Viddui and Nefilat Appayim (Tachanun)

  • Rav David Brofsky



Last week we concluded our study of Birkat Kohanim.  This week, we will begin our study of the prayers recited immediately following Shemoneh Esreh during both Shacharit and Mincha.  These prayers are known as Viddui (confession) and Nefilat Appayim (literally, falling on one's face; also known as Tachanun, supplication). 




In a previous shiur (which can be found at, we noted the ancient practice of reciting additional supplications upon completing one's Shemoneh Esreh


The Talmud (Berakhot 29b) teaches:


"Rabbi Eliezer says: 'Whoever makes his prayer a fixed task (keva), his prayers are not supplications'" — what is meant by a "FIXED TASK"? 


Rabbi Yaakov son of Idi said in the name of Rabbi Oshaya: "Anyone whose prayer is like a heavy burden upon him." 

The rabbis say: "Whoever does not say it in the manner of supplication." 


Rabba and Rav Yosef both say: "Whoever is not able to insert something fresh into it."


In other words, in addition to the rigid and fixed text of Shemoneh Esreh, the rabbis encourage adding personal supplications to one's prayer.


In fact, Rav Amram Gaon, in his Seder Ha-tefilla, writes:


From here onward (i.e., after Shemoneh Esreh), it is forbidden to speak about the praises of God…  However, after completing one's prayer, if one wishes to recite Viddui or to petition God, he certainly may.


According to Rav Amram Gaon, the moments after reciting Shemoneh Esreh are deemed appropriate for additional supplications or Viddui.


Indeed, on a "regular" day, the half-Kaddish recited before Keriat Ha-Torah or before Ashrei, which distinguishes between Shemoneh Esreh and the prayers recited afterwards, is delayed until after Viddui and Tachanun are recited. 


The Kol Bo, a late fifteenth-century collection of ritual and civil laws, records some of the prevalent customs. 


There are places where they are accustomed to recite the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy (Shemot 34:6-7) after the prayer "Ve-Hu rachum" (Tehillim 78:38, the first verse of Tachanun), and there are places where the whole section is recited before "Ve-Hu rachum," and there are places where they do not recite the Thirteen Attributes at all.  Each area follows its own practice.  Then the cantor falls on his face… and says: "Lord, God of Israel" and one of the supplicatory poems.  After the supplication he says (II Divrei Ha-yamim 20:12): "Va-anachnu lo neida," "And we do not know," etc.  This means that after we have recited these prayers we do not know what else we can do: "It is to You, that we turn our eyes" (ibid.).


This practice seems to imply that one's Shemoneh Esreh is almost incomplete before one recites Viddui, the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy and Tachanun!


There are different custom regarding the recitation of Viddui and the Thirteen Attributes after Shemoneh Esreh.  Sephardim, as well as those who pray according to nussach Sefarad, recite Viddui daily.  Amongst those who pray using nussach Ashkenaz, some recite Viddui and the Thirteen Attributes only on Monday and Thursday, the days on which we recite the longer Tachanun and read from the Torah, while others do not recite Viddui at all. 


Seemingly, one might suggest two approaches to understanding the custom to recite Viddui and the Thirteen Attributes after Shemoneh Esreh.


On the one hand, Viddui might be viewed as an extension of or addition to Shemoneh Esreh.  We described above how one's formal tefillat keva should preferably be accompanied by an informal supplication.  Thus the Talmud (Berakhot 17a) records various prayers recited by the rabbis upon their concluding Shemoneh Esreh


Furthermore, one might even suggest that Viddui and Shemoneh Esreh share a common theme.  The Machzor Vitry (19), for example, explains:


We recite Shemoneh Esreh silently because in it a person confesses his sins.  This is something that the person next to him should not be able to hear.  However, other prayers which do not involve confession, like the berakhot before Keriat Shema and after Keriat Shema, need not be recited silently.


According to the Machzor Vitry, Shemoneh Esreh and Viddui share similar qualities.  If so, then what does Viddui add?  What aspect of "confession" is achieved through this Viddui which is not achieved during Shemoneh Esreh?  We might suggest that Viddui represents a communal confession, recited after the individual Viddui, similar to our practice on Yom Kippur.  If so, then maybe Viddui should only be recited when praying with a minyan


Alternatively, Viddui might be a preparation for the Thirteen Attributes or Tachanun, further humbling the mitpallel (the one who prays) before he falls upon his face in desperation, as we shall study later in this shiur


The Thirteen Attributes:


While the laws of the recitation of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy are beyond the scope of this shiur, I would like to briefly relate to the character and function of their recitation in general and their invocation after Shemoneh Esreh in specific. 


