After the conclusion of the Shaĥarit Amida, it is customary for men to “fall on their faces” and plead before God. By doing so, they fulfill the mitzva of prayer in all three of its positions – Birkhot Keri’at Shema while sitting, Shemoneh Esrei while standing, and Taĥanun (“Supplication”) while bending forward (“Nefilat Apayim”). We learn this from our teacher Moshe, who pleaded to God to forgive Israel following the sin of the Golden Calf.
Nefilat Apayim possesses a special power and is most effective in times of distress. Indeed, we see that when God commanded Moshe and Aharon, during their dispute with Koraĥ and his followers, “Separate yourselves from this group and I will destroy them in an instant,” they immediately understood that they must pray intensely. Therefore, they prayed in prostration: “They fell on their faces and said: ‘Lord, God of all living souls, if one man sins, shall You become angry at the entire community?’” (Bamidbar 16:21-22). By virtue of their prayer recited in prostration, the decree was cancelled.
Nefilat Apayim is so powerful because it expresses the complete surrender of the self to his Creator and total self-sacrifice. It is as if the person is saying to the Almighty: “All my senses and limbs are void before You. Do to me as You will, for I am all Yours.” Thus, the prayer of Nefilat Apayim can repair flaws that cannot be repaired through regular prayer (see Zohar Bamidbar 120:2).
Nefilat Apayim also expresses man’s shame before God. After the Amida, in which we addressed God’s greatness and set all our requests before Him, we are ashamed to show our faces. How did we dare stand before Him in prayer? So we fall down on our faces. Nefilat Apayim also conveys our sorrow as we repent of our sins; we are so anguished that we cannot lift our faces (see Rabbeinu Baĥya on Bamidbar 16:22).
Despite its great virtue, the Sages did not ordain Nefilat Apayim as an obligatory prayer or fix its wording. Anyone who wished would add prayers of supplication while lying prostrate after reciting the Amida. Perhaps specifically because of its superior value – its expression of total submission to the Creator – it is fitting that it comes from the heart, from one’s unguarded resolve.