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Chapter Twenty One-Part One

Nefillat Apayim and the Prayers of Supplication


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

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1.The Uniqueness of the Nefillat Apayim Prayer
After the conclusion of the Amidah, it is customary to "fall on one’s face" (Nefillat Apayim) and recite prayers of supplication (Tachanun) before Hashem. By doing so, we fulfill the mitzvah of prayer in all of its positions – Birkot Keriat Shema while sitting, Shemoneh Esrei while standing, and the prayers of supplication that follow, in prostration. We learn this from Moshe Rabbeinu, who prayed in those three positions on behalf of the nation of Israel after the sin of the Golden Calf, as it is written, "I sat on the mountain" (Deuteronomy 9:9); "I stood on the mountain" (ibid., 10:10); and "I threw myself down before Hashem" (ibid., 9:25). So too, we in our prayers, after having prayed while sitting and standing, are left with a feeling that we have not yet expressed everything, that we have not yet broken down the barriers completely, so we prostrate ourselves in submission to the Master of the Universe (see Tur 131).
Nefillat Apayim possesses a special power and is the most effective prayer in times of trouble. An illustration of this can be found in the dispute of Korach and his followers, when Hashem told Moshe and Aharon, "Separate yourselves from this group and I will destroy them in an instant." They immediately understood the need to pray intensely. Therefore, they prayed in prostration, as it is written, "They fell on their faces and prayed, ‘Omnipotent God of all living souls, if one man sins, shall You direct Divine wrath at the entire community?’" (Numbers 16:21-22). From the intensity of their prayer recited in prostration, the decree was overturned.
Nefillat Apayim is so powerful because it expresses one’s complete surrender towards the Creator until a person reaches total sacrifice of his soul. It is as if the person is saying to the Master of the Universe, "All my senses and organs are void before You. Do to me as You will, for I am all Yours." Therefore, with the prayer of Nefillat Apayim it is possible to repair flaws which cannot be rectified through regular prayer (see Zohar Numbers 120:2).
In Nefillat Apayim, there is also an expression of shame towards Heaven. After having prayed the Amidah, in which we were engaged in the greatness of the Blessed One, and in which we presented all our requests, here we are, embarrassed to show our faces. How did we dare stand before Him in prayer? Therefore, we fall on our faces. Furthermore, Nefillat Apayim conveys the sorrow which derives from repentance, for due to the anguish over our wrongdoings, we cannot lift our faces (see Rabbeinu Bechaye Numbers 16:22).

2.The Custom of Its Recital
Despite its great virtue, the Chachamim did not establish Nefillat Apayim to be an obligatory prayer, and they did not institute a set wording for it. Anyone who so desired would add prayers of supplication in prostration after reciting the Amidah. Perhaps specifically because of its superior value, being that it expresses total submission to the Creator, May He Be Blessed, it is befitting that it emanates from the heart, from one’s most inner resolve.
During the period of the Geonim, a permanent wording for Nefillat Apayim, and the prayers of supplication after the Amidah, began to take shape. In the time of the Rishonim, the wording became established, until all Jews accepted upon themselves the obligation to recite certain specific supplications. Seemingly, as a result of the suffering of the Diaspora, which continued to intensify, our hearts were dulled. This necessitated the introduction of a permanent wording of supplication. Because the nusach of the supplications became widespread only after the scattering of the exiles, the differences between the Sephardic and Ashkenazic wordings are more pronounced.
The Nefillat Apayim prayer expresses heartbreak, manifested by the submission of one’s body and sacrifice of one’s soul. Therefore, it is not recited on holidays, or days of joy due to the celebration of a special mitzvah like a brit milah. The kabbalists explain that all the tikkunim (rectifications) performed on regular days via the Nefillat Apayim prayer are achieved on days of a mitzvah celebration purely through the joyous sanctity of the day (Kaf HaChaim 131:54). Additionally, when those celebrating such a joyous mitzvah are present in the synagogue, prayers of supplication are not recited (as explained in halachot 7 and 8). We have already learned that, in principle, there is no obligation to recite Tachanun, and therefore in any situation in which there is doubt as to whether Tachanun should be said, the instruction is not to recite it. 1
Similarly, in a house of mourning, it is customary not to recite Tachanun, since the Divine attribute of judgment (midat hadin) is present there, and care should be taken not to amplify it (Mishnah Berurah 131:20). The idea behind this is that the person praying Nefillat Apayim demonstrates to himself that his existence is dependent on Hashem, and that he is null and void in relation to Him. Since a mourner already has an acute sense of this, it is unnecessary to add to it.

