The Laws of the Shemoneh Esrei (2)

  • Rav David Brofsky




            Last week, we discussed one's physical position and posture during Tefilla.  We explored the laws of one who must pray while traveling, as well as the centrality if Eretz Yisrael and Yerushalayim in our prayers.


            This week, we will continue our study of these laws, focusing on the role of "bowing" during prayer, and avoiding distractions during Tefilla.


Bowing During the Shemoneh Esrei:


            The Gemara (Berakhot 34a) teaches that one should bow at certain parts of one's Tefilla. 


"Our Rabbis taught: These are the berakhot during which one bows [during the Shemoneh Esrei]: Avot (the first blessing), beginning and end, and Modim, beginning and end.  If one wants to bow down at the end of each benediction and at the beginning of each benediction, we instruct him [not to do so]…"


Incidentally, Modim refers to both the individual's Modim, as well as Modim De-rabbanan recited by the tzibbur during Chazarat Ha-shatz.


            Why did the rabbis institute bowing specifically during these berakhot? And furthermore, why do we discourage one who wishes to bow during other berakhot?


Seemingly, Chazal established that one should bow during these two berakhot because of their importance and centrality to the Shemoneh Esrei, and, as we shall learn next week, in order to arouse the required kavana during these berakhot.


            Why, however, and when, do we discourage one from bowing during other parts of Tefilla?


            Tosafot (34a) offers two explanations.  Firstly, bowing during other berakhot may lead to confusion and ultimately to uprooting the original takana to bow at these two berakhot.  Secondly, one who bows during other berakhot may be perceived as being "haughty as if he views himself as holier than others" and therefore bows during other berakhot. 


            The Acharonim question whether Tosafot's reasons apply only during times in which the rabbis actually instituted bowing, such as the beginning and conclusion of berakhot, or whether they may apply universally.


            Furthermore, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, in his Shulchan Arukh Ha-Rav, raises another issue.  The Gemara (Berakhot 34b) teaches, "To kneel in Modim (of Birkat Ha-mazon) and in the Modim of Hallel is reprehensible."  Based on the above Tosafot, we might understand that that one shouldn't bow at these places because they are simply not the places that Chazal instituted bowing.  However, the Shulchan Arukh Ha-Rav suggests that one who bows during these two berakhot, and during other times when we use the phrase Modim, shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of thanksgiving.  The phrase "modim," he asserts, refers to praise, and NOT to bowing, and therefore bowing during these berakhot is simply "foolishness."


            However, he calls one who bows during other prayers of praise or supplications, out of religious fervor, or during Kaddish, praiseworthy.


            Based upon the above reasons cited above, the poskim debate the scope of this proscription.  For example, one might prohibit ALL bowing aside from the two berakhot explicated by the Gemara.  Alternatively, one might allow bowing during the parts of prayer in which Chazal didn't institute bowing, such as the middle of the berakhot, Barkhu, Kaddish, etc.  Finally, even one who is generally permissive about bowing, may prohibit bowing during phrases which connote "thanksgiving," such as during Hallel, or Nodeh of Birkat Ha-mazon, or during Nishmat Kol Chai ("ki lekha levadcha anachnu modim").


            The Shulchan Arukh (113) permits bowing during the middle of the berakhot of the Shemoneh Esrei, although the Arukh Ha-Shulchan writes that we would discourage one who first asks whether to bow. 


            Some criticize the common custom to bow during Barkhu.  Although the Bi'ur Halakha (113:3) defends this practice, as "minhag Yisrael Torah," the Gr"a reportedly felt that one should NOT bow for Barkhu.  The Arukh Ha-Shulchan (57:1) writes that while one should not bow for the Barkhu of Birkat Ha-Torah, it is customary to bow, SLIGHTLY (me'at), for Barkhu before the Birkhot Keriyat Shema.


            Furthermore, the Shulchan Arukh (109) writes that if the shaliach tzibbur, during Chazarat Ha-shatz, reaches the berakha of Modim while one is still reciting the silent Shemoneh Esrei, one should bow with the tzibbur, in order not to appear as if he denies the message of Modim.  However, while saying the beginning or end of a berakha one should refrain from bowing.


            The Magen Avraham (132:2) cites the custom to bow during Aleinu while saying "va-anachnu korim u-mishtachavim…" in order not to appear heretical.


            Regarding the proper way to bow, the Gemara (Berakhot 28b) teaches:


"R. Tanchum also said in the name of R. Yehoshua b. Levi: In saying Tefilla one should bow down [at the appropriate places] until all the vertebrae in the spinal column are loosened… R. Chanina said: If he simply bows his head, he need do no more.  Rabba said: This is only if it hurts him [to stoop] and he shows that he would like to bow down…"


The Gemara only mentions "bowing," which entails, preferably, completely bending the upper body.  Sephardic communities, therefore, based on this simple understanding of the Gemara, and the ruling of the Shulchan Arukh (113), don't bend their knees when bowing. 


            Ashkenazic communities (see Mishna Berura 113:12), however, customarily bend their knees while saying "barukh," and then bow at "ata," and raise their body before pronouncing God's name.  When saying Modim, they bow immediately, without bending their knees.


            Finally, the Gemara (Yoma 53b) mentions one more bowing - at the conclusion of the Shemoneh Esrei.


