17.One May Not Sit Within Four Amot of a Person Reciting the Amidah
Due to the considerable significance and sanctity of the Amidah prayer, the Chachamim prohibit sitting within four amot of a person who is praying. One reciting the Amidah is standing before the Shechinah, and anyone sitting there idly is seen as someone who does not accept the yoke of Heaven upon himself, thereby desecrating the place of prayer.
However, one who is engaged in a section of prayer is permitted to sit next to a person reciting the Amidah, for since he is engaged in prayer, he does not appear as one who does not accept upon himself the yoke of Heaven. Some say that one who wants to learn Torah is also permitted to sit next to a person praying. In times of need, for instance when a person cannot focus on his learning while standing, it is permissible to be lenient and to sit (Shulchan Aruch 102:1; Mishnah Berurah 6).
If he sat down next to the person praying before that person started to recite the Amidah, although he is neither praying nor learning he is permitted to continue sitting there. This is allowed because he does not disgrace the prayer, rather it is the person praying who did not act in accordance with the law by beginning to pray within someone else’s four amot. Even so, it is, indeed, a righteous act to show respect for the prayer by standing up, or at least by learning Torah or reciting Psalms (Shulchan Aruch, Rama 102:3).
A weak or frail person, even when not engaged in prayer, is permitted to sit within another person’s four amot, since everyone knows that it is because of his weakness that he needs to sit, and therefore there is no offense to the respect of Heaven (Shulchan Aruch 102:2). On Yom Kippur, almost everyone is considered to be weak because of the fast, and therefore it is permissible to sit within four amot of a person praying (Beit Baruch 26:9).
There is a stringent opinion which maintains that it is forbidden to sit directly in front of a person praying, even if he is outside of one’s four amot, since it causes the person who is praying to appear as though he is bowing down to him. Therefore, even if he is reciting Keriat Shema, and he sat there before the other person began to recite the Amidah, he must stand. L'chatchilah, it is good to follow this opinion (Shulchan Aruch 102:1; Mishnah Berurah 9; Kaf HaChaim 10). 15
The measurement of four amot is approximately two meters (6.56 feet). To be more precise, an amah is approximately the length of the average person’s arm. According to the majority of poskim, it is approximately 48 cm (18.898 inches), which means that 4 amot is approximately 192 cm (75.59 inches). However, there is obviously no need to measure the exact distance from the person reciting the Amidah; instead, every person must practice according to his own visual estimation.
18.It Is Forbidden to Pass in Front of People Reciting the Amidah
It is forbidden to pass within four amot in front of a person reciting the Amidah, since one who passes in front of him is likely to disturb his concentration. There are those who say that the reason for the prohibition is that a person who is reciting the Amidah is standing before the Shechinah and one who passes before him offends the respect for the Shechinah. 16
The poskim disagree regarding the question of where precisely is it forbidden to pass. According to the Eliyah Rabbah, the prohibition only applies to passing directly in front of the face of one reciting the Amidah, since only then will passing by disturb him. In other words, if the width of a man is approximately half a meter (1.64 feet), one may not pass in that half meter in front of his face for a distance of four amot (approximately 2 meters or 6.56 feet). However, according to the Magen Avraham, it is forbidden to pass anywhere the person praying can see within his four amot, since passing there is likely to slightly disrupt his kavanah.
They disagree further. According to the Eliyah Rabbah, a person is permitted to come and stand within the four amot of a person praying and remain standing there. This is because he only disturbs the person when crosses through the four amot directly in front of his face. However, if he comes from the side and remains standing before him, he does not disrupt him as much. Still according to the Magen Avraham, it is forbidden to enter into the four amot in front of a person praying at all.
19. The Practical Halachah
L'chatchilah, one should be strict, like the opinion of the Magen Avraham, not to walk within the entire four amot before a person reciting the Amidah. In times of need, however, one may be lenient like the Eliyah Rabbah and permit passing beside a person praying, and likewise passing and standing directly in front of his face.
