Chapter 12: The Amida

01. Three Steps toward Prayer

During the Amida prayer we stand before God, the King of kings. This is not the case regarding other berakhot and prayers: although all prayers must be recited with solemnity and kavana, they are not on the same level as the Amida, in which we stand before the King. Therefore, the Sages instituted special halakhot that pertain solely to the Amida prayer.

In order to express one’s desire to come closer to God and to stand before Him, we customarily take three steps toward the Amida prayer (Rema 95:1). After finishing these steps, one stands in place and only then recites the verse “Ado-nai sefatai tiftaĥ u-fi yagid tehilatekha” (“My Lord, open my lips and my mouth will speak your praises”; Tehilim 51:7), since that verse is part of the Amida.

One who goes to synagogue or prays in a designated place in her house has already taken more than three steps to get there, and therefore need not take another three steps prior to praying the Amida (Eliya Rabba). Some poskim say that it is proper even for one who already walked to her place of prayer to take another three steps forward, immediately before beginning the Amida, if a significant amount of time has elapsed since she arrived at her place of prayer (Ben Ish Ĥai, Be-shalaĥ 3; Kaf Ha-ĥayim 95:7). However, because it is not appropriate to take three steps back and immediately afterwards three steps forward, one who wishes to be meticulous about this should take three steps back a short time before the Amida, and, after waiting a bit, take three steps forward to begin the Amida (Minhagei Maharil; MB 95:3).

02. Facing Jerusalem

While reciting all the various berakhot and prayers, it is permissible to face in any direction. However, when one stands before the King of the world in the Amida, she must turn to face Jerusalem, the place that God chose to manifest His Presence in the world.

One who stands in prayer outside of Eretz Yisrael must face the land and direct her heart toward Jerusalem, the site of the Temple, and the Kodesh Ha-kodashim (the Inner Sanctum of the Temple). If is in Eretz Yisrael, she must face Jerusalem and direct her heart toward the Temple and the Kodesh Ha-kodashim. If she is in Jerusalem, she faces the site of the Temple and directs her heart toward the Kodesh Ha-kodashim (Berakhot 30a; SA 94:1).

Therefore, those reciting the Amida in the women’s section of the plaza facing the Kotel must turn diagonally toward the left, toward the exact site of the Temple.

In synagogues, it is customary to position the aron kodesh (the ark) against the wall that faces Jerusalem, so that those standing in prayer also pray towards the direction of the ark. However, the primary objective is to pray in the direction of Jerusalem. Therefore, if due to error, or because of circumstances beyond control, the ark does not exactly face Jerusalem, the people praying should turn to face the direction of Jerusalem (MB 94:9). Likewise, someone standing in the women’s section must face Jerusalem, even if this is not the direction of the ark (MB 94:10).

One who does not know the direction of Jerusalem may pray in whichever direction she desires while directing her heart towards her Father in heaven (SA 94:3). Even if she subsequently discovers that she was mistaken, she need not repeat her prayer. 1

  1. MB 94:10 rules that one who mistakenly starts praying in the wrong direction may not change direction, so as not to interrupt her prayer by moving in the middle of the Amida. Only if she is so embarrassed in front of the people around her that it is disturbing her kavana may she move to face Jerusalem (see Kaf Ha-ĥayim 94:7).

03. Standing and Putting One’s Feet Together

There is a unique law regarding the Amida: it must be recited while standing. When one stands, she summons her complete being, from head to toe, to prayer. In addition, standing expresses the reverence and awe felt toward the King of the world. Therefore, one must not lean against anything while reciting the Amida, for anyone who is even partially supported is not standing in awe. In extenuating circumstances, for instance, if one is weak and must lean against something, she should try to lean only slightly, such that if the support should be taken from her, she would remain standing on her own. In that way, although she is not standing in fear, she is at least considered to be praying in a standing position (SA 94:8; MB 22).

One must put her legs together so that they look like one leg. The reason for this is that the separation of one’s legs exposes one’s material side and represents the pursuit of worldly matters. Thus, we keep our feet together in prayer just like the kohanim who, in their ascent of the altar, would walk heel-to-toe to avoid spreading their legs. Furthermore, putting one’s legs together symbolizes the annulling of the powers in one’s legs, demonstrating that we have but one desire, to stand before Him in prayer. The Sages learn this from the angels, of whom it is said: “Their legs are a straight leg” (Yeĥezekel 1:7), meaning that their legs were placed so close together that they appeared as one leg (Berakhot 10b; y. Berakhot 1:1; see Maharal, Netiv Ha-avoda §6).

