Concluding Shemoneh Esrei

  • Rav David Brofsky



            In previous shiurim, we have studied the laws of Shemoneh Esrei.  We have explored its sources and the manner and form of its recitationIn addition, we have discussed insertions to Shemoneh Esrei and their relationship to their host berakhot.  This week, we will finish our study of the silent Shemoneh Esrei, as we study the laws of its conclusion.


"Yihyu Le-ratzon Imrei Fi…"


            The Gemara (Berakhot 9b) teaches that one should recite the verse "Yihyu le-ratzon imrei fi…" "Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before You, God, my Rock and my Redeemer" (Tehillim 19:15) at the conclusion of Shemoneh Esrei: 


Seeing that this verse "Yihyu le-ratzon imrei fi…"  is suitable for recital either at the end or the beginning, why did the rabbis institute it at the end of Shemoneh EsreiLet it be recited at the beginning!

Rabbi Yehuda the son of Rabbi Shimon ben Pazzi said: "Since David said it only after eighteen chapters [of Tehillim], the rabbis too enacted that it should be said after the eighteen blessings."


            In fact, the Rishonim debate the extent to which this verse is integrated into Shemoneh Esrei.  They question whether one may interrupt and answer to Kaddish and Kedusha immediately following Shemoneh Esrei, or only after reciting Tehillim 19:15.  In other words, does "Yihyu le-ratzon" conclude Shemoneh Esrei, or is it merely an addition?


            On the one hand, the Ra'avya (Berakhot 66) and the Mordekhai (Sukka 754) rule that one may respond to Kaddish and Kedusha immediately following the final blessing.  On the other hand, the Rashba (Teshuvot 7:405) insists that one may interrupt only after inserting "Yihyu le-ratzon." 


            The Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chayyim 123:1) rules that one should not interrupt in between Shemoneh Esrei and "Yihyu le-ratzon."  However, the Rema comments that those who add petitions (such as our customary "Elokai, netzor leshoni me-ra," "My God, guard my tongue from evil") after Shemoneh Esrei, may respond to Kaddish and Kedusha even before saying "Yihyu le-ratzon."   


            The Mishna Berura (123:3) recommends reciting "Yihyu le-ratzon" twice, once before and once after Elokai Netzor, in order to avoid this doubtTherefore, while reciting Elokai Netzor, one may respond to Kaddish and Kedusha; the conclusions of the blessings Ha-Kel Ha-kadosh and Shome'a Tefilla; Modim De-rabbanan; the blessings of the kohanim; and the blessings of those called up to the TorahWe will deal with each of these in upcoming shiurim. 


Elokai Netzor


            The Talmud (Berakhot 17a) records various prayers recited by the rabbis upon their concluding Shemoneh Esrei.  The Tur (122) writes that the Jewish people have "chosen" the prayer found in our prayer-books, Elokai Netzor, composed by Mar, son of Ravina, to form the basis for the addendum commonly recited upon concluding Shemoneh Esrei. 


Mar, son of Ravina, upon concluding his prayer, added the following: "My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guileMay my soul be silent to them that curse me and may my soul be as dust to allOpen my heart to Your Torah, and may my soul pursue Your commandments.  Deliver me from evil occurrences, from the evil impulse, from any evil woman and from all evils that threaten to come upon the worldAs for all that design evil against me, speedily annul their counsel and frustrate their designs.  'Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before You, God, my Rock and my Redeemer.'"


            The Arukh Ha-shulchan explains that our liturgy has enshrined Mar bar Ravina's prayer because it concludes with "Yihyu le-ratzon imrei fi…" 


            Furthermore, the Sefer Ha-charedim (Mitzvat Ha-teshuva, Chap. 5) explains that this prayer alludes to many of the fundamental principles of Judaism, such as the prohibition of lashon ha-ra (speaking evil of others), machaloket (unnecessary disagreement), and bittul Torah (wasting Torah-study time)


            Interestingly, Rabbi Moshe Sofer (1762-1839), known as the Chatam Sofer, writes in his introduction to the Vienna Machzor (1794):


How nice and pleasant would it be to print all of the prayers that our Rabbis recited after their prayer as they appear in the end of the second chapter of Berakhot!


