Sunday, March 17, 2013

Three Steps Forward, Three Steps Back

We've all seen it. Take three steps forward. Take three steps back.

Over Shabbat, Mr. T and I had a series of fascinating discussions about halacha (Jewish law) and minhag (Jewish customs). It was one of those where I lamented not being able to use Google, and Mr. T ran to his seforim (books) and began searching for the answers.

The issue at hand? At the beginning of the Amidah (aka Shemonei Esrei aka the central prayers during the morning, afternoon, and evening prayers), we're instructed in most prayer books to take three steps back and then three steps forward before we begin davening. Why?

Well, the answer is simply because Rabbi Artscroll tells us to, right? It's just what people do. Everyone does. Right?

I was telling Mr. T during dinner about how it drives me nuts in davening when after the Shemonei Esrei when there is no repetition that people take their three steps forward and then do the hop, hop, hop action. Why does it drive me nuts? Because the only reason you're meant to do this is because it's part of the repetition when you say Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh and rise on your toes. If you're running behind and miss the repetition, you finish the Shemonei Esrei and then do your three-kadosh hop. But when there's no repetition, there's no need for the three-kadosh hop.

Mr. T smiled and quipped that the whole "three steps back" before davening is a minhag, not law, and that you're only meant to do it if there's no space for you to step forward -- the forward steps are necessary, the backward steps are not.

What!? Mind blown. So he ran and grabbed his Mishnah Brurah and got searching (because, of course, I didn't believe him). I grabbed all of my siddurim and attempted to find something that says "By the way, this is minhag and you're only supposed to do it if you don't have space!" But I couldn't find a thing.

The outcome?

From Rama 95:1, Mishna Brurah 95:3, and Piskei Teshuvot 95:3: You should take three steps forward to show that you're doing an obligatory mitzvah. The halacha doesn't require taking three steps backward, but the "Minhag Ha'Olam" is to take three steps back in order to take three steps forward.

Mind blown again! That being said, I'm proud that the nusach with which I'm now davening (it's a little green one from England) only says to take three steps forward -- no backwards steps. Interesting!

So why do we all do it? Does anyone even think about it? Did you know that you're not obliged to take three steps back before the Shemonei Esrei

Note: There are some people who stand and take three steps back before Tehilot l'el elyon. I can't seem to find where this comes from, unfortunately. Anyone know? (See below.)