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Bowing during prayer

Rabbi Jonathan Blass14 Shevat 5763
679
Question
Dear Rabbi: On Yom Kippur we see the Rabbi prostrate himself during the Aleinu and in the TANAKH some of our greatest personalities are described as removing their shoes, kneeling and rising from prayer. I also know that in some Mizrahi communities it is customary to take off their shoes during prayer. My question is, why has this tradition of kneeling and prostration and the removal of shoes during prayer been largely abandoned by the Jewish people? I have heard that it is because Christians and Muslims bow and we aren’t to mimick the non-Jewish practices, but my problem with this explanation is that THEY are mimicking US! So why not return to our Biblical way of praying?
Answer
It is required to remove one’s shoes where there is the presence of the Shechina at the level of the Beit HaMikdash (=the Temple in Jerusalem) as it was for Moshe at the burning bush. Doing it elsewhere was adopted by the Karaites and therefore the halacha forbids it (Shulchan Aruch 53 18 Shut Chatam Sofer Hashmatot 191). On a stone or stone tiled floor the Torah forbids us to prostrate ourselves with outstretched arms and legs. If only one of the two elements just mentioned is present- stone floor or outstretched arms and legs- the injunction is rabbinical. Where neither of the two elements are present, there is no prohibition (Miushna Berura 131, 40), but you must observe the custom of the community so as not to be arrogant or cause division.
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