Viddui and Nefilat Appayim (Tachanun) II

  • Rav David Brofsky



     Last week we began our study of the prayers recited immediately following Shemoneh Esreh.  We discussed the custom to recite Viddui and the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy.  Furthermore, we introduced Nefilat Appayim, the ritual of falling on one's face while reciting the supplication known as Tachanun, which, according to the Tur, serves as the third leg of our three-pronged program of prayer.


     We continued to discuss the prohibition of prostrating on a stone floor.  We learned that while mi-deoraita one may not perform a full prostration (hishtachavaya) on a stone floor, the Rema rules that mi-derabbanan one may neither perform hishtachavaya on a non-stone floor nor perform kidda (partial prostration) on a stone floor.  Furthermore, if partially turned to one side, one may prostrate fully, according to some, even on a stone floor! 


     This week we will discuss the parameters of the custom to fall upon one's face while reciting Tachanun, as well as the other laws and customs which govern its recitation. 


How to "Fall on One's Face"


     The Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 5:13-4) describes the different customs regarding Nefilat Appayim.  Some, he writes, perform a complete prostration, while some just do kidda, bending down on their knees and putting their faces to the floor. 


     Apparently, over time, out of fear of violating the biblical and rabbinic prohibitions regarding prostration, this practice was abolished.  Indeed, the Tur (131) cites Rav Natrunai Gaon, who writes that one who "falls on his face" should suspend his head above the ground in order not to appear as if he is prostrating on the ground.  As we mentioned last week, many Sephardic Jews do not perform Nefilat Appayim at all.


     Nefilat Appayim is generally performed by resting one's head on one's arm.  The Beit Yosef (Rav Yosef Karo) cites a disagreement as to whether one should rest his head upon his right or his left arm.  On the one hand, the Roke'ach (124) writes that one should incline upon the right arm, as the Shekhina (Divine presence) is portrayed as being "in front" of a person — "I have set God always before me" (Tehillim 16:8) — so that one fulfills the verse "Let his left hand be under my head, and his right hand embrace me" (Shir Ha-shirim 2:6, 8:3).  On the other hand, the Shibbolei Ha-leket (30) writes that Rav Hai Gaon insists that one should lean on one's left side.  He explains that since leaning upon one's left side is the behavior of "freemen and kings," it is appropriate that one should face downwards, in shame and subjugation, while leaning specifically on this side.  He cites others who concur with this view, and he concludes that this is the common custom.


     Indeed, in Shulchan Arukh (131:1), Rav Yosef Karo writes that it is customary to lean on the left side.  The Rema cites the opposing opinion, and he concludes that during Shacharit in the morning, when men usually wear tefillin on their left arm, one should lean on his right side out of respect for his tefillin; at Mincha, or whenever one is not wearing tefillin forwhatever reason, one should lean on the left.


     The Mishna Berura (131:6) notes that the Vilna Gaon would always lean on his left arm.  Interesting, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe OC 5:20:19) explains that due to the different opinions, his custom is to lean on BOTH arms. 


     The Peri Megadim (Mishbetzot Zahav 2) writes that a left-handed person should lean, during Shacharit, on his stronger hand (since such a person places his tefillin on his right arm).  While he expresses doubt as to what one should do during Mincha, it is customary for ALL to lean on their left hand at the afternoon service.


     However, while inclining to the left or right might have been necessary when Nefilat Appayim included full prostration on a stone floor, nowadays, when we neither prostrate nor put our face to the floor, turning our heads seems to be superfluous.  Indeed, the Mishna Berura (Bei'ur Halakha 131:1) arrives at this conclusion and explains that leaning to one side is merely a custom, in remembrance of the ancient rite of full prostration.  However, he cites the Magen Avraham (131:20), who insists that Nefilat Appayim over a stone floor is still prohibited even if one has no intention to prostate, as he still intends to "fall upon his face" over a stone floor.


     It is customary to cover one's face during Nefilat Appayim.  The Magen Avraham (131:2), consistent with his view above, explains that the cover serves to separate between one's face and the ground, serving as a barrier, thereby permitting one to perform Nefilat Appayim.  Therefore, he claims, one may not lean upon one's arm without a sleeve or another type of separation, as one's body cannot serve as a separation between the face and the floor. 