One must put the entire length of her foot next to the other so that they will seem like one leg to the extent possible, and not merely put her heels together (SA 95:1; Talmidei Rabbeinu Yona). However, be-di’avad, if one prayed with her feet apart, she still fulfilled her obligation (MB ad loc. 1; Kaf Ha-ĥayim 2). Someone who has trouble putting her feet together fully should place them together to the degree possible.

One who is ill and cannot stand may recite the Amida while sitting. If she is unable to sit, she may pray while lying down (MB 94:27; Kaf Ha-ĥayim 34).

Even one who must recite the Amida while sitting or lying down should try to put her feet together and bow her head at the appropriate places. When one sitting in a wheelchair finishes her prayer, she should wheel herself slightly backwards, approximately the distance of the three steps with which a healthy person would take leave of her prayer (based on Rema 94:5). 

04. Placement of the Body and Hands

One reciting the Amida must bow her head slightly, so that her eyes point humbly downwards; she must imagine herself standing in the Temple and direct her heart toward heaven (Yevamot 105b; SA 95:2).

The kabbalists praise one who prays with her eyes closed. However, even one who looks into her siddur follows the law le-khatĥila. Many Aĥaronim recommend praying from a siddur, so that one can have more kavana in her prayer (MB 95:5; Kaf Ha-ĥayim 9-10; and see BHL, quoting Ma’amar Mordechai).

Regarding one’s hands, Rambam writes (MT, Laws of Prayer 5:4) that one should place her hands on her heart while interlocked, right over left, so that she stands as a slave before her master, in awe and fear. This is also the opinion of SA 95:3 and Kavanot Ha-Ari (Kaf Ha-ĥayim 95:12). Many maintain that the placement of the hands depends on local custom; where Rambam lived, it was indeed customary to stand before kings and ministers in the manner he described. However, people in other areas practiced differently. For instance, in Christian lands people customarily stood with their arms folded, while in Islamic land they would stand with their hands behind their backs, symbolically indicating that they do not even have their hands without the consent of the One Who they face in prayer (Mahari Aboab, cited by Beit Yosef; MB 95:6). Nowadays, according to this, in addition to what Rambam wrote, it is also permissible to stand with one’s hands adjacent to her body or holding a siddur, or resting on a table next to her siddur, for that, too, is considered standing respectfully. However, one should not stand with her hands in her pockets or on her hips, for it is inappropriate to stand that way in front of respected people.

Many people are accustomed to “shuckling” (swaying) while reciting the Amida. Rema writes (§48; MB 95:7) that this is the proper way to practice le-khatĥila, as it expresses the excitement and trepidation of the prayer experience, and in order to involve one’s whole body in the service of prayer, as the verse states: “All my bones will say: ‘God, who is like You?’” (Tehilim 35:10). In contrast, Shlah states that one should not sway during prayer. On the contrary, standing motionless strengthens one’s kavana. Furthermore, it says it is not respectful to sway. If one were to come before a human king and begin to shake his whole body, the king would dismiss him immediately. If so, one should certainly not act that way in prayer. Shlah explains that the recommendation to sway applies specifically to Torah study or to singing songs and praise. However, during the intense and inward-focused Amida, in which we stand before the King, it is not proper to move at all; only one’s lips may move (Shlah, Masekhet Tamid, Ner Mitzva). Since each custom has opinions on which to rely, every person may practice in the manner that allows her to concentrate the best (MA, MB 48:5; and see Kaf Ha-ĥayim 48:7-9).

05. Bowing During the Amida

The Sages instituted bowing in five places in the Amida: at the beginning and end of Avot, at the beginning and end of Modim, and at the end of the Amida, when one takes three steps backwards. They specifically chose those two berakhot because they are the most important, and while reciting them one must try harder to concentrate properly (see SA 101:1; MB 3). If one wants to bow at the beginning or end of another berakha, she is taught not to, so as not to undermine what the Sages instituted and so that she does not appear as an arrogant person who considers herself more righteous than others. However, one may bow in the middle of one of the berakhot (SA 113:1; MB 2, see Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 17 n. 3).

