Beit Midrash

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Chapter Seventeen-Part Two

Body and Hand Positions in Amidah


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

4.Standing and Putting One’s Feet Together
During Pesukei d’Zimrah and Birkot Keriat Shema a person is permitted to either sit or stand, but once he reaches Shemoneh Esrei (the Amidah), he must stand with his feet together. When one stands, he summons his complete being, from head to toe, to prayer. In addition, his standing expresses his awe and fear toward the King of the world. Therefore, one must not lean against anything while reciting the Amidah, for anyone who is supported by something even slightly is not considered to be in a state of fear. In extenuating circumstances, for instance, when someone is weak and must lean against something, he should try to lean only slightly, such that if the support should be taken from him, he would remain standing on his own. In that way, although he is not standing in fear, he is at least considered to be praying in a standing position (Shulchan Aruch 94:8; Mishnah Berurah 22).
One must put his legs together so that they look like one. The reason for this is that the separation of one’s legs exposes the material side of a person and represents the pursuit of worldly matters. Thus, we keep our feet together in prayer just like the Kohanim who, in their ascent to the altar, would walk heel to toe to avoid spreading their legs. Furthermore, putting one’s legs together symbolizes the annulling of the powers in one’s legs, demonstrating that we have but one desire, to stand before Him in prayer. Chazal learn this from the angels, of which it is said (Ezekiel 1:7), "Their legs are a straight leg," meaning, their legs were placed together so that they appeared to be one leg (Berachot 10b; Yerushalmi, chapter 1, halachah 1; and see Maharal Netiv Ha’Avodah 6).
One must put the entire length of his foot next to the other so that they will seem as much as possible as one leg, unlike those who just put their heels together (Shulchan Aruch 95:1; Talmidei Rabbeinu Yonah). However, b’dieved, if one prayed with his feet apart, he still fulfilled his obligation (Mishnah Berurah 1; Kaf HaChaim 2).
A person who is ill and cannot stand may recite the Amidah while sitting. If he is unable to sit, he may pray while lying down. However, according to a number of poskim, if before the time to pray lapses he has gathered strength and is able to stand, he will need to repeat his prayer while standing, since the essence of the mitzvah of the Amidah is in a standing position (Shulchan Aruch 94:9). Nevertheless, in practice, the Acharonim agree that whether he prayed sitting or standing, he fulfilled his obligation b’dieved and even if he is able to stand later, he is not required to repeat his prayer while standing (Mishnah Berurah 94:27; Kaf HaChaim 34).
Even one who must recite the Amidah while sitting or lying down should try to put his feet together and bow his head at the appropriate places. When a person sitting in a wheelchair finishes his prayer, he should wheel himself slightly backwards, approximately the distance of the three steps with which a healthy person departs from prayer (see further in this chapter, halachah 16).

5.Body and Hand Positions
One reciting the Amidah must lower his head slightly, so that his eyes point downwards in the way of humility; he must imagine himself standing in the Temple and directing his heart up towards the heavens (Yevamot 105b; Shulchan Aruch 95:2).
The kabbalists praise one who prays with his eyes closed. However, even a person who looks into his siddur follows the law l'chatchilah. Many Acharonim recommend praying from a siddur, so that one can have more kavanah in his prayer (Mishnah Berurah 95:5; Kaf HaChaim 9-10; and see the words of the Ma’amar Mordechai brought in Bei’ur Halachah).
Regarding one’s hands, the Rambam writes (Hilchot Tefillah 5:4) that a person should place his hands on his heart while interlocked, right over left so that he stands as a slave before his master, in awe and fear. That is what the Shulchan Aruch writes (95:3) and what is explained in the Kavanot of the Ari (Kaf HaChaim 95:12). Many maintain that it all depends on the custom of the place; where the Rambam lived, it was, indeed, customary to stand before kings and ministers in the manner in which he described. However, people in other areas practiced differently. For instance, those living in the countries of Edom were accustomed to standing with their arms folded, and those in the land of Ishmael would stand with their hands behind their backs, to symbolically indicate that they do not even have the use of their hands without the consent of the one before whom they are standing (Mahari Abuhav brought by the Beit Yosef; Mishnah Berurah 95:6). Nowadays, according to this, in addition to what the Rambam wrote, it is also permissible to stand with one’s hands adjacent to his body or slightly resting on a shtender (lectern) next to his siddur, for that, too, is considered standing respectfully. However, one should not stand with his hands in his pockets or on his hips, for it is inappropriate to stand that way in front of respected people.
Many people are accustomed to "shuckling" (swaying back and forth) while reciting the Amidah. The Rama writes (Orach Chaim 48; Mishnah Berurah 95:7) that this is the proper way to pray l’chatchilah, in order to express the excitement and trepidation of the prayer experience, and in order to involve one’s whole body in the service of prayer, as it is written (Psalms 35:10), "All my bones will say, ‘Hashem, who is like You.’" By contrast, the Shlah writes that one should not shuckle during prayer, but just the opposite – that standing motionless strengthens one’s kavanah. Furthermore, he says it is not respectful to shuckle. If a person were to come before a human king and begin to shake with his whole body, indeed, the king would immediately dismiss him. If so, one should certainly not act that way in prayer. The Shlah explains that the recommendation to sway specifically applies to Torah learning or to singing songs and praise. However, in the intense and internal prayer of the Amidah, in which we stand before the King, it is not proper to move at all; only one’s lips may move (Shlah, Masechet Tamid, Ner Mitzvah). Since each minhag has opinions on which to rely, every person may practice in the way that allows him to concentrate the most. This applies especially to a person who became accustomed to shuckling and therefore finds it hard to concentrate while standing still (Magen Avraham, Mishnah Berurah 48:5; and see Kaf Hachaim 48:7-9).

