by Rav Yaakov Klass, originally published in The Jewish Press
Steps Back At Amida’s Conclusion
Question: I read with much interest your, q&a, columns on Tefillah, I have a related question. In Shul I’ve noticed that at the conclusion of the Shemoneh Esreh some people take three steps backward but then they do not take the three steps forward as required. Is this an actual sanctioned practice?
Answer: The Mishna Berura (Orach Chayyim 123 s.k. 2) notes that we read in the Beit Yosef (Rabbi Yosef Caro’s commentary to the Tur) ad loc. numerous reasons for taking three steps backward at the conclusion of the Amida, but he cites as well an additional reason (Magen Avraham ad loc., quoting Sanhedrin 96a):
When Baladan, King of Babylon, inquired about King Hezekiah’s health following an illness, he sent him a letter with the greeting: “Peace to King Hezekiah, peace to the city of Jerusalem, and peace to the great G-d.” Nebuchadnezzar, who later became king of Babylon, was at that time the scribe of Baladan, but he happened not to be present when this missive was written. When he inquired about the contents of the letter, he was dismayed that G-d was mentioned last, and he instructed that the greeting be changed. The king’s advisors suggested that he personally retrieve the message. He ran after the messenger, but when he had taken but three steps the angel Gabriel halted him.
The Gemara relates that had it not been for Gabriel, Nebuchadnezzar would have wiped out the Jewish nation. Instead, he was allowed to destroy only the Holy Temple.
Therefore, as we conclude the Amida, we add the prayer “Yehi ratzon . . . she’yibaneh Beit Hamikdash . . . – May it be Your will . . . that the Temple be rebuilt . . .”
Shulchan Aruch HaRav (Orach Chayyim 123:1) states another reason: Since our prayers replace the Avodah, the service in the Temple, we pray that we may have our Temple restored in order that we be able to perform this holy service.
Rambam (Hilchot Tefilla 9:2-4) states as follows: “Every person who concludes the Amida with the congregation takes three steps backward and remains at that spot… After the chazzan takes three steps backward [and goes forward three steps] and starts the Repetition aloud to fulfill the obligation of those who have not prayed all stand and attentively answer Amen after each and every blessing – both those who have not fulfilled their obligation and those who have already fulfilled their obligation.”
Rambam continues: “Kedusha is recited in the third blessing. When the chazzan reaches Kedusha, all are permitted to return to the place [meaning taking three steps forward to] where they stood during the Amida . . .”
The Mechaber (Orach Chayyim 123:1-2) states much the same as Rambam but adds, “One bows and takes three steps back while still bowing, before resuming an erect position. When he says ‘Oseh shalom bi’meromav . . . – He who makes peace in the heavens . . . he turns his face to the left. When he says ‘Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu . . . – He shall make peace for us’ he turns his face to the right. Then he bows forward, in the manner of a servant who takes leave of his master.”
The Mechaber continues: “And there he remains and does not return to his place until the chazzan starts the Kedusha, or at least until the chazzan begins the Repetition aloud.”
Both Rambam and the Mechaber are based on the Gemara (Yoma 53b), in particular the ruling of R. Mordechai that one must wait at the conclusion of his three steps backward in that spot, otherwise it would seem like a dog who treads in its excrement.
We are now left with two questions. First, why do we take three steps forward after we have stepped backward and waited there a while? Second, what is the meaning of R. Mordechai’s statement that moving forward at that point is considered like a dog?
To answer the first question we cite Ba’er Heitev (Orach Chayyim ibid.): the reason we take six steps – three backward and three forward – is derived from the verse (Ezekiel 1:7), “Veragleihem regel yeshara ve’chaf ragleihem kechaf regel egel . . . – Their feet were a straight foot and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf’s foot.” [Ezekiel is describing in his prophecy the four Chayyot, the Living Angels that appeared to him.]
In the above verse we find that it first refers to feet [in the plural – two], then foot [in the singular], then again feet and finally foot: [Two] feet plus [one] foot plus [two] feet plus [one] foot total six. Thus, we are required not only to go back three steps, but to go forward three steps as well.
As to the second question, what did R. Mordechai in the Gemara mean by stating that returning [forward] hastily is considered as treading? HaRav Boruch Leizerowsky Zt’l, late Av Beth Din of the Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud Harabonim, and Chief Rabbi of Philadelphia, explains in his responsa Ta’am Baruch (Orach Chayyim 5), citing the Taz (Orach Chayyim ibid.), “that by so doing one gives the impression that he is not satisfied with his prayer and wishes to repeat that which he already prayed. Therefore, it is considered that he is denigrating his [previous] prayer.”
We are left with one last question: What of the people who do not wait? There are many who return immediately to their place. Is there any limud zechut, any justification for their action?
We find in Shulchan Aruch HaRav and the Mishna Berura (ad loc.) that, indeed, to stand in place until Kedusha is the proper form, referring to the Mechaber’s words “that one wait at the very least until the chazzan starts the repetition of the Amida.” It is best to wait until Kedusha, but if the area is crowded and squabbles might result, there is room for leniency.
Shulchan Aruch HaRav and the Mishna Berura also touch upon another situation. When Yotzrot are recited in the repetition of the Amida, when is one to step forward? Does one wait half an hour or more until Kedusha, or is one to step forward immediately? They both cite the Magen Avraham, who states that in such a situation one need not wait and one may step forward immediately.
My uncle, HaRav Sholom Klass, zt”l, used to cite the Gemara (Shabbos 148b), explaining, “Hanach leYisrael, mutav sheyihyu shogegin ve’al yehu mezidin – Be not so scrupulous with Israel. Far better they remain in error [due to ignorance] than that they be classified deliberate sinners.”
When we see a custom that such a large segment of Klal Yisrael follows, even though it appears to be different from the rules set down by some of our sages, we look the other way.
Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org