One bows when saying “Barukh Ata” and straightens when saying “Hashem.” For Modim, she bows when saying “Modim anaĥnu lakh” and straightens when saying “Hashem” (SA 113:7; MB 12; for the laws on bowing down at the end of the Amida, see below, section 11).

One must bow so low that the vertebrae in one’s spine protrude from her back. One bends her head low so that it is below the level of her heart and above waist-level, but no lower, as it would appear arrogant. One should bow quickly, demonstrating her desire to bow before God, and straighten herself slowly, like one who wants to keep bowing before God (SA 113:6). An elderly or ill person who has difficulty bending down should nod her head as much as she can (SA 113:5).

Regarding how one bows, there are two customs. According to the Ashkenazic custom, when one says “barukh” she bends her knees and when she says “Ata” she bows until her vertebrae protrude. At Modim, the word “Barukh” is not recited, so one bows without first bending her knees (MB 113:12; and see Kitzur SA 18:1). The Sephardim practice according to Arizal’s custom and bow down in two stages. First, one bends her body (without bending her knees) and then her head. Similarly, when she straightens herself, she first straightens her body and then her head (Kaf Ha-ĥayim 113:21).

06. Praying Silently

We learn many essential halakhot from the prayer of Ĥana, who stood and begged God to remember her and grant her a son. Her prayer was accepted and she merited giving birth to Shmuel the prophet, who was the greatest prophet of Israel behind Moshe. The verse states: “Ĥana spoke to her heart, only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard” (1 Shmuel 1:13). The Sages teach: “‘Spoke to her heart’ – from here [we learn] that the person praying must focus his heart. ‘Only her lips moved’ – from here [we learn] that the person praying must articulate the words. ‘Her voice was not heard’ – from here [we learn] that it is prohibited to raise one’s voice while praying” (Berakhot 31a).

The idea behind the Amida prayer is to express the soul’s deepest aspirations before God, and therefore it is not proper to recite the words aloud and to disclose them outwardly. On the other hand, one does not fulfill her obligation with thought alone, since every idea must possess some tangible expression in this world. Very often, our inner desires are praiseworthy, but their outer expression is flawed. Therefore, our task is to express our inner good will outwardly, thereby repairing the world. Hence, even the subtlest mitzva like prayer, requires some sort of expression – the silent articulation of the words with one’s lips.

There are different practices regarding the proper way to pray silently. According to most poskim and a few kabbalists, one reciting the Amida must utter the words in such a way that only she hears her voice but those praying next to her do not (SA 101:2; MB 5-6). According to most kabbalists, the Amida is so intense and internal that one should not even hear her own words; she should only mouth the letters with her lips (Kaf Ha-ĥayim 101:8). The woman praying may choose the way which enables her to have the most kavana in her prayer.

Be-di’avad, even if one recites the Amida out loud, she fulfills her obligation. Therefore, if one who has difficulty concentrating silently is praying alone, in a place where she will not disturb the prayer of others, she may pray aloud. However, even in that situation, she should not raise her voice, for one who does so behaves like the false prophets who think that their gods are hard of hearing and that one must yell in order to be heard (Berakhot 24b).

On the Days of Awe, there are parts of the Amida where it is customary to raise one’s voice slightly, and one need not be concerned that she is disturbing others around her because on those days everyone has maĥzorim (SA 101:3). Nevertheless, even in those places, one who wishes to enhance the mitzva prays silently.

Regarding the other sections of the prayer service, such as Birkhot Keri’at Shema and Pesukei De-zimra, which are not as inward-focused and intense as the Amida, all agree that the person praying must hear the words she is reciting. Be-di’avad, if she only mouthed the words without hearing them, she fulfilled her obligation, but if she thought the words in her mind, without even mouthing them, she did not fulfill her obligation. 

07. In Any Language

 

One may recite the Amida in any language (Sota 32a). However, it is best to pray in Hebrew, for that is the language in which the Men of the Great Assembly composed the prayers. Furthermore, Hebrew is the holy tongue and is the language with which the world was created.

An additional advantage to praying in Hebrew, untrue of any other language, is that one may pray in Hebrew even if she does not understand it. As long as she understands the first verse of Shema and the first berakha of the Amida, she fulfills her obligation. In any other language, only one who understands what she is saying fulfills her obligation (MB 101:14 and 124:2).

