramp, 6 the kohen turned towards the southeast corner of the mizbeach, located to his right, encircle the Altar in a counter-clockwise fashion, making a series of four right hand turns. Since the kohen always faced the Altar as he was circling it, even though he was moving in a counter-clockwise direction, he always moved to his right. Hence the rule: Whenever you turn, turn to the right. A baraisa 7 derives the rule from verses 8 describing the Yam shel Shlomo, the basin serving as a mikva for the kohanim, built by Shlomo Hamelech. 9

As simple and straightforward this rule may seem, in regard to encircling the Mizbeach, its application in relation to other mitzvos is a source of major controversy among the Poskim. The precise impact of "turning to the right" differs depending on the practical application in question. There are four different scenarios of turning while performing a variety of mitzvos (or minhagim, customs) where the rule of "turning to the right" is applicable. After listing these four variations, we will consider the different views among the Poskim concerning the definition of the "turning to the right" rule, and its application in each situation.10

Four Variations of Turning

Type A: Encircling another object, for example, encircling the Bima during the Hashanos, Hakafos, and removing the Sefer Torah from the Aron and carrying it to the Bima.

Type B: Moving one's hand (in front of one's body) in the performance of a mitzva while remaining stationary, for example, lighting the Chanuka menora11.

Type C: Revolving one's self around in a full circle while remaining in one place, for example, the kohanim during Bircas Kohanim. Does one revolve in a clockwise direction or a counter-clockwise direction.

Type D: Revolving an item around oneself while remaining stationary, for example, the waving of the lulav in four directions, according to those who follow the custom of the Maharil.12

The Different Opinions

The majority of the Rishonim13 explain the rule of "turning to the right" at its simplest level: any turning done in connection to a mitzva, should be done to the right. Therefore, when lighting Chanuka lights (Type B) one begins with the candle to the far left and continues toward the right. Encircling another object (Type A) would be in a counter-clockwise direction, identical to the kohen encircling the mizbeach. When revolving oneself (Type C) or an item in a full circle, (Type D), turning towards the right would require circling in a clockwise motion. This is also the view of the Shulchan Aruch.14

However the Levush15 is of a contrary opinion. "Turning to the right" requires one to turn towards the right immediately, enabling the commencement of the mitzva to be on the right. Hence, with regard to Chanuka lights (Type B) one would begin lighting the candle on the far right, and continue towards the left. The Taz also agrees with the Levush in this instance.16 However, with regard to revolving oneself (Type C) or an item in a full circle (Type D), the Levush and the Taz differ. The former maintains that one should revolve in a counter-clockwise fashion,17 whereas the latter agrees with the opinion of the Shulchan Aruch: one should revolve in a clockwise manner.18

The Chasam Sofer has a different approach to this issue.19 Citing a Gemara in Yoma 20 which discusses the order of the matonos (sprinklings) on the mizbeach hazahav, he derives the concept of finishing on one's right.21 As mentioned above, when encircling the mizbeach, the kohen would face the mizbeach for the entire circuit. Thus, when returning from the last corner (the southwestern one) to the ramp, the kohen would be turning and finishing on his right. Similarly, argues the Chasam Sofer, when revolving oneself in one place (Type C) the final turn back to the original position would be to the right. The same, he says, applies to performing a mitzva in front of oneself from side to side, such as lighting Chanuka lights (Type B). By beginning at one's left and continuing to the right, one thereby concludes the mitzva on his right. However when revolving an item around oneself while standing stationary (Type D), one should turn counter-clockwise, in order to finish the mitzva on his right. Although turning in a clockwise motion would mean commencing to the right side, since this would mean than one concludes to one's left, the counter-clockwise turn is preferred.


With regard to the direction of lighting the Chanuka lights, other issues may affect the general rule of "turning to the right". 23

A unique aspect of Mitzvas Ner Chanuka, 24 is the prescription of multiple levels of performing the mitzva. The Baraisa 25 enumerates these levels, and Shulchan Aruch 26 rules accordingly. Mehadrin, those who pursue mitzvos, have one light each night for each member of their household; mehadrin min hamehadrin, those who most fervently pursue mitzvos, begin by lighting one light on the first night, and continue by increasing the number of lights from one to eight, corresponding to the number of days of Chanuka which have already passed.27 During the actual nes of the Chanuka oil, as each day passed and the menora miraculously continued to be lit, the miracle became greater. The addition of an extra light with each passing day, symbolizes this aspect of Chanuka. (The common custom among Ashkenazic Jewry is to follow the mehadrin min hamehadrin approach, where every member of the household kindles an extra light on each succeeding night.)28

Since it is the extra light added each evening that symbolizes the greatness of the miracle, it is this new light that should be lit first on each subsequent night, immediately after pronouncing the brachos. Some Poskim29 view this consideration as a factor overriding other considerations in the order of lighting, taking precedence over, for example, the rule of lighting within a tefach of the doorway.