According to the Magen Avraham, it seems that those who merely cover their foreheads, but leave the majority of their head and face exposed to the ground, are not performing Nefilat Appayim correctly.  Rather, one should cover one's entire face with one's sleeve, or recite the Tachanun over a table or bench, which serve as a separation.


     The custom to cover one's face may also simply be an expression of shame and humility, consistent with the theme of Tachanun, especially according to the opinion of the Mishna Berura cited above, which fundamentally rejects the need to lean or to separate one's face from the floor. 


     The Beit Yosef cites Rabbi Yitzchak ben Sheshet Perfet (1326–1408), the Rivash, who writes that Nefilat Appayim may be performed even while standing!  On the other hand, he cites the chakhmei ha-kabbala (the scholars of Jewish mysticism), who insist that it must be performed while sitting.  In his Shulchan Arukh (131:2), he rules in accordance with the chakhmei ha-kabbala, that Nefilat Appayim must be performed while sitting. 


     The Mishna Berura (131:10) writes that in extenuating circumstances one may rely upon the Rivash's view.  For example, if one cannot sit because there is no chair or because he is standing within four cubits of a person who is in the middle of his Shemoneh Esreh (see OC 105), one should recite Nefilat Appayim while standing, preferably leaning on the wall.  The Arukh Ha-shulchan records that the custom in his area is for the sheliach tzibbur to perform Nefilat Appayim while leaning against the Ammud, the stand on which he puts his siddur while he leads the prayers.


Where is Nefilat Appayim Performed?


     The Beit Yosef once again cites the Roke'ach (324), who suggests that one should only perform Nefilat Appayim in the presence of a Sefer Torah (Torah scroll).  He finds support for this in the verse "And Yehoshua rent his clothes and FELL TO THE EARTH UPON HIS FACE BEFORE GODS'S ARK until the evening" (Yehoshua 6:7). Although the Beit Yosef and others reject this claim, the Rema (131:2) writes that one should recite the Tachanun WITHOUT Nefilat Appayim in a place without a Sefer Torah


     The Rema adds that one may also perform Nefilat Appayim in a courtyard facing a beit keneset (synagogue).  The Mishna Berura explains that this refers to a case in which the courtyard faces an open synagogue from an angle that one can see the Aron Ha-kodesh, the Holy Ark. 


     Some suggest that one may still fall on one's face in the presence of a sefer Torah which is invalid (pasul), in the presence of other holy books or even in a beit keneset which has no sefer Torah (see Ishei Yisrael 25:10, n. 36-7).


     Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, as related in Nefesh Ha-Rav (pg. 124), would recite Tachanun while leaning on his left arm even outside the presence of a Sefer Torah (see Taz 131:5). 


     Interestingly, Rav Yechiel Michel Tukitchinsky, in his Sefer Eretz Yisrael (1:9), records that the custom in Jerusalem is to perform Nefilat Appayim even without the presence of a sefer Torah, as one who prays in Jerusalem is always considered to be "before God's Ark."  While he does not distinguish between the old and new city of Jerusalem, Rav Shelomo Zalman Auerbach (see Ishei Yisrael 25, n. 39) claims that this custom only applies in the Old City of Jerusalem. 


     Interestingly, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe OC 5:20:5) relates to the education of children regarding Nefilat Appayim.  He notes that in prewar Europe, many schools did not educate their students, even those who had already learned a few tractates (!), to perform Nefilat Appayim.  However, nowadays, when children are taught to recite Tachanun with Nefilat Appayim, they should recite it properly even outside the presence of a Sefer Torah.  He argues that many opine that even the presence of printed books of Torah suffices; furthermore, for educational purposes, it should be permitted.  When the children grow older and join in communal prayer, they will learn the local customs regarding Nefilat Appayim.


When is Tachanun NOT Recited?


     The Beit Yosef cites the Mahari Abuhav, who suggests, based upon kabbalistic reasons, that Nefilat Appayim should not be performed at times.  The Mishna Berura (131:17), commenting upon this ruling in Shulchan Arukh (131:3), notes that if the Mincha service extends into the night, one should not perform Nefilat Appayim.  However, during bein ha-shmashot (between sunset and when the stars are visible), it is customary to perform Nefilat Appayim.  Furthermore, when reciting Selichot, the penitential prayers preceding the High Holy Days, he rules (ibid. 18) that one may perform Nefilat Appayim, with which the Selichot conclude, anytime after halakhic midnight (chatzot).  Furthermore, he maintains (ibid. 16) that one may RECITE the supplication of Tachanun itself after dark, even without Nefilat Appayim.