"…Rabbi Chanina berei de-Rav Huna said: I saw Abayye and Rava retreat three steps [at the end of the Shemoneh Esrei] while bowing…"


The Rosh and the Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 5:10), equate this bowing with the others, and writes, "One who prays should bow five times during each Tefilla, at the beginning and end of the first blessing, at the beginning and end of the berakha of Hoda'a, and as one finishes his Tefilla he should bow, and retreat three steps as he bows…" Further on (5:12), the Rambam writes that one should preferably bow until "one bends all of one's vertebrae" for ALL of these bowings.


            We will summarize other aspects of the conclusion of the Shemoneh Esrei in a future shiur.


            Before we conclude, I'd like to bring to our attention a fascinating teshuva of the Rambam's son, R. Avraham ben Ha-Rambam (62).  He suggests that the Gemara (Berakhot 34b) never meant to discourage one from bowing in other places, but rather, "we instruct him" that he is obligates to bow ONLY in the berakhot of Avot and Modim.  Furthermore, he discusses the permissibility, as desirability of prostrating during prayer. 


Avoiding Distractions During Prayer:


            Before we discuss the proper intentions one should have during prayer, we should briefly mention those activities that the rabbis prohibited lest they distract one during prayer.


The Gemara (Berakhot 23b) teaches:


"Our Rabbis taught: A man should not hold tefillin in his hand or a Sefer Torah in his arm while saying Tefilla… Shmuel says: a knife, money, a dish and a loaf of bread are on the same footing as tefillin…"


Rashi explains, "One's heart is concerned lest they should fall from his hand and he will be unable to concentrate…"


            Similarly, the Mishna Berura (94:4) cites the Birke Yosef who writes that one shouldn't hold a child during Tefilla, lest he become distracted from one's prayers. 


            Interestingly, the Taz (1) notes that his father-in-law, the Bach, ruled that one who prays while holding an object that generally causes distraction has not fulfilled his obligation, even bedi'avad, and must pray again.  However, he concluded, the halakha is in accordance with those who believe that he does NOT need to pray again.


            One should also remove purses, backpacks, cameras and other objects from one's body before praying.  However, seemingly, one who is afraid that by putting the object down his belongings may be damaged, or stolen, may pray while holding these objects (Mishna Berura 94:6). 


            A soldier should preferably put down his gun before saying Shemoneh Esrei.  Not only might HOLDING the gun distract one from praying properly, but the mere presence of a weapon during prayer may be inappropriate.


For example, the Mekhilta brings:


"… And if thou make Me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones; for if thou lift up thy sword upon it, thou hast profaned it… (Shemot 20:21)- Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said: the altar was created in order to lengthen a man's years, and iron shortens a man's years.  One is not permitted to lift that which shortens upon that which lengthens…"


Furthermore, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 82a) teaches:


"…'And he rose up out of the midst of the congregation, and took a spear in his hand' - hence one may not enter the house of learning with weapons…"


These two sources point to two possible ramifications of the negative connotation of a weapon:  it should not be used in the construction of an altar, and it should not be brought into a Beit Midrash.


            The Orchot Chayyim (Hilkhot Beit Kenesset 8b) writes, in the name of the Maharam Mi-Rutenburg, that one should not enter a synagogue with a long knife, as "prayer lengthens a man's days, and a knife shortens them…." The Shulchan Arukh (151:6) cites this opinion. 


            The Acharonim debate whether the proscription against a long knife (or weapon) if related to the sanctity of the synagogue (kedushat Beit Kenesset), or to Tefilla. 


            On the one hand, the Orchot Chayyim cites this law the section which deals with the laws of a synagogue, and not the section which deals with the laws of Tefilla.  Furthermore, the Shulchan Arukh ALSO brings this halakha in the laws of kedushat Beit Ha-kenesset, and writes, "there are those who prohibit ENTERING with a long knife," implying that the prohibition relates to bringing the knife into a Beit Kenesset, and not to prayer alone.  Clearly, a difference between these approaches would be whether one should avoid bearing a weapon while praying alone, outside of a synagogue.


            Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, in Tzitz Eliezer (10:18), grapples with this issue, and concludes that preferably one should not enter a Beit Kenesset, or even pray, while carrying a gun.  Rather, if possible, a soldier should remove the bullets, or at least cover his weapon.  However, during times of emergency, or a soldier patrolling and protecting an area, may certainly pray, and enter a Beit Kenesset while holding a loaded gun.  Furthermore, a soldier who fears that his gun may be stolen, or who would be distracted while NOT holding his gun, may also pray with his gun. 


            The rabbis were so concerned with avoiding distractions during prayer, that at times they allowed one to compromise other aspect of Tefilla.  For example, last week we discussed one who is traveling, and will be distracted if he must get off his donkey in order to pray.  Rather, we learned, one may pray while sitting in order to avoid praying while distracted.


            Similarly, the Magen Avraham (3) cites the Sefer Chassidim, who writes that one who sees a sefer fall to the floor during Tefilla may move from one's place and pick it up, upon concluding a berakha, if he will be distracted.  Similarly, one who sees tefillin in danger of being dropped, or being treated poorly, and is distracted from his prayers, may interrupt his prayer and retrieve them, as long as he doesn't talk in the meanwhile.


            Next week, we will discuss the type, nature and definition of kavana required during Tefilla.