3.What Is Nefillat Apayim?
At first, it was customary to perform the Nefillat Apayim prayer by prostrating or by bowing down. Prostration means that the person drops his whole body to the ground, and spreads out his hands and feet. Bowing means that the person gets down on his knees, bends his head forward, and rests it down on the ground (Berachot 34b; Rambam Tefillah 5:13-14).
However, due to a number of concerns, the custom to pray Nefillat Apayim by bowing down or prostrating oneself on the ground was annulled. Some of the reasons are halachic, dealing with the prohibition against prostrating oneself on a stone floor; and the prohibition of an important person falling on his face before the congregation without a guarantee that he will be answered like Yehoshua bin Nun. 2
Still, the main reason is written in the Zohar (Numbers 121:1), which greatly reinforces the virtue of Nefillat Apayim, during which the person praying must sacrifice his soul to Hashem and view himself as if he has left the world, thereby atoning for all his sins. "This restorative act must be performed with great kavanah of one’s heart. Then HaKadosh Baruch Hu has mercy on him and absolves his sins. Great is the person who knows how to entice his Master and eagerly serve Him with kavanah of the heart. Woe to the one who entices his Master with a distant heart bereft of desire. As it is written (Psalms 78:36-7), ‘They beguiled Him with their mouths and lied to Him with their tongue, for their heart was untrue to Him.’ He says, ‘I lift my soul up to You’ (Psalms 25:1), but his words emanate from a distant heart, and that causes him to leave this world before his time." Since we are concerned that perhaps we are unable to have the necessary full kavanah and are unworthy, we refrain from prostrating ourselves, or from bowing down.
In practice, it is the custom of all Ashkenazim and some Sephardim to bend down and cover their faces on the shirtsleeve of their arm. By doing so, one maintains a certain aspect of Nefillat Apayim, for that is a type of bow, yet it is not a complete bow, and there is no fear of prostration on a stone floor (Bei’ur Halachah 131:1). Perhaps so as not to encounter the danger mentioned in the Zohar, Ashkenazim were accustomed not to recite the psalm "Eilecha Hashem Nafshi Essa" ("I lift my soul up to You") (Psalm 25), which is explained in the Zohar to mean the surrender of one’s soul, and instead they recite Psalm 6 (Magen Avraham 131:5). Those who follow the Ben Ish Chai are careful not to fall on their faces at all, and that is how many people from Eidot HaMizrach practice. 3

4.How to Perform Nefillat Apayim
As mentioned, according to the Ashkenazic minhag, and of some Sephardim, Nefillat Apayim is performed by lowering one’s head and leaning it on the arm. In the opinion of the Shulchan Aruch, one always falls on his left arm. According to the Rama, in the morning, when one’s tefillin is placed on his left arm, he falls on his right arm, and at Minchah, he falls on his left arm - this is the Ashkenazic custom (Shulchan Aruch and Rama 131:1; Mishnah Berurah 6).
When falling on the left arm, we tilt our faces slightly to the right, so as not to point them straight down to the floor. Similarly, when we fall on the right arm, we tilt our faces slightly to the left. We practice this just as it was practiced when people were accustomed to actually prostrating themselves on the ground, for in those times, they tilted their faces as a "fence" against the prohibition of prostrating oneself on a stone floor (Mishnah Berurah 131:40; Bei’ur Halachah 131:1).
It is customary to cover one’s face with clothing. It is not sufficient to conceal one’s head with his arm, since the arm and the face are one body, and the body cannot cover itself (Mishnah Berurah 131:3). The main purpose of this covering is for the sake of modesty, like that of a person who hides his face from Hashem out of trepidation and shame. One who is wearing short sleeves, and has a handkerchief, should place it on his arm and place his face on it. However, if he does not have a handkerchief, he may fall on his bare arm, but not on his palm, since it is impossible to hide one’s face with one’s palm. If there is a table there, he rests his arm and head on it, and the table is considered the main cover for his face. 4
It is customary to perform Nefillat Apayim only in places where a Torah scroll is present, or even other printed sifrei kodesh (sacred texts). In a place in which there are no sacred texts, the prayer is recited while sitting, without falling on one’s arm.
When Nefillat Apayim is performed in the rooms adjacent to the synagogue, which do not contain a Torah scroll or sacred books, if it is possible to see the aron kodesh (holy ark) from there, one falls on his face. However, when the aron kodesh cannot be seen, the prayer is recited while sitting. 5
In Jerusalem, it is customary to perform Nefillat Apayim even in a place without sacred texts, since the sanctity of the city serves as a substitute for the texts. 6
In a place where it is impossible for someone to recite the Nefillat Apayim prayer while sitting, such as in a place without a chair, or in a place in which another person is praying the Amidah directly behind him and he cannot go elsewhere, he may stand (Mishnah Berurah 131:10). It is best that one leans against a wall in such a way that without it he would fall, so that his prayer is considered to be recited partially sitting and partially in the position of Nefillat Apayim (Kaf HaChaim 38).