     As Tachanun and Nefilat Appayim express a somewhat solemn mood, focusing upon our weaknesses and frailties, it is customary not to recite Tachanun on festive days, which includes not only Shabbat and Festivals, but also Friday afternoon and the days immediately preceding and following Festivals.  Shulchan Arukh (131:6-7) records that the custom is also to refrain from reciting Tachanun on "minor" holidays such as the 15th of Av, 15th of Shevat, Rosh Chodesh, Chanukka and Purim, starting from Mincha of the previous day (see Mishna Berura 131:32).  Furthermore, it is also customary not to recite Tachanun during the entire month of Nisan, on the 9th of Av or between Yom Kippur and Sukkot.  The Rema adds that one should not recite Tachanun on Lag Be-Omer, on the days before Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur or from Rosh Chodesh Sivan until after Shavuot.  Some (see Mishna Berura 131:36) refrain during the six days after Shavuot, during which some of the Festival's sacrifices may still be offered.  Many communities also refrain from reciting Tachanun on Yom Ha-Atzmaut or Yom Yerushalayim, which are celebratory days in Eretz Yisrael.   


People or Occasions for Which Tachanun is Omitted:


     In Shulchan Arukh (131:4), Rav Yosef Karo rules that one should not recite Tachanun in the house of a mourner, in the house of or in the presence of a chatan (groom), or in a beit keneset on the day of a berit mila (circumcision)


     Regarding the house of a mourner during the week of shiva, the Beit Yosef explains that this custom is based upon the verse "And I will turn your feasts into mourning" (Amos 8:10), which equates festive and tragic commemorations.   


Some Acharonim question this logic and suggest that a house of mourning is simply not an appropriate place to emphasize the "middat ha-din" (attribute of justice).  The Taz (131:9) insists that those who pray in a mourner's house should recite Tachanun afterwards in their own homes, as the reason one does not recite Tachanun in a mourner's house applies only to the mourner.  The Arukh Ha-shulchan (131:14) notes that when a mourner comes to synagogue, the congregation should still recite Tachanun


     During the seven days after his wedding, a chatan and those who pray with him should not recite Tachanun.  The Mishna Berura (131:21) cites two opinions regarding whether the chatan and those who pray with him should recite Tachanun on the day of his wedding.  The Arukh Ha-shulchan (131:16) records that the custom is to be lenient.


     Furthermore, the Mishna Berura (131:26) notes an interesting distinction when it comes to the final day of this week.  When it comes to Sheva Berakhot, the seven blessings recited in the presence of the couple at meals during this week, we count the day of the wedding as a full day, regardless of when the wedding ceremony took place.  If, for example, a wedding takes place on Sunday afternoon, Sheva Berakhot cannot be recited after Shabbat.  However, Tachanun is omitted for a full seven days, i.e., 168 hours, so that in our case, Tachanun would be omitted the following Sunday morning at Shacharit.  The custom is in accordance with this view (see Ishei Yisrael 25:20), despite the Arukh Ha-shulchan's objections (131:17).


     The Taz (131:10) suggests that a chatan should refrain from entering a beit keneset, as he will cause the congregation to omit Tachanun.  The custom does not seem to be in accordance with his view.


     Regarding a berit mila, Tachanun is omitted in the beit keneset in which the berit will be performed.  In the afternoon, after the berit mila has already been performed, Tachanun is recited. 


     Furthermore, the Mishna Berura (131:22) notes that if any of the "masters of the berit" are present in a minyan — i.e., the father, the mohel (circumciser) or the sandak, who holds the baby — Tachanun is omitted, even if they pray in a different beit keneset than the one where the berit is scheduled. 


     The Acharonim (see Piskei Teshuvot 131:24) discuss whether we should suspend the recitation of Tachanun for other occasions, such as: pidyon ha-ben, the redemption of a firstborn son; hanachat tefillin, the first time a boy puts on tefillin in his life; bar mitzva; siyyum, the completion of studying a unit of Torah; or hakhnasat sefer Torah, the inauguration of a new Torah scroll.


     Many Chasidic communities omit Tachanun on the yarzheit (anniversary of the death) of a tzaddik (saint).  Many authorities have strongly criticized this practice.



     Next week, we will continue our study of the prayers recited after Shemoneh Esreh.