Encircling of the Bima

Encircling the Bima in our Mikdash Me'at, in shul during the Hakafos of Hoshanos and Simchas Torah, or, more commonly, taking the Sefer Torah to the Bima and returning it to the Aron Hakodesh, are comparable to the kohen encircling the mizbeach during the zerikas dam of the korbanos, (that is, Type A) and therefore would require a counter-clockwise circuit. Although from the perspective of the congregants situated in front of the Bima, turning to their right would mean circling the Bima in a clockwise manner, nevertheless the poskim30 explain that since the "encircling of the Bima" only begins after an about face, when the congregants are facing the Bima, the rule of "turning to the right" only takes effect from that time. Similarly, when removing the Sefer Torah from the Aron Hakodesh, the rule of "turning to the right" only takes effect once facing the Bima, not while facing the Aron Hakodesh. This also necessitates a counter-clockwise circuit around the Bima.

There seems to be a dispute among the Poskim, however, with regard to the initial about face (when removing the Sefer Torah from the Aron Hakodesh, or when the congregants in the front of the shul turn around to commence the Hoshanos Hakafos). 31 Does one turns to the left where he will ultimately begin his Hakafa or to does he turn to the right, as all turns are to the right?32

Another application of encircling the Bima is when one is called up to the Torah. The Terumas Hadeshen33 says that one should take the shortest route when being called up to the Torah, and the longer one when returning to his place thereafter, thus making a full circle. The Beis Yosef 34 understands this ruling of the Terumas Hadeshen to apply when the shortest route involves a turn to the left. The rule of turning to the right only applies in a case where both routes are equivalent in distance. The Chasam Sofer, 35 however, sees the Terumas Hadeshen as referring to a case where both routes are to his right, in which case he takes the shorter way. But when only one route goes to the right, it takes precedence over another, shorter, route. 36

Opening the Paroches

An interesting application of the rule turning to the right is with regard to the opening the Paroches (curtain) of the Aron Hakodesh. Simply, this is a mitzva one performs from side to side; while remaining stationary like the lighting of the Chanuka candles (Type B). Accordingly, those who follow the view of the Shulchan Aruch (and Chasam Sofer) that one lights the Chanuka lights from left to right, should do likewise with the Paroches. However, in practice, this is not the case. Many, if not most, Ashkenazic communities open the Paroches from right to left, although the custom with regard to Chanuka is to follow the Shulchan Aruch and light from left to right. 37


Hagbaha38 involves turning around while holding the open Sefer Torah, enabling all congregants to see the script of the Sefer Torah. 39

With the exception of the Levush, according to the views cited earlier, one would expect to turn a continuous full circle, in a clockwise direction. However, the Shulchan Aruch 40 rules that the proper order is to turn to the left and then to the right, to the front and then to the rear, seemingly disregarding the general rule of turning to the right. The Shulchan Aruch's ruling is based on that of Maseches Sofrim. 41 Nevertheless, many have the custom to perform hagbaha in a full, continuous circle. 42

Kabbalas Shabbos

A universal custom practiced in nearly all communities is the minhag of turning around during Kabbalas Shabbos 43, to face the back of the Shul 44 to represent one turning to greet the Shabbos bride as she enters, thus ushering in the arrival of Shabbos. There are a variety of customs regarding the precise turning motion that one employs45. However, the correct procedure for turning depends on the views mentioned earlier.