In a case of great need, when there is no other choice, it is even permissible to pass directly in front of a person reciting the Amidah. For instance, in order to complete a minyan it is permitted to pass in front of someone who is praying. It is permissible for one who must conduct a Torah class, and for a Kohen who must ascend to recite Birkat Kohanim, to pass in front of the person praying. Likewise, whoever fears he will miss his bus or ride is permitted to pass as well.
However, one who arrives late to the prayer service and wants to pray in his regular seat is prohibited from passing in front of the person reciting the Amidah. If only one person is reciting the Amidah where he must pass, he may rely on the Eliyah Rabbah and pass beside him. Yet, if in order to do so he must pass alongside a number of people praying, he may not pass, since it is almost certain that he will disturb at least someone’s concentration. 17
If a person is reciting the Amidah while standing in an aisle, since he did not act in accordance with the law by standing in a place that blocks the walkway of those coming and going, there is no obligation to take him into consideration, and in times of need, it is permitted to pass before his face. 18
^ 15.The Ohel Mo’ed is stringent, and there are those who do not take his opinion into consideration, as written in Pri Chadash. Ben Ish Chai, Yitro 6, writes that the custom is to act leniently, as writes Yalkut Yosef 102:2. However, many Acharonim are stringent, as both the Mishnah Berurah 102:9 and Kaf HaChaim 10, write. Even to stand in front of him within his four amot, l'chatchilah is not proper, so he does not appear to be prostrating himself before him, see Mishnah Berurah 102:8-9. The measure of approximately "within a person’s eyesight," concerning the matter of getting up for a talmid chacham, is defined in the Shach, Yoreh De’ah 244:8 as 266 2/3 amot (approximately 128 meters; 419.95 feet). However, it seems that in any case in which the person reciting the Amidah does not appear to be bowing down to the person in front of him, either due to the distance between them or the conditions of the area, there is no need to be stringent.
The Mishnah Berurah 102:2 writes that if there is a partition with a height of 10 tefachim (80 cm; 31.49 inches) and a width of 4 tefachim (32 cm; 12.59 inches) between the person praying and himself, he may sit. Although a partition cannot be used to allow someone to pass by the person praying, since passing by will disturb his kavanah, sitting is nevertheless allowed, since for that, the partition is effective. According to the Chayei Adam and Eshel Avraham (Butshatsh), when there is a partition, one is even allowed to pass by the person praying. However, it seems that it is proper to be stringent regarding sitting directly in front of the person praying, so that he will not appear to be prostrating himself before him.
I did not differentiate between the sides of a person and behind him. However, see Beit Yosef and Darkei Moshe who explain that some poskim rule that there is no prohibition against sitting behind a person praying, even within his four amot. Still, in practice, the Acharonim agree to forbid sitting behind him, as explained in the Mishnah Berurah 102:3 and Kaf HaChaim 4.
^ 16.The Mishnah Berurah 102:15 and Bei’ur Halachah s.v. "Assur" write that the reason for the prohibition is the disturbance it will cause to the person praying. That is the opinion of the majority of poskim, and so writes the Ma’amar Mordechai. However, the Chayei Adam maintains that the reason for the prohibition is that one who passes in front of a person reciting the Amidah interferes with his connection to the Shechinah. There are practical halachic differences (nafka minot) between the reasons. If the reason is disruption, then if the person praying covers his eyes with his tallit, one may pass in front of him. However, if the reason is because of the honor of the Shechinah, one is forbidden to pass. By contrast, if there is a partition with a height of ten tefachim in front of the person praying, then if the reason is the honor of the Shechinah, the partition is considered a divider and he may pass. But if it is because of distraction, he is prohibited from passing, as cited by the Mishnah Berurah 102:2. The Bei’ur Halachah writes that it is proper to take into consideration the reason that the Chayei Adam presents as well. Still, according to Eshel Avraham Butshatsh, both reasons are mutually dependent, and only when there is a distraction to the person praying is there also an affront to the honor of the Shechinah. (This dispute is not contingent upon the disagreement between the Magen Avraham and Eliyah Rabbah, which is brought further in this chapter, because the Magen Avraham 102:6 also mentions that the reason for the prohibition is the disruption to the person praying. Furthermore, even according to the Eliyah Rabbah one could explain that the affront to the honor of the Shechinah is only when one passes directly in front of the person praying.)
