Tuesday, October 25, 2005

I always think of kneeling (the knees on the ground kind) as goyish -- something Dennis the Menace does next to his bed before going to sleep or Muslims do on rugs facing Mecca. Of course, it's perfectly Jewish, except for the fact that Jews almost never do it.

Keri'ah is kneeling (or at least bending the knees and bowing); kidah is bowing so that the forehead touches the ground; hishtachavayah is lying prostrate so that the forehead touches the ground and arms and legs are spread. As is clear from the gemara in Megillah 22b, the ordinary form of tachanun is with either kidah or hishtachavayah. The Rambam also rules (Hil. Nesias Kapayim 5:14) that this is how tachanun should be performed.

So why do we not do this? There is a Biblical prohibition against bowing (outside of the beis hamikdash) so that one's forehead is touching the ground, where that ground is hewn stone (even maskis). According to at least one view in the gemara in Megillah this prohibition is restricted to the case of hishtachavayah. One way to avoid this problem is to lean slightly to the side so that the forehead does not make contact with the ground.

One can speculate that as shul architecture evolved, kidah with a slight twist evolved into the pretty lame lean we do today. This is an area ripe for some kind of back-to-authenticity movement a la techeiles. And it doesn't even cost money.

One might wonder why we should fuss about the prohibition in places where there is no stone floor. And moreover, why we should be concerned about the prohibition if we don't do hishtachavayah (though, it is not clear that we shouldn't be doing hishtachavayah on Yom Kippur). The answer goes back to two chumrahs of the Rivash (Resp. 412). First, the Rivash holds that the prohibition holds even for kidah. Second, he holds that the prohibition holds even in a place where there was once a stone floor that has since been built over. This is why the Rema rules that (even on non-stone floors) one should put paper or some such in front of his head (not under his knees) when bowing on Yom Kippur (presumably, even the Rivash would agree that some material that is not attached to the ground would be sufficient interference).

Incidentally, the business about not even doing the lame lean in the absence of a sefer torah is a novel idea of the Roke'ach. The Divrei Yatziv, in a comprehensive responsum about customs of tachanun (OH 74), argues persuasively that the Roke'ach's rule should only apply for those actually doing hishtachavayah. In any case, he says, since tachanun is optional, it isn't worth getting into arguments about it.


Blogger Russell said...

What an interesting analysis. I had always been told that we eschewed kneeling and prostration nowadays because those practices had been adopted by other faiths.

5:12 AM  
Anonymous Dave said...

I agree - interesting post.

My question - if tachanun requires kidah or hishtachavayah, why is it called "nefilat apayim"? Doesn't that seem to indicate that davka the head falls (and not the rest of the body)?

9:39 AM  
Anonymous settler@zion.org said...

The Rambam in his Seder Ha'Tefila uses the phrase "Nefilat Panim" and specifically refers to lifting the face off the groud.

נהגו העם להתחנן אחר נפילת פנים, כשמגביה פניו מן הקרקע

11:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"va'anachnu korim umishtachavim umodim"

What is "modim"? Should be even more than mishtachavim, but what ould top that?

6:14 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

I heard a story once about a Rambamist who took his Muslim-designed prayer rug and turned some heads when he did full-blown hishtahhavaya at Ma‘arat Hamakhpeila. :-)


modim = 'offer thanks'; it's a description of the content of prayer as opposed to the position of prayer.
Although, due (i learned around Rosh Hashana) to my father, i have a strong association between modim in this context and the similar-sounding verb ‘omedim, which would then signify "we kneel, bow, and stand back up".

7:55 PM  
Blogger The Observer said...

So if tachanun requires touching the forhead to the floor, what happens to the Shel Rosh? We've got the shacharis/right arm, mincah/left arm in the current version of nefilat apayim, but does one take off the tefillin to do the full version?

7:33 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

According to the Rambamists i've talked to, full Tahhanun bowage involves laying down on the ground, leaning on your side with your head against your arm. So just like your forehead leans on your arm in non-bowing [Ashkenaz-style] Nefilat Apayim, your head would lean on your arm so the tefillin wouldn't touch the ground

3:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


5:04 PM  
Anonymous Dave ( Balashon) said...

I know this post is a little old, but as an answer to Anonymous, I wrote about the connection between modim and bowing here:


11:41 AM  

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