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1 Makkos 23b.
2 Zevachim 62b. Cited by Mishna Berura in Shulchan Aruch, Hilchos Chanuka 676:5.
3 The Yiddish saying "A yid geit rechts," (a Jew goes to the right), may be based on rule of "turning to the right". For example, when in doubt over which road to take, a Jew takes the one on the right. Since every journey a Jew makes is, presumably, in some way connected to a mitzva, the rule of "turning to the right" is assumed to apply.
4 For example, does one begin from the left, in what instances does one turn forward or to the right, does one turn to commence from the right, and does the rule countenance continuing to the left, once having begun at the right? These issues will be discussed below.
5 Zevachim 63a
6 See Mishna, Yoma 43b, where it states that the kohanim would ascend up the right side of the ramp, thereby avoiding having to cross the sixteen amma width of the ramp.
7 Cited in Yoma 58b, Zevachim 62b.
8 Divrei Hayamim II 4:4
9 The verse lists the four directions in a counter-clockwise order - north, west, south then east. When a person walks around something with his face facing that thing - in other words, when he walks sideways - in a counter-clockwise direction, he constantly moves to his right.
10 In addition, see chart at end of this article.
11 We have used Chanuka as a simple example. However, as discussed below, there are other considerations with regard to Chanuka lighting.
12 See Mishna Berura 651:37 from Ma'amar Mordechai, that this is also the view of the Shulchan Aruch.
13 Maharam Merotenburg quoted in Mordechai Shabbos Ch. 2, Terumas Hadeshen, Maharik Shoresh 184, Maharil Hilchos Chanuka, See Beis Yosef O. C. 128, and Chasam Sofer 6: 187.
14 Orach Chaim 676:5 (Type B) Orach Chaim 651:10 (Type D) see Mishna Berura 37. Type C is identical to the Mizbeach and Type A.
15 Levush 676:5. The Levush bases his view on three "reliable witnesses", namely three proofs. One, the direction of the Hebrew language, which one begins on the right and continues to the left. If a mitzvah should begin on the left, it would seem more appropriate that our holy language in which a Sefer Torah is written should require likewise. Two, the Kohen's encircling of the Mizbeach which is the main source of the rule of turning to the right was performed in a counter-clockwise direction. The Kohen began the zerikas hadam at the southeastern corner of the altar, which was to his right, and concluded at the southwestern corner, which was on his left. If it were possible to perform all the sprinkling of the blood on the Mizbeach's corners from his position at the top of the ramp, circling in the above (counter-clockwise) order, the mitzva would have commenced at his right and continued to his left. It is only because of the impracticality of doing the zerikos from atop the ramp that the kohen was forced to physically encircle the Mizbeach. Nevertheless, we can derive from the fact that the kohen sprinkled the blood starting in the southeast corner and then moved to the northeast (and so on), that the rule of "turning to the right" means beginning from the right.
Three, continues the Levush, a person's natural instinct also allows us to derive the correct interpretation of turning to the right. A person about to circle an object, or people about to dance in a circle, if not consciously choosing a particular direction, will naturally turn towards the right. That is. They will circle in a counter-clockwise direction, thus continuing towards, and ending at, the left.
16 Taz O.C. 651:13, 676:1. The Taz also adds the following additional reasoning for commencing at the right. He asks rhetorically: Why should the conclusion of a mitzvah be more important in having the requirement of the "right" than the beginning of that mitzva? In addition, by commencing at the left, in order to finish at the right, one would be bypassing a mitzva (ma'avir al hamitzvos).
17 Levush ibid and 651:11 applies the "natural instinct" reasoning here too. When revolving oneself around on one place, one naturally turns in a counter-clockwise manner. Thus, when performing a mitzvah, one should do likewise. From the words of the Taz 651:13, it seems that the Levush derived the counter-clockwise direction when revolving in one place, from the counter-clockwise direction in which one encircles another object.
18 See Taz 651:13, who opposes the Levush's "natural instinct" reasoning. If a person naturally turns to the right, why did Chazal see it necessary to instruct one to turn to the right, and not simply leave it up to one's instincts? Rather, says Taz, one should simply "turn to the right" and revolve in a clockwise motion.
19 O.C. 187.
20 59a - 59b.
21 See the above Responsa for the Chasam Sofer's answer to the Levush's proof regarding the direction of the Hebrew language, with his interpretation of "turning to the right".
22 Since there are many minhagim regarding the order of lighting (and positioning) one should follow his own minhag; especially since the order is only a preference, and one fulfils the mitzva whichever is lit first. See Biur Halacha 676 end of S.V. Kedei.