In practice, one who does not understand Hebrew may choose the language in which to pray. On one hand, there is an advantage to praying in a language that she understands, for it enables her to have more kavana. On the other hand, if she prays in Hebrew, she prays in the holy tongue (see BHL 101:4; Kaf Ha-ĥayim 16). 1

Permission to pray in other languages is granted only as a temporary measure (hora’at sha’ah), specifically for people who do not understand Hebrew. However, it is prohibited to organize a minyan of people who pray regularly in a different language. That was one of the sins of the Reform movement, which translated the prayers to German and caused their children to forget the holy tongue, leading the way to assimilation and the abandonment of Judaism (Ĥatam Sofer, 84 and 86; MB 101:13).

  1. Indeed, according to Rif, only one who is reciting the Amida with a minyan may pray in another language. The reason for this is that the divine Presence dwells within a minyan; therefore her prayer will be accepted even if it is not in the holy tongue. However, the prayer of one who prays alone in a different language is not accepted. Nevertheless, most poskim agree with Rosh, who maintains that even one praying alone may pray in another language, as long as it is not Aramaic. This is the halakhic ruling (SA 101:4, based on the rule that the halakha follows the last “yesh omrim,” MB 18).

08. Kavana

One reciting the Amida must have kavana, that is, she must pay attention to what she is saying and must try not to let her mind be distracted by anything else during the prayer. If other thoughts enter her mind, she must expel them and return to her prayer. Even if she does not succeed in concentrating on all of the words, she must at least try to have kavana for the conclusion of each berakha. If she cannot concentrate during all of the berakhot, she must make an effort to concentrate on Avot and Modim, for those are the berakhot in which we bow down at their beginning and at their end. At the very least, she must have kavana in Birkat Avot, the first berakha of the Amida (SA 101:1 and MB 1-3).

If one recited the Amida but did not have kavana during Birkat Avot, technically she must repeat the Amida, because kavana during that berakha is requisite for fulfilling her obligation. However, due to the decline of generations and other preoccupations, our ability to concentrate has weakened. Therefore, the Aĥaronim rule that we do not repeat the Amida, since there is concern that even in reciting the Amida a second time, she will forget to have kavana during Birkat Avot, and her repetition will be for naught (Rema 101:1; Kaf Ha-ĥayim 4). Hence, one who knows that she will not be able to have kavana even for Birkat Avot should preferably not even begin the Amida. She should instead fulfill her obligation by reciting Birkhot Ha-shaĥar. 1

If one is about to finish Avot and notices that she did not have kavana in its recitation, as long as she has not yet said God’s name at the conclusion of the berakha, she goes back to “Elokei Avraham” and continues from there with kavana (MB 101:4, in the name of Ĥayei Adam). If she has already said God’s name, she concludes the berakha with kavana. It is preferable that she go back and think the words of Birkat Avot in her heart, for, in Rambam’s opinion, thought is considered speech (hirhur ke-dibur). However, if she already began the second beraka with the words “Ata gibor,” she continues to pray and must try to have kavana while reciting the remaining berakhot, especially Birkat Modim, for some poskim maintain that having kavana in Modim rectifies the lack of kavana in Avot.

  1. Even men who are sure that they will not be able to have kavana in Avot may not begin to pray, as explained in Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 17 n. 5. All the more so women, who be-di’avad are allowed to fulfill their obligation by reciting Birkhot Ha-shaĥar, as explained above, 2:4-5. See also Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 17 n. 6. The Aĥaronim explain that be-di’avad, even if one did not have kavana at all while reciting the Amida, since he did intend to fulfill the mitzva of prayer, he fulfills his obligation. So states Shibolei Ha-leket §17 in the name of the Rishonim. Similarly, Kaf Ha-ĥayim 101:4 states in the name of Ĥesed La-Avraham that the berakhot of one who prays without kavana are not berakhot le-vatala. This means that what he recited is considered prayer; however, because he lacked kavana, the Sages maintain that it is necessary for him to repeat the Amida. The proof for this is that one who realizes in the middle of the Amida that he did not have kavana for the first berakha does not immediately go back, which means that there is value to what he prayed without kavana. This is not true of one who realizes that he mistakenly mentioned rain in the summer, for in that case he is required to go back immediately.

    A woman who almost always has kavana but this time did not, and who is certain that when she repeats her prayer she will have kavana from the beginning of the Amida until the end, may repeat her prayer with the utmost kavana. It is best that she makes a stipulation that if the prevailing custom exempts her from repeating her prayer, it should be considered a voluntary prayer (tefilat nedava).