^ 1.The Tur section 131 writes in the name of Rav Natrunai Gaon that since Nefillat Apayim is voluntary, it is customary not to recite it in the house of a chatan (groom), as writes Shut HaRivash 412 in the name of Rav Sar Shalom Gaon. Rabbi Yitzchak Ibn Giat proves this with the story from Bava Metzia 59b about Imma Shalom, Rabbi Eliezer’s wife, who would not let Rabbi Eliezer say prayers of supplication after the Amidah so as not to cause harm to her brother, Rabban Gamliel. It is from here we learn that it is not an obligatory prayer. Other Rishonim and Acharonim have written this as well. Birkei Yosef 131:13 and Sha’ar HaTzion 131:15 write that in any case of uncertainty, it is better not to recite Nefillat Apayim, since it is voluntary.
^ 2.The basis for the prohibition to prostrate oneself on a kneeling stone is brought in Megillah 22b and it is cited by the Rama 131:8. The Mishnah Berurah 131:40 explains that the biblical prohibition entails prostrating oneself on a stone floor, as it is written (Leviticus 26:1), "Do not place a kneeling stone in your land upon which to prostrate yourselves." This prohibition has two conditions: 1) prostration, and 2) a stone floor. The Chachamim instituted a prohibition even when only one condition exists, meaning that prostration is forbidden even on a floor that is not made of stone, and even just bowing down on a stone floor is forbidden. Chazal do permit bowing down on a floor that is not made of stone. If there are stones there, one may bow by leaning on his side, or by making a separation between his head and the floor, with a towel or the like. Likewise, it is permissible to prostrate oneself on a floor without stones provided that one leans slightly on his side. There is uncertainty as to whether one may prostrate oneself on a stone floor using a separation. See Sha’ar HaTzion 44.
Further, Chazal write in Megillah 22b that a prominent person is forbidden to fall on his face unless he knows for certain that he will be answered as was Yehoshua bin Nun, and that is how the Shulchan Aruch 131:8 rules. However, when he is alone, the Tosafot write based on the Yerushalmi, that it is permissible, and so writes the Beit Yosef in the name of some Rishonim. Similarly, the Mishnah Berurah 38 rules that the prohibition applies when he is the only one falling on his face in front of the congregation, like Yehoshua bin Nun. In a situation such as that one, were he not answered, he would feel ashamed, for those who see him would think he is not worthy. Still, it can be inferred from the Rambam that the prohibition for a prominent person applies even when he is alone. The Meiri explains that this prohibition is to prevent one from considering himself overly pious. See Yad Peshutah on Rambam Tefillah 5:14 where he brings the responsa of Rav Sherira Gaon and Rav Hai Gaon, which implies that when the congregation would prostrate themselves or bow down on the ground, the rabbis would elevate themselves slightly from the floor and turn their faces to the side, and the most prominent rabbis would not bow down at all. Perhaps also for this reason, the custom not to prostrate oneself or bow down, spread throughout the rest of the nation.