The Gemara (Rosh Ha-shana 17a) teaches:


"And God passed before him and proclaimed" (Shemot 34:6) — Rabbi Yochanan said: "Were it not written in the text, it would be impossible for us to say such a thing: this verse teaches us that God enwrapped Himself like the sheliach tzibbur (prayer leader) and showed Moshe the order of prayer.  He said to him: 'Whenever Israel sin, let them perform this service before Me, and I will forgive them…'"


Rav Yehuda said: "There is a covenant made concerning the Thirteen Attributes, that they never return empty-handed, as it is written (ibid., v. 10), 'Behold, I am making a covenant.'"


According to the Talmud, whenever the Jewish people sin — or, according to other sources (see Eliyyahu Zuta 23), whenever the Jewish people are in crisis — they are instructed to recite the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, and they will be forgiven. 


Interestingly, the Ein Yosef (Rosh Ha-shana 17a; see also Alshikh al Ha-Torah, Parashat Shelach Lekha) cites Rabbi Moshe Alshikh (1508-1593, Tzefat), who struggles with the issue that many have recited the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy without witnessing results and explains, in the name of the author of Livnat Ha-sappir:


For this very reason, it does not say: recite this service, but rather: "Perform this service" – implying that [forgiveness] is not dependent upon speech alone, but rather upon performance… If you emulate these attributes, you will not return empty-handed.


Indeed, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (16th-century Tzefat) bases his entire work Tomer Devora, a book of ethical teaching, on the Thirteen Attributes and how to emulate them. 


In other words, the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, according to the Alshikh, are no magical formula of attaining forgiveness, but rather a spiritual and ethical program which should make a person worthy of forgiveness. 


One might suggest that the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy follow Viddui, as they provide the mitpallel with a program of repentance, which, he hopes, will assist him to attain forgiveness.


Nefilat Appayim- Tachanun:


The Tur (OC 131) explains:


The reason [for reciting Tachanun] is that we pray in every possible manner.  A man should pray while sitting, then standing, then falling upon his face — just as Moshe did, as it says, "And I sat upon the mountain" (Devarim 9:9); "And I stood upon the mountain" (ibid. 10:10); "And I fell before God" (ibid. 9:18).  Since we have no strength to pray another way, we say, "And we do not know."


According to the Tur, Tachanun concludes our three-pronged approach to prayer: sitting [praising God], standing [supplication and petition] and falling on our faces out of humility and shame [Nefilat Appayim].


The Talmud (Megilla 22b) refers to the custom in Babylonia to "fall upon one's face."  Furthermore, another gemara (Bava Metzia 59b) emphasizes the apparent efficacy of the custom of falling upon one's face. 


Imma Shalom was Rabbi Eliezer's wife and Rabban Gamliel's sister.  From the time of this incident [when Rabbi Eliezer was excommunicated by the Sanhedrin, of which Rabban Gamliel was the head] onwards, she did not permit [Rabbi Eliezer] to fall upon his face [out of fear for her brother's life]. 


Now [she thought that] a certain day was the New Moon, but she mistook a defective month for a full one; others say, a poor man came and stood at the door, and she took out some bread to him.  [On her return,] she found him fallen on his face.


"Arise," she cried out to him, "you have slain my brother!"


In the meanwhile, an announcement was made from the house of Rabban Gamliel that he had died.  "How do you know this?" he asked her. 


"I have this tradition from my father's house: all gates are locked, except the gates of wounded feelings."


Leaving aside the specifics of this particular incident, the gemara implies the power of one's "wounded feelings" in the context of Nefilat Appayim


The Geonim, as well as the Rishonim (see Rambam, Hilkhot Tefilla 5:14, for example), cite this custom but generally do not specify which text to recite, emphasizing the personal character of Nefilat Appayim.  An established text for Nefilat Appayim emerged only later, differing between the Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities. 