6.Bowing Down During the Amidah
The Chachamim instituted bowing down in five places in the Amidah: in the beginning and end of Birkat Avot, in the beginning and end of Birkat Modim, and at the end of the Amidah, when one takes three steps backwards. They specifically chose those two berachot for they are the most important, and while reciting them one must try hard to concentrate properly (see Shulchan Aruch 101:1; Mishnah Berurah 3). If a person wants to bow down at the beginning or end of another berachah, he is taught not to, so as not to uproot the ruling of the Chachamim, and so that he will not look like an arrogant person who considers himself more righteous than others. However, in the middle of the berachot he is permitted to bow down (Shulchan Aruch 113:1; Mishnah Berurah 2). 3
One bows down when saying "Baruch Attah" and straightens himself when saying "Hashem." At Modim, he bows down when he says "Modim Anachnu Lach" and straightens up when saying "Hashem" (Shulchan Aruch 113:7; Mishnah Berurah 12; for the laws on bowing down at the end of the Amidah, see further in this chapter, halachah 13).
The bow must be such that all the vertebrae in one’s spine move in place, one after the other, and the vertebrae protrude from his back. One bends his head and back until his face reaches the height between his heart and his waist, but he should not bend his head all the way until his belt, because that gives the appearance of arrogance (yohara). An elderly or ill person who has difficulty bending down lowers his head as much as he is able (Shulchan Aruch 113:5). One must bow down quickly to demonstrate his desire to bow before Hashem Blessed Be He, and when he straightens himself, he must do so slowly, as one who is interested in continuing to bow down before Him (Shulchan Aruch 113:6).
There are two minhagim regarding the manner of bowing. According to the minhag of the Ashkenazim, when one says "Baruch" he bends his knees and when he says "Attah" he bows until his vertebrae "click". At Modim, in which the word "Baruch" is not recited, one bows immediately without initially bending his knees (Mishnah Berurah 113:12; and see Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 18:1). The Sephardim practice according to the Ari and bow down in two stages. First, a person bends his body (without bending his knees) and then his head. Similarly, when one straightens himself, first he straightens his body and afterwards his head (Kaf HaChaim 113:21).
^ 3.Berachot 34b clarifies that bowing down in the thanks of Hallel and in the thanks of Birkat HaMazon is disgraceful. Rabbeinu Yerucham adds that one does not bow down at the words "V’chol komah lefanecha tishtachaveh" and Talmidei Rabbeinu Yonah add not to bow down at "Lecha levadcha anachnu modim" in Nishmat Kol Chai. So rules the Shulchan Aruch 113:3.
Regarding bowing at Barchu, there are various customs. The crux of the issue lies in the reason chachamim taught not to bow at the aforementioned places. If the reason is because he is bowing at a place in which the Chachamim did not institute bowing, then it is forbidden to bow regularly at Barchu. That is what is written in Or L’Tzion, part 2, 5:13 and She’erit Yosef, part 2, p. 106, and that is the minhag of Sephardic rabbis; still, among the Sephardic communities, many are accustomed to bowing. However, if the reason not to bow is because by bowing at the expression of thanks (hoda’ah), he is demonstrating that he erred, (thinking that the word hoda’ah means prostration when it is really an expression of thanks), then if he is bowing in a different place in the prayer service in order to accept upon himself the yoke of Hashem’s kingdom, there is no flaw in that; therefore, he is permitted to bow regularly at Barchu. That is what is written in Shulchan Aruch HaRav 113:3, and that is the Ashkenazic custom. The Bei’ur Halachah brings support for this. In a place where all different Jewish ethnic groups pray together, it is proper that everyone bows slightly at Barchu so as not to magnify the division between the minhagim, for that is how most of Israel practices, thereby preserving the custom of prostration to a certain extent. Also, in that way, no additional bows are added to those instituted by the Chachamim, for this kind of bow is not a complete bow that requires the vertebrae in one’s spine to click.
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