09. The Order of the Berakhot of Shemoneh Esrei

Shemoneh Esrei, the weekday Amida, is divided into three parts: praise, petition, and thanksgiving. While reciting the first three berakhot, we resemble slaves who offer words of praise before their master. While reciting the middle blessings we are like slaves who make requests of their master. When we recite the last three blessings, we are like slaves who gracefully accept reward from their master, then are dismissed and go on their way (Berakhot 34a).

We learn this from the prayer of Moshe, which begins with praise before continuing to plead and petition (Berakhot 32a; also see below, 15:3). Without the introductory praise, there is concern that our prayer will resemble pagan worship, whose entire aim is to magically manipulate higher powers to work for one’s benefit. In contrast, we wish to serve God and devote ourselves to Him, and all we ask is that He bestows goodness and blessing upon us in abundance so that we can study Torah, perform mitzvot, and reveal His name in the world. Therefore, we must first recognize before Whom we stand in prayer. We stand before God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome, the One Who sustains life and resurrects the dead, the holy God. With that understanding, we can approach Him and pray with a pure heart for all of Israel and for ourselves (see Olat Re’iyah vol. 1, p. 14).

The petitionary section, in which there are thirteen berakhot, contains and expresses the general aspirations of the Jewish people. They do not focus on the individual advancement of the person praying, but on the revelation of God’s glory in the world. Even our personal requests for health and livelihood are to enable us to participate in tikun olam. We ask for the following thirteen things: wisdom, repentance, forgiveness, redemption, health, livelihood, the ingathering of the Jews from exile (Kibbutz Galuyot), the restoration of justice, the destruction of those who hate us, the blessing for the righteous, the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the re-establishment of the Davidic dynasty, and finally, that our prayers be heard.

After these requests, we end the Amida with three general berakhot, the centerpiece of which is Modim, a blessing of thanks for our our lives and for all the goodness that God constantly bestows upon us. It is accompanied by two other berakhot. In the first we pray for the restoration of the Temple service, and in the last we pray for peace, since peace is the vessel that contains all berakhot. It is important to note that the Men of the Great Assembly were precise about the order of the berakhot, and one who switches their order does not fulfill her obligation (see below, 13:1).

In truth, Shemoneh Esrei (which means “eighteen”) is comprised of nineteen berakhot. When the Men of the Great Assembly first instituted the Amida, it was made up of eighteen berakhot. After the proliferation of slanderers and informers after the rise of Christianity and its preaching of hatred against the Jews, the Sages instituted an additional berakha, a prayer to save the nation from apostates and slanderers. 1

  1. The Amida continued to be called “Shemoneh Esrei,” since this was its name originally. My teacher and master, R. Zvi Yehuda Kook, further explains that the essence of the Amida is, indeed, the eighteen berakhot that have inherent value as praise and petition. Only Birkat Ha-minim is about the uprooting of evil and therefore temporary, since the eradication of evil will render it unnecessary. Therefore the name of the Amida remains “Shemoneh Esrei” (quoted in Netiv Bina, vol. 1, p. 261).

10. Personal Requests in the Amida

The Men of the Great Assembly, in their wisdom and divine inspiration, incorporated all the ideal aspirations of the Jewish people in their formulation of the Amida. They meticulously chose every word until arriving at the perfect wording, with which the Jewish soul can pour itself out before the Creator in the most exalted manner possible (above, 1:6).

Even so, if one wishes to add personal requests in the middle berakhot, she may. However, in the first three berakhot, which are intended to praise God, and in the last three, which are intended for thanksgiving, one may not add personal requests, so as not to detract from their general purpose (SA 112:1; 119:1).

The personal requests permitted in the middle berakhot must be related to the theme of the berakha. For example, one may pray for the sick in Refa’enu, for livelihood in Birkat Ha-shanim, or for relatives to make aliya in the Kibbutz Galuyot. In this respect, Shomei’a Tefila is unique in that one may make all types of requests in it. Since it is the culmination of the petitionary berakhot, it encompasses them all. When one adds personal requests, she begins by reciting the fixed formulation and adds her request just before the last line of the berakha.