Rav Yosef Karo, in Beit Yosef (131), cites the Zohar, which describes the tikkun (improvement, repair) of falling upon one's face while reciting Tehillim 25:


And this tikkun should be recited with great sincerity; then God shows compassion to His people and forgives their sins.  Happy is the person who can entice and serve his MASTER with will and sincerity, and woe to the person who attempts to entice his Master with a distant heart and without sincerity… which causes one to leave this world before one's time.


Sephardic communities, based upon this Zohar, recite Tehillim 25 upon concluding Shemoneh Esreh.  The Ben Ish Chai (Parashat Ki Tissa 13), fearing the Zohar's harsh sentence for one who recites this chapter without sincere intention, concludes that one should recite this chapter WITHOUT falling upon one's face.  Despite Rav Yosef Karo's ruling, in Shulchan Arukh (131:1), that one should fall on one's face for Tachanun, Rav Ovadya Yosef (Yechavveh Da'at 6:7) concurs with the Ben Ish Chai's position and rules that Sephardim should refrain from performing Nefilat Appayim.


The Magen Avraham (131:5) bases the Ashkenazic custom upon the Zohar; he suggests that out of fear that one may recite Tehillim 25, while falling on one's face, with a "distant heart," Ashkenazim recite a different passage (i.e. Tehillim 6:2-11).


Before discussing Nefilat Appayim as it applies to Ashkenazic communities, as well as the other laws of Tachanun, we must briefly discuss the halakhic positions regarding prostration upon a stone floor and how they impact upon the custom of falling on one's face for Tachanun.


Prostrating on a Stone Floor:


The Torah (Vayikra 26:1) teaches:


You shall make no idols; you shall not set up a graven image or a pillar; you shall not place any figured stone in your land, to bow down on it; for I am the LORD, your God.


Based upon the gemara (Megilla 22b), the Rishonim (Rambam, Sefer Ha-mitzvot, Negative Command 12; Chinnukh 349; Semag, Negative Command 43), count bowing upon a stone floor as a Biblical prohibition. 


They differ, however, as to the reason for this prohibition.  While Rashi (Megilla 22b, s.v. Lo) implies that this prohibition protects the centrality of the Temple, where one is permitted to bow on a stone floor, most Rishonim attribute this prohibition to idolatry-related issues.  The Rambam (ibid.), for example, explains that the prohibition distances us from the behavior of pagan worshippers.  We are enjoined not to imitate the mode of worship of the pagans, even if the content of our worship is purely monotheistic.  The Chinnukh (ibid.) differs, explaining that one who prostrates upon a stone floor may actually be suspected of idolatry itself!


What exactly does the Torah prohibit?


At the outset, we should note that there are three forms of bowing and prostration.  The gemara (Megilla 22b) teaches that while kidda involves bowing one's face to the ground and keria entails going down on one's knees, hishtachavaya entails stretching out one's arms and legs in full prostration.  (We should point out that this "keria" should not be confused with the term used for "reading" or "reciting," which is spelled differently in Hebrew — the former with the letters kaf and ayin, the latter with the letters kuf and alef.)


The gemara (Megilla 22b) teaches that "the Torah prohibits only stretching out one's arms and feet" on a stone floor. 


The gemara presents two opinions as to whether full prostration (hishtachavaya) on a NON-stone floor is prohibited. 


Rav came to Bavel on a public fast.  He arose and read from the [Torah] scroll…  


Everybody fell on their faces, but Rav did not fall on his face.  Why did Rav not fall on his face?  The floor was made of stone, and we have learned: "'You shall not place any figured stone in your land, to bow down on it; for I am the LORD, your God' — on it, you may not bow in your land, but you may bow on the stones of the Temple."


This is according to (the opinion of) Ula, for Ula said: "The Torah has only forbidden a floor of stones." 


If this is so, why only Rav - all of them also [should not have bowed down]?  [The stone portion) was only in front of Rav.  If so, let him go closer to the people and fall on his face [where there are no stones]!


According to the gemara, Rav did not fall on his face, even on an area of the floor NOT made of stone.  The gemara questions why he still refrained from falling on his face, while the others did, and it answers:


He did not want to bother the public; alternatively, you may say that Rav would stretch out his arms and feet (when bowing; i.e., he would prostrate himself completely), [so he refrained] in accordance with Ula, for Ula said: "The Torah prohibited only stretching out one's arms and feet."


