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Three steps back before Shemoneh Esrei


Rabbi David Sperling

Nisan 6, 5775
Dear Rabbi, I was wondering if you could explain the correct procedure for taking three steps back and three steps forward before starting Shemoneh Esrei? Does one take the first step back with the left foot and then take the first step forward with starting with the right foot?
Shalom, Thank you for your question. Before starting the Shemoneh Esrei one is required to take three steps forward – this is based on the three times the word "vi'yigash" ("approached") is found in relation to the supplications of Avraham, Yehudah, and Eliyahu. (Others ascribe these steps to the three levels of cloud that Moses entered). There is no need to take steps backwards before these three steps forward at all, although there is a widespread custom to do so (See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Haim, 95,1 in the Rema, and the Mishna Brurah 3 ibid). [It is quoted that the famous Rav Kanievsky zt"l, the Steipler, was not accustomed to taking three steps back before starting three steps forward]. Although it may be that the practice to step backwards is a purely practical one, that is if there is a table or pew in front of you, you must by force take some steps backwards so you have room to take the three required steps forward – some sources ascribe mystical meaning to these three backward steps (Ben Ish Chai, Parshat Beshalach 3). The procedure for taking the three steps forward is as follows – one first takes a small step with their right foot, until the heel is in line with the top of the left foot. Then one takes a large step with the left foot until the heel of the left foot is in line with the top of the right foot. Lastly, one takes a third small step with the right foot until both feet are in line together as one. One then begins the saying the Shemoneh Esrei. The procedure for the three steps backwards is less clear because, as we wrote above, it is not required and is only a common practice. However, I found recorded that it too should begin with a small step (backwards) of the right foot, a long left foot step, and then a short last right foot step until they are in line together (exactly as we wrote above for the three steps forward). [Source: Ishay Yisrael, 17, footnote 58a – Hebrew]. This is very interesting, because at the conclusion of the Shemoneh Esrei when we take three steps backwards, the order is reversed. There we start with a small step of the left foot first, then a large right foot step, and lastly a small left foot step bringing both feet together. This can be found in the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Haim 123,3. The Mishna Brurah there (13) explains that a person naturally starts off walking with their right foot, and so, at the end of the prayer we show our reluctance to depart from standing in front of G-d by stepping away first with our left foot. Based on this it would make sense that someone taking three steps back in order to begin their approach to prayer, (at the beginning of saying the Shemoneh Esrei) should use their right foot first, to show their eagerness to approach G-d in prayer. Blessings.
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