^ 17.The majority of poskim, Rishonim and Acharonim alike, are of the same opinion as that of the Eliyah Rabbah, as explained in the book Four Amot of Prayer, p. 338. This is also the simple meaning of the words in the Talmud, "It is prohibited to pass in front of the people praying." Therefore, despite the fact that l'chatchilah it is good to follow the Magen Avraham, in times of need it is possible to rely on the opinion of the Eliyah Rabbah. In general, it is possible to explain the opinion of the Eliyah Rabbah, that the prohibition to pass is only when it causes a great distraction to a person reciting the Amidah. A great distraction is only one in which a person crosses over the four amot in front of the face of the person who is praying, or if the person praying in front of him finishes his prayer and steps backwards directly in front of him. According to the Magen Avraham 102:6, the prohibition also applies when there is even a small distraction.
The Magen Avraham 102:5 writes further, in the name of the Zohar, that one should be more stringent, that even on the sides of one reciting the Amidah it is prohibited to pass. The reason is that this is considered a holy place, and not just because of the disturbance it causes. Some Acharonim write that it is correct to be stringent and act according to the Zohar’s opinion, as the Kaf HaChaim 102:27 writes, and as is implied from the Mishnah Berurah 17 (although Aruch HaShulchan 102:12 explains the Zohar in a way that agrees with the Talmud).
By contrast, the Eshel Avraham Butshatsh is very lenient regarding this law and maintains that the whole prohibition depends on the extent of the disturbance caused to the person reciting the Amidah. Therefore, if his eyes are closed, it is permissible to pass. Likewise, if he is reciting the prayers of supplication at the end of the Amidah, it is permissible to pass by him (and concerning this ruling the Aruch HaShulchan 102:13 agrees, although many poskim disagree with them). The Eshel Avraham writes further, that in times of need, it is permitted to pass before the person praying, since perhaps he is reciting the prayers of supplication, and we are lenient regarding an uncertainty surrounding a rabbinic obligation. Moreover, he writes that for a mitzvah, it is permissible to pass before the person praying.
In order to complete a minyan, Yad Eliyahu 6 writes that it is permitted to pass in front of a person reciting the Amidah. However, in order to pray with the minyan it is not allowed. Magen Avraham 69:4, cited by the Mishnah Berurah 69:9, writes that one may not pass in front of a person praying in order to respond to Barchu. Eshel Avraham permits passing in order to respond to Kaddish and Barchu, and to pray with a minyan. Further, the Eshel Avraham writes that in order not to transgress the prohibition of "Do not abominate oneself" (as when one needs to go to the restroom), one is allowed to pass in front of a person praying (and it seems that in this matter all poskim are in agreement). Concerning their dissension, since it is a rabbinic doubt, although the lenient poskim are but a few, in times of need, it is permissible to rely on them. Also, Avnei Yashfeh 7:22 relies on the opinion of the Eshel Avraham in that he permits passing before a person reciting the Amidah in order to pray with a minyan and to hear Kaddish. He adds another reason, that today the kavanah in our prayers is minimal and the person passing does not greatly disturb. However, he forbids passing in order for someone to pray in his regular seat. Based on logical reasoning, I wrote that it is permissible to pass by the side of the person praying in order to get to one’s permanent place of prayer but that it is forbidden to pass by the sides of a few people, because he will certainly disturb one of them, which is also how I have seen people practice.
^ 18.The Eshel Avraham is lenient because perhaps the fact that the person stood there to begin with is because he knows that people passing by do not disturb his concentration, and therefore, according to his approach, there is no prohibition to pass by in front of him while he is reciting the Amidah. Further, it is the obligation of the person who is causing the damage to distance himself from the person to whom he is causing it. The Maharsham in Da’at Torah 102:4 tends to favor the opinion that it is permitted to pass in front of him since he resembles a grave that harms the public, regarding which the law permits its removal and negates any further entitlement to that space. That is what the Tzitz Eliezer writes in 9:8, in their names and in the names of other Acharonim.