So let him fall on his face and not stretch out his arms and feet!  He did not want to change his custom.


The gemara explains that Rav stood on an area of the floor made of stone, but he still did not prostrate himself.  Tosafot (s.v. Ve-ibba'it eima) explains that according to the FIRST opinion, apparently he did not prostrate himself, even partially, as incomplete prostration on a stone floor is still prohibited mi-derabbanan (on a rabbinical level).  According to the SECOND opinion, however, while incomplete prostration may have been permitted, Rav was unwilling to change his custom and bow in a different manner.   


The Rambam (Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 6:8; Kesef Mishneh ibid.) rules in accordance with the first opinion, that one who prostates himself on a stone floor, even without extending one's arms and legs, violates a rabbinic prohibition. 


Regarding full prostration on a mat or rug, while the Rambam (6:7) permits it, the Rivash (412) prohibits it because of the stones underneath.  The Rema (131:8), who rules in accordance with the Rivash, writes: "It is prohibited for a person to fall on his face while fully spreading his arms and legs, EVEN if the floor is not of figured stone."


The Mishna Berura (131:40) explains that mi-deoraita (on a biblical level), it is prohibited to fully prostrate oneself upon a stone floor; mi-derabbanan, one may not perform hishtachavaya on a non-stone floor OR even kidda on a stone floor.  However, to partially prostrate oneself on a non-stone floor would be permitted. 


Are there any cases, according to the Rema, in which one may fully prostrate himself?  The Acharonim differ as to how to interpret the Rema (131:8) and whether there are one or two other scenarios in which one may perform hishtachavaya.


Hishtachavaya While Inclined:


The gemara (Megilla 22b-23a), according to some, adds another case in which one may prostrate on a stone floor.


Rabbi Elazar said: "An important person is not permitted to fall on his face unless he is assured that he will be answered like Yehoshua bin Nun, concerning whom it is written (Yehoshua 7:10), 'God said to Yehoshua: "Arise and go."'"


Rav Chiyya bar Abbin said: "I saw that Abbayyei and Rava would incline themselves."


The gemara relates that an "important person" should not fall on his face unless he is confident that his prayers will be answered.  The Rishonim differ as to how to understand this gemara.  Some, for example, explain that this is in order to protect the dignity of the "important person" if his prayers are not answered.


More important, for our purposes, is the behavior of Abbayyei and Rava.  Why did they "incline" during their Nefilat Appayim?


Some Rishonim (see Rashi 23a; Rambam, Hilkhot Tefilla 5:14) explain that Abbayyei and Rava, as "important people," preferred not to perform a full Nefilat Appayim; rather, they merely leaned their heads to one side, similar to the manner in which we recite Tachanun.


Others, including the Rosh (Megilla 3:4) and Tosafot (s.v. Ve-ibba'it eima), explain that Abbayyei and Rava "inclined" in order to avoid the prohibition of full prostration on a stone floor.  If so, according to these opinions, one may fully prostrate oneself (perform hishtachavaya) even on a stone floor, if one inclines one's head to the side (see also Rambam, Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 6:7).


The Acharonim differ as to how the Rema (131:8) rules.  He writes:


It is prohibited for a person to fall on his face while fully spreading his arms and legs, even if the floor is not of figured stone.  However, if he tilts a bit to the side, it is permitted if the floor is not of figured stone, and that is what people should do when they fall on their faces on Yom Kippur, if they spread out grass in order to separate between them and the floor, and that is the custom.


The Taz (22) cites two interpretations of the Rema.  According to one interpretation, if one spreads out grass over a stone floor, then one may fully prostrate while inclining to this side.  In other words, inclining solves the problem of hishtachavaya if the floor is made out of another material or if there is another material separating the person from the floor. 


According to a second interpretation, the Rema is offering a SECOND case in which one may fully prostrate.  Not only may one prostrate on a NON-stone surface if one inclines, but even over a stone surface — if one puts anther separation between the stone floor and the person, such as grass or a mat — then one may fully prostrate, even without inclining.  That, the Magen Avraham notes, is our practice on Yom Kippur, when we prostrate during our recitation of the Temple service. 



Next week we will continue our study of the laws of Tachanun.