            In fact, his student Rav Elyakim Carmoli, author of the work Imrei Shefer, records that the Chatam Sofer would indeed recite all of these tefillot.


            Furthermore, the Tur (OC 122) cites, in the name of the Hagadda:


Shmuel said: "One who is careful to say these four things will merit to accept the Divine Presence (Shekhina): 'Act for Your Name; act for Your Right; act for Your Torah; act for Your Holiness.'"


            These passages serve as the basis of the text, recited by both Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews (with minor variations between them) after their Shemoneh Esrei. 


            One may omit Elokai Netzor and retreat three steps in order to answer to Kaddish or Kedusha (122:1, Mishna Berura 6) or in order to avoid tircha de-tzibbura, the inconvenience of the congregation,if everyone is waiting for him to conclude his Shemoneh Esrei (Kaf Ha-chayyim 124:14)


            Finally, the Mishna Berura (122:8), citing the Chayyei Adam, writes that one should pray daily for his or her personal needs and financial sustenance, as well as for the successful Torah education of one's offspring, upon completing Shemoneh Esrei and before reciting Elokai Netzor. 


Retreating Three Steps Upon Concluding Shemoneh Esrei


            The Gemara (Yoma 53b) teaches that upon concluding Shemoneh Esrei, one should retreat in a respectful manner


Rabbi Alexanderi said in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: "After praying one must take three steps back, and then bid shalom [peace, i.e., farewell]…"

We learned this also [in a beraita]: "After praying, one must take three steps back and then bid shalom; if he fails to do so, it would have been better had he not prayed at all…"


            The Gemara explains that after taking three steps backwards, one should "bid shalom," first to the left, and then to the right  


In the name of Shemaya, they said that one should give shalom to the right and then to the left, as it is said (Devarim 33:2) "From His right [hand] a fiery law for them;" and it is said (Tehillim 91:7) "A thousand will fall at your side and a myriad at your right…"

Rava saw Abbayei giving shalom to his own right first. He said, "Do you think it means YOUR right side? I meant your LEFT side, which is the right of the Holy One, Blessed be He." 

Rav Chiyya son of Rav Huna said: "I saw that Abbayei and Rava would step three steps in a single bow."


            The Beit Yosef collects a number of explanations for this practiceThe simplest, it seems, may be found in the words of the Shibbolei Ha-leket (18)He writes, in the names of the Ge'onim, that while praying, a person stands in a place of holiness, with the Shekhina above himAs he concludes, therefore, he should retreat three steps in order to "leave a place of holiness and arrive in a mundane place."


            The Shulchan Arukh (123:1) explains that one should recite "Oseh shalom bimromav," "He Who makes peace in his heights," while bowing towards the left; continue "Hu ya'aseh shalom aleinu," "May He make peace upon us," while bowing towards the right; and as the Mishna Berura explains, conclude "Ve-al kol Yisrael" "And upon all Israel," while bowing forwardThe Rema adds that it is customary to recite "Yihyu le-ratzon" upon concluding one's steps, praying for the restoration of the Temple service, in place of which we offer our tefillot 


            The Beit Yosef cites the opinion of Rabbeinu Manoach, who argues that each "step" is actually comprised of two steps, i.e., first one step left and then evening one's feet with the right foot, equaling six steps in totalThe Mishna Berura (13) and a  number of other Acharonim (Birkkei Yosef, Chayyei Adam, et al.) rule that one actually retreats only three small steps, i.e. left toes to right heel, right toes to left heel — as the kohanim would walk in the Temple — and then bringing one's feet togetherFurthermore, we find in Orach Chayyim warnings against taking large steps (123:3, Rema) or adding steps (123:4), either of which would be considered haughty behavior


            The Beit Yosef records that while the Hagahot Maimoniyyot (Hilkhot Tefilla 5, Samekh) cites the Midrash Shocher Tov which rules that one should first step back with one's left foot, then one's right, finishing with one's left, the Mahari Abuhav writes, in the name of the Orchot Chayyim, that one should begin to retreat with one's right footThe Shulchan Arukh (123:3) rules in accordance with the Hagahot Maimoniyyot. 