23 The Talmud (Shabbos 23b) says that one who is conscientious with the kindling of the Chanuka candles will be rewarded with sons who are Torah scholars. One may assume that this would also apply to the correct direction and order of lighting the Chanuka lights, including the general rule of "turning to the right."
24 The Beis Halevi al HaTorah, Chanuka, p.29 explains the reason why the Rabbis singled out this mitzva with various levels of enhancement not found in other mitzvos. This is because the miracle commemorated by this mitzvah was itself occasioned by an act of enhanced mitzva performance. Although the Jews found only a single undefiled flask of oil they could have sustained the Menora service for eight days by opting for a standard level of kindling. That is, since there is no minimum requirement regarding the thickness of the wicks used, they could have fashioned very thin wicks, 1/8 of their normal size, which would require very little oil. They chose, however, to enhance the kindling by using wicks of normal thickness. In commemoration of this, the Rabbis instituted the mitzvah of Chanuka with a multiplicity of enhancements.
25 Shabbos 21b
26 O.C. 671:2
27 There is a dispute among the Rishonim concerning how to interpret this second level of enhancement. Rambam (Hilchos Chanuka 4:1) sees it as supplementing the first level, thus the Mehadrin min Hamehadrin kindles another light for every member of the household on each succeeding night. Tosafos (Shabbos 21b s.v. Vehamehadrin) however, understand that the two levels of enhancement are unrelated. Rather, they are alternate choices for how to enhance the basic mitzvah. According to Tosafos, therefore, the Mehadrin min hamehadrin would light only two lights for the entire household on the second night.
28 Rema, O.C. ibid. Taz 671:1 notes that uniquely, we find that in this matter, Sephardic Jews follow the ruling of Tosafos, an Ashkenazic authority, while Ashkenazim adopt the view of the Rambam, a Sephardic authority.
Although this custom is based on the view of the Rambam as mentioned in the previous footnote, there is a slight variation between our custom and the view of the Rambam. In Rambam's view, the head of the household is obligated to kindle all the lights. The Rema holds that each member of the household kindles his own lights. Our custom follows the opinion of the Rema. See Chidushei HaGriz Hilchos Chanuka 4:1 for an elucidation of these two opinions. See also "Mehadrin min hamehadrin, the preferred way to light Chanuka candles", Rabbi Yaakov Faham, Moadim U'Zmanim, Chanuka 5761.
29 O.C. 676:5. See Biur Halacha, there s.v. U'v'leil. The Taz 671:6 agrees with the basic principle that one should arrange the candles so that one begins by lighting the "additional" light, in accordance with his understanding of "turning to the right". The Maharshal (quoted in Taz, ibid) disputes this. He rules that lighting within a tefach takes precedence over the rule of "turning to the right". The Vilna Gaon (quoted in Sha'ar HaTzion 676:14) states, however, that whether or not one lights the additional candle first is not a relevant consideration. 30 Terumas Hadeshen no. 98, quoted in Perisha O.C. 128:23.
31 According to the Levush one would definitely turn to the left; our discussion refers to the other Poskim.
32 The former is the view of the Levushei S'rad O.C. 660, while from the words of the Perisha ibid., it seems that his view is the latter.
33. 2:119 quoted in Beis Yosef O.C., end of siman141.
34 Ibid.
35 Chasam Sofer, Ibid.
36 However, in honour of the view of the Beis Yosef, the Chasam Sofer advises one position himself so that the closest route is to his right.
37 According to the view of the Chasam Sofer, we may suggest a possible solution to this apparent contradiction. Although, when taking the Sefer Torah out of the Aron, one opens the Paroches from right to left, this enables the closing of the Paroches to be from left to right when returning the Sefer Torah. As mentioned earlier, the Chasam Sofer's view is that completing one's action to the right is the most important part of the rule of "turning to the right." By looking at the opening and closing of the curtain as one mitzva, one must open in a left to right direction as to enable the closing (that is, the conclusion of this mitzva) to the right. The Chasam Sofer (responsa ibid) uses a similar suggestion with regard to the direction of writing Sifrei Torah.
38 The Sefardic custom is to hold the Torah open before the Torah reading. Ashkenazic tradition is to perform hagbaha after the Torah is read.
39 See Ramban Devarim 27:26.
40 O.C. 134:2.
41 14:8.
42 See Tosafos Yom Tov, Succa 3:9.
43 Some Sefardic communities turn around for the recitation of the entire Kabbalas Shabbos, whereas most Ashkenazic communities only turn around during the last stanza of Lecha Dodi, Bo'i B'shalom.
44 See Igros Moshe O.C. 3:45 regarding a shul whose entrance is at the side rather than the back, and whether this affects the way in which one faces during the Bo'i B'shalom recitation.
45 Some Chassidim turn the first semi-circle in a clockwise direction, but after reciting Bo'i B'shalom they turn the second semi-circle in a counter-clockwise direction, retracing the first turn.

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