Much of what we know about prayer comes from Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel. One rule of conduct is gleaned from Hannah’s curious statement to Eli, “I am the woman who stood with you here, praying to God” (I Samuel 1:26). In fact, it was only Hannah who stood in prayer. Why did she say “who stood with you,” indicating that the high priest was also standing?
The Sages inferred from Hannah’s words the proper etiquette when someone is praying nearby: “It is forbidden to sit within four cubits (about six feet) of one who is praying” (Berachot 31b).
Why should one person’s prayer require those nearby to stand? And why do we not show similar demonstrations of respect for someone learning Torah?
Unlike Torah study, when we serve God with the mind, prayer is a service of the heart. With prayer we deepen our feelings of holiness and our sense of closeness to God. One consequence of this distinction between Torah and prayer is in their relative impact on the immediate surroundings. Since we do not know what other people are thinking, their thoughts do not affect us. However, we are deeply affected by the emotions of others. Even without words, we can sense their mood and feelings. It is natural that a sensitive individual will be moved by the lofty emotions of another’s prayer, as he is overcome by an exalted sense of Divine immediacy.
Since these feelings should impact all who are close by, it is improper to sit within four cubits of one who is praying. By sitting next to a person in prayer, we are declaring that we are impervious to this emotional service of God. Such an attitude goes against the nature of a heart that is sensitive to holy sentiments.
Why should we demonstrate our receptivity to another’s prayer by standing?
The power of prayer lies in its ability to strengthen our higher and nobler emotions. Due to the close connection between emotions and actions, prayer is able to have a greater impact on deeds than intellectual efforts. Therefore it is proper to stand when near a person praying, thus indicating that we are in a state of attention and ready to act.
(Adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol, I pp. 27-28; Ein Eyah vol. I p. 137)