By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
It seems that sitting in the left lane, engine idling, waiting for oncoming traffic to clear so you can make a left-hand turn is wasteful not only of time and peace of mind, but also of gas and therefore money. This realization motivated UPS to limit the number of left-hand turns its drivers make.
In 2006, according to Heather Robinson, a UPS spokeswoman, route-planning software that reduced left turns helped the company shave 28.5 million miles off its delivery routes, which has resulted in savings of roughly 3 million gallons of gas. In 2012, by using routing technology and avoiding idling at lights for left-hand turns, UPS was able to avoid 98 million minutes of idle time.
Lehavdil, we find a similar preference for right turns in halachah. However, right off the bat we should note that it is for a totally different reason. The right was preferred even it did not save any time. The Talmud states (Yoma 17b), “All turns that you turn should be a right towards the east.” The Mizbeiach in the Beis HaMikdash was square, with a ramp beside it. When the kohein walked up the ramp, he was facing north. To his left was the western side, which had the Heichal and Kodesh HaKedashim; to his right was the eastern side with most of the courtyard. If a kohein wanted to perform avodah in the southwest corner of the Altar, he would walk up the ramp, turn right, walk to the southeast corner, and continue all the way around the Altar until he reached the southwest corner.
The Gemara states the reason is that one should always turn right onto the Mizbeiach. (This is derived from verses in Tanach.) If the kohein were to make a left onto the Altar at the top of the ramp, the route would be much shorter. However, the halachah is that when it comes right down to it, we prefer a circuitous route of right turns around the Altar rather than making a left. The subsequent turns are right turns, since the kohein is facing the Altar. So if the kohein wants to go left, he makes five rights. Simply turning left would be dead to rights. (There are three significant exceptions to this rule, and the Gemara explains that in those situations a right was not possible.)
The Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 141:7) rules that during k’rias haTorah when the gabbai tells you to step right up for an aliyah, you should take the shortest route to the bimah and not specifically the route that would take you to the right side of the bimah. The Mishnah Berurah, quoting the Acharonim, offers two explanations. The first is that it’s downright tircha d’tzibbura to keep the congregation waiting for you to take a longer route. The congregation has a right to their pursuit of snappiness.
The second is that when you are called to read the Torah, you should get right on it. That demonstrates how dear the Torah, your birthright, is to you. So if the shortest route takes you to the left of the bimah, that’s the righteous path to choose.
If the path to the left and right of the bimah are equidistant, the Shulchan Aruch rules that you should enter the bimah on the right side. The bimah is representative of the Altar. Just as on the Altar we instructed the kohein to enter on the right, so too we instruct the person getting an aliyah to enter the bimah on the right.
The Vilna Gaon concurs that the Shulchan Aruch is certainly right on when he gives preference to entering the bimah on the right. However, the Vilna Gaon forthrightly states that the upright person who gets an aliyah should hang a right on his path to the bimah even if it is a longer route. As explained above, the bimah is representative of the Altar. The kohein was on the right track when he took the longer route to the right of the Altar instead the shorter left route. So, too, the Vilna Gaon reasons that the person heading to the bimah should take steps in the right direction and enter the bimah on the right, even if it takes longer.
This article will certainly not decide who is right in this machlokes, but it is worth noting that the Mishnah Berurah does not even mention the Vilna Gaon’s opinion. It would seem that you are within your rights if you head to the left of the bimah if that is the shorter route.
The Mishnah Berurah notes that the halachah may very well be different for the chazan who is carrying the sefer Torah from the Aron Kodesh to the bimah. He perhaps should enter the bimah on the right side even if it is the longer route. It is improper for the tzibbur to wait for one individual who is getting an aliyah while he takes the longer route to the right. There is, however, nothing improper about the tzibbur directing their appointed messenger to take a longer route. Also, the person getting an aliyah takes the shorter route to the left to show that he holds the Torah dear, and his heart is in the right place. His path is taking him towards the Torah. However, the chazzan is holding the Torah right off the bat. So he can take the longer route to the right without showing any disrespect to the Torah.
All right already, we know that when it comes to the Altar or the bimah the right is preferred. But if your GPS is failing, and you don’t rightly know which way to turn, should you turn right? The Talmud simply states (Yoma 17b), “All turns that you turn should be a right towards the east.” One can be forgiven for assuming this to be a rule for life. The Mishneh Halachos points out that the Gemara clearly states in response to a question that this rule “only applies to Temple service.” When you’re driving, choose any direction, as long as you have the right of way.
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Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead and is a rebbi at Mesivta Kesser Yisroel of Willowbrook. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.