            The Magen Avraham (10) offers two explanationsFirstly, he suggests that while one normally begins walking away from someone with the right foot (the stronger foot), by stepping back with one's left foot, one demonstrates the difficulty felt in leaving one's masterSecondly, he explains that just as the Talmud, as cited above, directs us to offer respect to the Shekhina by turning initially towards "God's right" (i.e., our left) upon retreating from prayer, so too, we should step back beginning with our left, i.e. towards "God's right side." 


            The Bei'ur Halakha notes that while according to the first explanation, a left-handed person would step back with his right foot first, according to the second interpretation, all retreat beginning with their left foot.  He rules (s.v. Ke-sheppose'a; Mishna Berura 13) in accordance with the Shulchan Arukh Ha-Rav, that a left-handed person should begin with his weaker foot, i.e. his right foot.  On the other hand, the Arukh Ha-shulchan (123:7) insists that the halakha is in accordance with the second reason, as quoted by the Taz, and therefore even a left-handed person should take his first step backwards with his left foot


            If one is praying is a crowded area and finds it difficult to take three full steps backwards, the Arukh Ha-shulchan (123:5) recommends retreating diagonallyFurthermore, the Bach writes that in extenuating circumstances one may rely upon the position of the Rashba (Teshuvot 381), who rules that there is no minimum measurement for the steps.  The Magen Avraham asserts that the Rashba means merely that one need not take especially large steps, but he holds that anything smaller than "toes-to-heel" does not constitute a step; despite this, the Mishna Berura (123:14) rules that one may rely upon the Bach in extenuating circumstances.


            The gemara also teaches that after taking three steps backwards, one should not quickly step forward and rush away from one's prayer 


Rav Mordekhai said to him, "After he takes three steps back, he must stand there, just as a student who parts from his master; if he immediately returns, he is like a dog which returns to its own vomit."


            The Bach explains that quickly returning to one's previous place is similar to petitioning for forgiveness while continuing to sin


            The Rif (Berakhot 24b) writes:


Rather, one should stay in his place until the shaliach tzibbur (cantor) begins; when he does so, [the individual] may return to his placeSome say that [he should not return to his place until] the shaliach tzibbur reaches Kedusha.


            While the Rosh accepts the first opinion, the Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 9:4) rules in accordance with the secondFurthermore, the Abudraham, as cited by the Beit Yosef, writes that one who prays alone should stand still for the "amount of time that it takes" for the shaliach tzibbur to reach the KedushaRabbeinu Yerucham, however, writes that one should "wait a bit;" the Beit Yosef understands this to mean, based on the Talmud Yerushalmi (Berakhot 4:6) which deals with the amount of time a person should wait after the regular Shemoneh Esrei before starting a compensatory one, the time it takes to walk four ammot (approximately six feet or two meters).   


            The Shulchan Arukh (123:2) rules:


A person should stand in the place where he concludes his tefilla and not return to his place until the shaliach tzibbur reaches Kedusha — or at least until he begins to pray out loud


            The Rema adds:


The shaliach tzibbur should stand still for the amount of time it takes to walk four ammot, before he begins his out-loud repetitionSimilarly, one who prays alone should stand in his place for this amount of time.


Walking in Front of Another Person Praying


            The Talmud teaches that one should not sit within four ammot of one who is praying, a mitpallel.  Furthermore, one should not pass in front of a mitpallel. 


"I am the woman that stood by you here" (I Shmuel 1:26) - Rav Yehoshua ben Levi said: "From this we learn that it is forbidden to sit within four ammot of one saying tefilla."  (Berakhot 31b)


It is forbidden to pass in front of one praying. 

Is that really so?  Did not Rav Ammi and Rav Assi use to pass

Rav Ammi and Rav Assi used to pass outside four ammot.  (Berakhot 27a)


            What are the reasons behind these prohibitionsUnder which circumstances may one sit or walk within four ammot of a mitpallel?


