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The Significance of Tachanun

Although the importance of the tefillah of Tachanun is underappreciated by many, it should not be; it is actually based on Moshe Rabbeinu’s successful entreating of Hashem on Har Sinai to spare Klal Yisrael from punishment after their grievous sins: “Va’esnapel lifnai Hashem (Devarim 9:18, 25) - And I threw myself down in prayer before G-d,” (Tur, Orach Chayim 131).
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Why is Tachanun such an important part of davening?

According to the Zohar, the level of kapparah (atonement) achieved through the sincere recital of Tachanun cannot be accomplished at any other time in this world. Other sources teach that a tearfully recited Tachanun can accomplish more than any other prayer (see Bava Metzia 59b).

Although the importance of the tefillah of Tachanun is underappreciated by many, it should not be; it is actually based on Moshe Rabbeinu’s successful entreating of Hashem on Har Sinai to spare Klal Yisrael from punishment after their grievous sins: "Va’esnapel lifnai Hashem (Devarim 9:18, 25) - And I threw myself down in prayer before G-d," (Tur, Orach Chayim 131).

When do we recite Tachanun?
After completing Shemoneh Esrei, which is recited standing, the mitzvah of Tefillah is continued by reciting the Tachanun in a manner reminiscent of prostration (see Rambam, Hilchos Tefillah 5:1,13). Thus Tachanun should be viewed and treated as a continuation of the Shemoneh Esrei (Levush).

The Rambam writes that the most important aspect of Tachanun is to make personal requests. He pointedly states that there is no limit to the number of personal requests one may say. Many follow this highly recommended practice.

Total submission
In earlier days, Tachanun was said with one’s face pressed to the ground and one’s body stretched out in total submission to Hashem (Megillah 22b; Rambam; Tur; see Bach). In the time of the Gemara, people bowed without prostrating themselves totally, or by prostrating themselves while tilting a bit on their side (Megillah 22b). This was done to avoid violating the prohibition against prostrating oneself on a stone surface, which is derived from the pasuk "You may not place a stone for bowing (even maskis) upon it in your land," (Vayikra 26:1). This prohibition is violated only by prostrating oneself on a stone with one’s hands and legs completely stretched out.

The accepted custom today is that we do not prostrate ourselves except on Yom Kippur (and some people on Rosh Hashanah) and, when doing so, we place cloth or paper beneath ourselves to avoid any shaylah (see Shu't Rivash #412 and commentaries on Tur 131). We do not bow fully when reciting Tachanun. The Ashkenazic custom is to place our head on our arm as a reminiscence of bowing. This is called "falling Tachanun." The custom among Sefardim is to sit while reciting Tachanun but not to place the head down. I will soon explain the halachic reasons for both practices.

Interrupting between Shemoneh Esrei and Tachanun
Conversing between Shemoneh Esrei and Tachanun dilutes the effectiveness of the Tachanun (Bava Metzia 59b as explained by Shibbolei HaLeket #30 and Beis Yosef; Levush). Therefore, the Shulchan Aruch rules that one should not converse between Tefillah and Tachanun. Some contend that only a lengthy conversation disturbs the efficacy of the Tachanun, but not a short interruption (Magen Avraham), whereas others rule that any interruption ruins the value of the Tachanun (Aruch HaShulchan; Kaf HaChayim, quoting Zohar and Ari).

The Magen Avraham also rules that one can recite Tachanun in a different place than where one davened Shemoneh Esrei and it is not considered an interruption.

Interrupting during Tachanun
One should not interrupt during the recital of Tachanun except to answer Barchu and the significant responses of Kedusha and Kaddish (Shaarei Teshuvah 131:1).

May Tachanun be said standing?
The early authorities dispute whether Tachanun may be said standing, some contending that it is preferable to recite Tachanun by bowing in a standing position. Others contend that it is better to sit for Tachanun because this completely avoids the problem of even maskis, since it is impossible to prostrate completely from a sitting position (Shu't Rivash #412). The accepted custom is to recite Tachanun while sitting (Beis Yosef 131, quoting the mekubalim). The Shulchan Aruch (131:2) rules that one should only recite Tachanun while sitting. Under extenuating circumstances, one may recite it while standing (Mishnah Berurah).

What about the chazzan?
Tachanun is the only part of davening where the chazzan does not stand. Since the entire purpose of the Tachanun is to recite a prayer while one is bowing, the chazzan also "falls Tachanun."

What prayer is recited for Tachanun?
Whereas Ashkenazim recite Chapter 6 of Tehillim while "falling Tachanun," Sefardim recite Chapter 25 of Tehillim as Tachanun and recite it in a regular sitting position.