Personal requests are not only permissible but even encouraged, according to many, since the personal prayers come from the depths of the heart and inspire kavana. Nevertheless, it is preferable that one not prolong her personal prayers excessively, not even in Shome’a Tefila, because the Amida is primarily focused on collective needs, and when one adds numerous personal requests, it negates the universal character of the Amida. It is better that one who wishes to add more personal prayers does so after finishing all the berakhot and saying (the first instance of) “Yihyu le-ratzon…” since everything recited after that is not fully part of the Amida. Nevertheless, since she has not yet taken three steps backwards, she is still standing before the Almighty in prayer, and her personal requests are joined together with the main part of the Amida (SA 119:2; MB 119:12).

One must express her requests in the Amida properly. Therefore, when praying for the sick, the patient’s name should be mentioned. Le-khatĥila, it is good to mention the patient’s name along with his mother or father’s name. However, in the presence of the patient, it is unnecessary to mention his name, for her intention is clear (MB 119:2).

11. The Conclusion of the Amida and Three Steps Back

In reciting the verse, “Yihyu le-ratzon…” (“May the expressions of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart find favor before You, God, my Rock, and my Redeemer”; Tehilim 19:15) right after completing the berakha for peace, we end the main part of the Amida. At this point, Elokai Netzor, a paragraph of personal pray, is customarily added. As we have learned, this is where one may add as much personal petition and supplication as she wants. It is said that R. Akiva would prolong his prayers extensively with supplications when praying alone (see Berakhot 31a).

Upon the conclusion of the prayers of supplication, one recites Yihyu le-ratzon again and takes three steps backward, thereby departing the King’s presence. The Sages say that if one prays and does not depart from the Amida properly by taking three steps back and saying “Oseh shalom…,” it would have been better not to have prayed at all (Yoma 53b). One who does not take leave properly demonstrates that she does not understand that she was standing before the Almighty King, and she thus demeans prayer.

After finishing the Amida, before beginning the three steps, one bows as she does during Modim (as explained in section 5 above), and while bowing she takes three steps backward. Still bowing, she then turns to her left and says, “Oseh shalom bi-mromav” (“May He Who makes peace in His high places…”), then to her right side and says, “Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu” (make peace for us …”), and finally bows forward and says, “ve-al kol Yisrael, ve-imru Amen” (“and all of Israel; and say: ‘amen’”). She then straightens up slowly. Many people then recite the “Yehi ratzon” paragraph praying for the restoration of the Temple, since prayer corresponds to the Tamid sacrifice and we ask that the Temple be rebuilt so that we may bring this offering (SA, Rema 123:1).

When stepping back, one takes the first step with the left leg – the weaker leg – thereby demonstrating her reluctance to take leave of her prayer. Each step should be the length of her foot, that is, she steps back toe-to-heel. The order of the steps is as follows: she first takes a small step with her left foot, so that the toes of her left foot abut her right heel. Then she takes a bigger step with her right foot, so that the toes of her right foot abut her left heel. Finally, she takes a small step with her left foot, so that her feet are even with each other. Her feet remain together while she recites Oseh shalom.

One must be careful not to take a step shorter than the length of her foot (heel-to-toe), for some poskim maintain that less than that is not considered a step (MA). When there is not enough room behind her to take three steps, she steps to the side, making sure that each step is long enough (AHS 123:5). In extenuating circumstances, when there is no room to step backwards or sideways, she may rely on the opinions that three smaller steps are sufficient. However, one may not take less than the three steps with which one takes leave from the King’s presence (Baĥ, and see MB 123:14); nor may one take more than three steps, so as not to display arrogance (SA 123:4; Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 17 n. 9). Likewise, it is not proper to take large steps, so as not to appear as though she wants to distance herself from the King (Rema 123:3; and see MB 16).

12. How Long Must One Stand at a Distance

After taking three steps backwards, one must remain standing in that place. She may not immediately return to where she prayed the Amida, for if she does, she resembles a dog that returns to its vomit (Yoma 53b), since if she returns to stand before the King without any good reason, having just taken leave from Him, she shows that she did not understand that she was standing before the King and departed His presence. Her behavior is thus considered disgraceful. Some people compound this error by returning to their initial stance and then lifting their heels slightly, as one does when reciting Kedusha. There is no reason at all to do so.