            The Tur (102) explains that it is inappropriate to sit idly next to someone who is accepting upon himself or herself the yoke of Heaven, as it appears as if the passerby is uninterested in accepted the divine kingship


            Alternatively, the Taz (102:3) and the Shulchan Arukh Ha-Rav suggest that the place in which one prays is considered "admat kodesh," i.e. "holy ground" (based on Zekharya 2:16 — "al admat ha-kodesh," "upon the holy ground"); therefore, one should not sit idly in this area


            The Shulchan Arukh rules that one who is praying or even learning Torah may sit within four ammot of one who is in the midst of Shemoneh Esrei, as the former is using the "admat kodesh" properly


            The Me'iri (Berakhot 31b) and the Magen Avraham (102:6) suggest that we are concerned that by sitting or walking in front of a mitpallel, one may distract this person


            The Shulchan Arukh (102:3) rules that if one is already sitting and another comes within four ammot of him, there is no need to move, as the sitter has come firstThe Rema writes, however, that there is a middat chasidut (saintly attribute) to move


            Against the view of the Zohar, the Shulchan Arukh rules that one may pass a mitpallel on either side.  The Acharonim, however, debate the parameters of this.  The Eliya Rabba explains that one may not pass directly in front of the mitpallel, but it is permitted to walk within the range of the mitpallel's peripheral visionThe Magen Avraham (102:6) insists that one may not pass within the vision of the mitpallel at all, lest he or she be distracted


            Furthermore, while the Eliya Rabba permits one to enter four ammot of the mitpallel, as long as the passerby does not CROSS in front of him, the Magen Avraham prohibits this, as it may distract the mitpallel. 


            It seems that while, preferably, one should avoid passing within the visual scope of anyone who is praying, we rely upon the position of the Eliya Rabba and permit one to pass a mitpallel from the sides


            Interestingly, despite the almost "absolute" formulation of the Gemara, the Acharonim raise a number of potential leniencies(see Sefer Piske Teshuvot siman 102 for a comprehensive treatment of this topic)


For example, the Eshel Avraham (Butshatsh) permits one to pass a mitpallel as long as that person's eyes are closed or covered by a tallit (see Bei'ur Halakha 102:4)


Furthermore, some Acharonim permit passing a mitpallel in order to fulfill a "mitzvah 'overet," i.e. a mitzva which one can only fulfill at that time. For example, one may pass in front of a mitpallel in order to pray with a minyan, or to hear Kaddish, Kedusha, Borkhu, Birkat Kohanim or Keriat Ha-Torah.


In addition, the Acharonim permit one to pass in front of a mitpallel in order to walk to the bathroom, or to remove a disruptive child from the Beit Kenesset.


The Acharonim also discuss whether a mechitza (divider), such as a bench, between the mitpallel and the passerby is halakhically significant. 


Finally, some Acharonim criticize those who choose to pray in aisles, or other areas not designated for tefilla.


            This dilemma often occurs when a person concludes his own Shemoneh Esrei and wishes to retreat three steps, when taking three steps entails passing in front of another mitpallelPreferably, one should wait until the other mitpallellim have concluded their prayer. However, in extenuating circumstances, the Acharonim discuss whether and how one may retreat four ammot.  


On the one hand, once again, the Magen Avraham and Eliya Rabba debate whether one may enter the four ammot of the mitpallel from the side. Furthermore, the Mishna Berura (122:14) suggests taking very small steps backwards, unless one in standing very close to another mitpallel. Some even suggest that preferably one should simply say "'oseh shalom" and walk away, without taking three steps backwards!   


            One who knows that his prayers are lengthy should preferably not pray directly behind those whose prayers are quicker.       


            The Acharonim have already bemoaned the fact that these halakhot are often ignored; on the contrary, they should be adhered to with great care


            Next week we will begin our study of Chazarat Ha-shatz, the shaliach tzibbur's repetition of Shemoneh Esrei