Regarding someone who finishes the Shemoneh Esrei while another remains standing in prayer directly behind her, the law is as follows: If she is more than four amot plus the distance of three steps away from her, she may take three steps backwards without entering the other’s four amot. If she is closer, she may not take steps back until the person behind her finishes the Amida. Even if the person behind her began praying late and prays for a long while, she may not step into the other’s four amot. As we have learned, the Aĥaronim disagree concerning the parameters of the prohibition:
According to Magen Avraham, even if the person reciting the Amida is not standing directly behind her, as long as by taking three steps she will step into the radius of the four amot in front of her, she must wait until the person behind her finishes her prayer. According to Eliya Rabba, it is forbidden only to step backwards in front of the person praying if she is standing directly in front of her. But if the person praying is not directly in front of her, she may take three steps back. Le-khatĥila, it is commendable to follow Magen Avraham, though in times of need one may be lenient like the opinion of Eliya Rabba (MB 102:18-19). Even in a situation in which the person praying is directly behind her, in extenuating circumstances she may step backwards diagonally, for there are those who explain that according to Eliya Rabba, as long as her steps do not bring her in proximity of the person praying, she may step back (cited in the name of Ĥazon Ish). 1
If someone who already completed her prayer is standing between her and the person reciting the Amida, she may take three steps backwards, since the one who already concluded her prayer constitutes a divider between them, even if the one dividing did not take three steps back yet.
In times of need it is also permitted to be lenient when there is a partition that is at least ten tefaĥim (c. 80 cm) high and at least four tefaĥim (c. 30 cm) wide between her and the person reciting the Amida. Those who wish to be lenient may treat large permanent benches in the synagogues as a partition, since their height is at least ten tefaĥim (Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 17 n. 19). 2
- The statement of Ĥazon Ish is cited in Dalet Amot shel Tefila, pp. 50 and 363. One who cannot step back because someone behind her is still praying, although she has not yet stepped away from prayer, she may respond “Barukh Hu u-varukh shemo” and recite all the prayers. If the congregation reaches Taĥanun, she may sit in order to say it, on the condition that she not sit directly in front of the person praying. When she is finished, she then stands in her place, and when the person praying behind her concludes her prayer, she takes three steps back and says Oseh Shalom (MB 124:4; see 104:9). ↩
- According to the latest calculations, a tefaĥ is 7.6cm; the calculations above are rounded off. MB 102:2 states that a partition ten tefaĥim high does not effectively permit one to pass in front of a person praying, since the person praying will be able to see her and the passing by will disturb her kavana. In extenuating circumstances, one may rely on the opinion of Ĥayei Adam and Eshel Avraham (Buczacz) who maintain that when there is a divider one may even pass directly in front of the person praying. Concerning the matter of sitting within four amot of the person praying, MB states that a partition ten tefaĥim high can be used. However, in my humble opinion, it seems best to act stringently and refrain from sitting directly in front of one who is praying so that she will not appear to be bowing down to her. For further study, see Peninei Halakha: Prayer, chapter 17 n. 15. ↩