^ 3.The Ben Ish Chai, Ki Tisa 13, writes that perhaps just resting one’s head on his arm is to a certain degree what the Zohar intended, that whoever does not have the proper kavanah is endangering his life. Therefore, "It is good that every person refrain from placing his face on his arm and he should not change his position in any way." So writes the Yechaveh Da’at, part 6, end of section 7. However, the Shulchan Aruch 131:1 rules that one must fall on his face, and that is the opinion of the Chida as well. Even the Kaf HaChaim 131:31 writes that anyone who does not intend to lower his soul to the forces of evil in order to purify them, but rather solely intends to surrender his soul for the sake of Torah observance and the fulfillment of mitzvot, does not endanger himself. It is written in the Siddur Od Avinu Chai (based on Rav Rakach) that the minhag of all the North African ethnic groups (Spanish emigrants) was to fall on their faces. In practice, every person should follow his own family’s minhag.

^ 4.The Bei’ur Halachah 131:1 clarifies that with the way we fall on our faces today, there is no concern of transgressing the prohibition of prostrating oneself on a kneeling stone, since our heads are very far away from the floor. Therefore, even if the floor is made of stone, it is not forbidden, since there are two differences here from the biblical prohibition: 1) this is not prostration, and 2) one’s face is not touching the ground. If so, the custom to lean on one’s side exists to remember the minhag when people were accustomed to bowing down completely on the ground, and if the floor was stone, they would have to bow with their head to the side. According to this, even the covering of one’s face does not serve as a separation between one’s face and the ground; rather the falling on one’s face is to hide his face in shame. Perhaps even the covering of oneself with clothing is to remember the fact that they used to bow down completely on the ground, for then if it was a stone floor, one could either turn his face or make a separation between himself and the floor. However, from the Magen Avraham 131, paragraphs 2 and 20, it can be inferred that even when one’s face is far from the ground, it is still considered bowing down, and therefore he is obligated to lean on his side or make a separation between his face and the ground. The Bei’ur Halachah questions this, and it is his view that nowadays, the custom to lean exists only to remember the custom of bowing down.
If so, when one does not have a sleeve or piece of fabric, it seems that he may cover his face with his bare arm, for not having fabric does not prevent one from fulfilling his obligation. If there is a table or lectern (shtender) there, it is best that one rest his head on his arm far into the depth of the table, so that the table can also be considered a cover for his face. Some lean on their watches and use them as a separation, though there is no reason for this, since a watch cannot cover one’s face. Even according to the Magen Avraham it is not considered to be a separation due to its small size. On the contrary, the kabbalists maintain that one must not lean on the palm of his hand at all, for on it are recorded all of his sins (Kaf HaChaim 131:47; Piskei Teshuvot, note 34), and one’s watch is close to his palm.
See Piskei Teshuvot 131, note 31, where he writes that according to the Magen Avraham, who maintains that the cover is intended to separate between one’s face and the floor, it is not enough to rest one’s forehead on his sleeve, for if he does, he will be facing the floor without a separation. Instead, one must cover his face with his arm. If there is a table there, he may lean his forehead on his arm and then the table is considered a separation between his face and the floor. Further, according to the Magen Avraham, it is permissible to hold a siddur between one’s face and the ground which would effectively divide between them. Still, we learned that the Mishnah Berurah rules that there is no need for a divider here; rather it is merely a continuation of a custom from the time that people actually bowed down on the floor. However, concerning a covering, it is, indeed, proper that the main part of one’s face be covered.

^ 5.The Roke’ach 324 writes that Nefillat Apayim is only performed in a place where there is a Torah scroll, but the Beit Yosef questions his words. The Chida concludes from this that it is the opinion of the Shulchan Aruch that one may fall on his face even in a place where there is no Torah scroll. (In practice, however, many Sephardim are accustomed to not falling on their faces at all.) The Rama 131:2 rules like the Roke’ach. In the rooms adjacent to the synagogue, if the aron kodesh can be seen, one falls on his face (Mishnah Berurah 13). Even sifrei kodesh can be considered like a Torah scroll according to the majority of Acharonim, as written in Siddur Olat Ra’ayah p. 302, paragraph 4.

^ 6.According to Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, this only applies to the Old City. Still, Rav Tikochinsky writes this about the entire city of Jerusalem, as is written in Siddur Olat Ra’ayah p. 302. Since we learned that there are poskim who completely disagree with the Roke’ach, and according to them there is no need for a Torah scroll at all, in every case of uncertainty concerning this law, it is permissible to follow those who maintain that one may fall on his face, especially since that is the opinion of the majority of poskim.

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