Why do Ashkenazim (including "nusach Sefard") "fall Tachanun" whereas Sefardim (Edot HaMizrach) do not? And why do Ashkenazim and Sefardim recite different chapters of Tehillim for Tachanun?
In actuality, these differing practices are based on the same source. According to the Zohar, the sincere, dedicated recital of Chapter 25 accomplishes a tremendous level of atonement and repairs other spiritual shortcomings. However, reciting it insincerely and without proper intent can cause tremendous damage (Zohar, end of Parshas Bamidbar, quoted by Beis Yosef). To avoid such harm should someone not recite Tachanun properly, both Ashkenazim and Sefardim alter the Tachanun described by the Zohar. Ashkenazim recite Chapter 6 of Tehillim rather than Chapter 25, while Sefardim recite Chapter 25 as stated in Zohar, but do not place their heads down in a bowing position (Magen Avraham 131:5). The Sefardic practice is to never do nefillas apayim when reciting Tachanun, due to many not having the proper kavanos (Ben Ish Chai, 1: Ki Sissa; Yalkut Yosef, Orach Chayim 131: 16).

On which side do we lean?
The early authorities dispute whether it is preferable to lean on the left side or the right during Tachanun. Some contend that it is better to lean on the left side because wealthy people used to lean on that side in earlier times. (Compare the mitzvah of mesubin, reclining, at the Pesach Seder.) By leaning on the left side, we demonstrate the subjugation of our "wealthier" side to Hashem (Shibbolei HaLeket #30, quoting Rav Hai Gaon).

A second reason cited is that the Shechinah is opposite one’s right side. Therefore when leaning on the left side, one faces the Shechinah which is opposite his right side (Shibbolei HaLeket, quoting his brother, R’ Binyamin).

Others contend that one should always lean on the right side because this is the side where the Shechinah resides and that we should fall Tachanun on the side of the Shechinah rather than the side facing it (Rakanati, quoted by Magen Avraham; Rama quoting yesh omrim).

The most common Ashkenazic practice is to lean on the left side when not wearing tefillin, and on the right side when wearing tefillin so as not to lean on the tefillin (Darchei Moshe and Rama comments on Shulchan Aruch). A left-handed person should always recite Tachanun while leaning on his left side (see Pri Megadim 131:Mishbetzos Zahav #2).

Why do we stand up in the middle of the pasuk "Va'anachnu lo neida"?
The first three words of this pasuk are recited sitting and that we then stand up to complete the prayer. In addition, we say the first five words of this prayer aloud. Why do we follow these unusual practices?

This practice is observed in order to emphasize that we have attempted to pray in every way. We davened Shemoneh Esrei while standing, Tachanun while bowing, and other prayers while sitting down. Finally we exclaim, Va’anachnu lo neida, "We do not know!" We have tried every method of Tefillah that we can consider and we are unaware of any other (Shlah, quoted by Magen Avraham 131:4).

Tachanun recited with the community
Tachanun should preferably be said together with a minyan (Rambam; Tur). Therefore, someone in an Ashkenazi shul who finished Vehu Rachum before the tzibur should wait in order to begin Tachanun together with them (Be’er Heiteiv 134:1). Similarly, if davening with a mincha minyan that did not recite the full repetition of Shemoneh Esrei (heicha kedusha), one should wait to say Tachanun together with a minyan. (Please note that I am not advocating that a minyan daven this way. I am personally opposed to this practice except for very extenuating circumstances.)

Is it more important to say Tachanun sitting or to recite it together with the minyan?
This question manifests itself in two cases. (1) Someone is davening Shemoneh Esrei behind a person, making it halachically impossible for the second person to sit down for Tachanun. (It is forbidden to sit down in front of someone who is davening Shemoneh Esrei.) (2) Someone who completed the Shemoneh Esrei is required to wait for a few seconds (the time it takes to walk four amos) in his place. Therefore, someone who just finished the quiet Shemoneh Esrei when the tzibur is beginning to say Tachanun needs to wait a few seconds before he can "fall Tachanun." What is the optimal means of reconciling this with the obligation to recite Tachanun with the tzibur?

The poskim dispute concerning what is the best way to deal with this predicament. Some contend that one should begin Tachanun immediately while still standing (Mishnah Berurah 131:10), while others contend that it is better to wait and recite Tachanun while sitting (Magen Avraham 131:5).

Incidentally, the chazzan may immediately sit down and begin Tachanun without waiting for the regulation few seconds and walking back three steps. Instead, he should just leave the amud and sit down immediately for Tachanun (Mishnah Berurah 104:9).

This Shiur is published also at Rabbi Kaganof's site
Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff
Was the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Greater Buffalo, the Congregation Darchei Tzedek and also served as a dayan on the Beis Din of Baltimore. Now is a Rabbi in Neve Yaakov, Jerusalem. His Shiurim and Q&A can be found on his site: www.rabbikaganoff.com
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