The proper practice is as follows: If one wishes to return to the place where she stood in prayer, she should wait in place for about half a minute to a minute and then do so. When necessary for her to return to the original place immediately, such as when she is blocking passage, she should wait a few seconds – the amount of time it takes to walk four amot – and then return (MB 123:11; Kaf Ha-ĥayim 20).  If she does not wish to return to her original place, she may go on her way immediately after reciting “Yehi ratzon.”

A woman who is praying in a minyan must wait in place after taking three steps back until the ĥazan begins his repetition of the Amida (SA 123:2). According to most poskim, there is no need to remain standing with one’s feet together after reciting “Oseh shalom” (MB 123:6, BHL, and SHT ad loc.).  However, there are those who recommend remaining with one’s legs together until she returns to her place (Kitzur SA 18:13).

13. One Who Is Traveling When the Time to Pray Arrives

If one who regularly prays Shaĥarit or Minĥa is driving a car when the time to pray arrives, she may not recite the Amida because she will not have proper kavana and may even endanger lives. Rather, she should pull over and only then pray.

However, if she is a passenger, and she or the driver is in a hurry to get to the destination, she may recite the Amida while sitting, since if they stop so that she can pray standing, she will be preoccupied with finishing her prayers quickly and will not have proper kavana. Therefore, it is better that she pray Shemoneh Esrei while sitting, since, as we have seen (section 3 above), one who recites the Amida while sitting fulfills her obligation be-di’avad.

Even one who is sitting while reciting the Amida must put her feet together (MB 95:2) and try to face Jerusalem (MB 94:15). At the times she is supposed to bow, she should straighten herself slightly and bow as much as she can (SA 94:5; AHS 18).

When traveling by bus or train, both of which are more spacious than a car, if one can stand and concentrate properly, it is better that she stand for Shemoneh Esrei. However, if standing will disturb her kavana, whether because of the vehicle’s motion or because of the embarrassment in front of the other passengers, she may sit with her feet together and pray. If she is able to stand for a brief time to bow down, she should stand up, bow in the appropriate places, and then sit again. If possible, at the end of her prayer, she should stand and takes three steps backwards. 1

  1. See SA 94:5. If one has two options, to stand with her feet apart or to sit with her feet together, it is preferable to stand. Similarly, it seems that it is preferable to pray while standing, even if not toward Jerusalem, than to pray while sitting facing Jerusalem (Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 17 n. 12).

14. May One Pray while Sitting on a Regular Basis?

As we have learned, the Sages established that Shemoneh Esrei is prayed while standing; one may only pray seated on a temporary basis, in times of need. Therefore, even if it is difficult for a man who travels to work every day to find time to pray while standing, he may not be lenient and regularly pray sitting. Only when he is in circumstances beyond his control is he permitted to pray on a regular basis while sitting.

Are women also permitted to pray while sitting on a regular basis while they are in circumstances beyond their control? There are women who almost never have an opportunity to pray standing. Immediately upon rising in the morning they must take care of their children, bathe them, dress them, feed them, and send them off to nursery and to school. Then they must go to work to help support the family financially. They may not pray at work, because they cannot take from their boss’s time. The only time she can pray Shemoneh Esrei is while traveling to work, in a sitting position. What should she do?

On one hand, since there are poskim who maintain that a woman may fulfill her obligation of prayer by reciting a brief prayer, it is best that she fulfills her obligation with Birkhot Ha-shaĥar and Birkhot Ha-Torah and refrain from regularly praying Shemoneh Esrei in a sitting position. On the other hand, since she has no other option, she is therefore permitted to pray Shemoneh Esrei on a regular basis while sitting. Additionally, this scenario is not considered a completely regular basis since on Shabbatot, festivals, and vacation days she must pray while standing.

In practice, since there are opinions both ways, every woman may choose how she wants to practice. If she wishes to pray Shemoneh Esrei consistently every day, she can pray on her way to work while sitting. If she wants to fulfill her obligation by reciting a short prayer, she may. One who is uncertain what to do regarding her specific situation should ask a rabbi. On certain trains and buses that have comfortable places to stand, she should pray while standing le-khatĥila (Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 17 n. 14). 1

  1. The opinions concerning the obligation of women are explained above, 2:1-5. I have spoken to many rabbis regarding this matter. R. Dov Lior says that it is best to rely on the opinion of MA and that a woman should fulfill her obligation by praying Birkhot Ha-shaĥar and Birkhot Ha-Torah, whereas R. Naĥum Rabinovitch says that it is preferable to pray the full prayer while sitting.