Chapter 14: Respect for Prayer

01. When Is It Permissible to Interrupt the Amida?

One who stands in prayer before her Creator must be extremely careful not to interrupt by talking about other matters in the middle of praying. It is even forbidden to interrupt by walking or hinting. The status of the Amida differs from that of Pesukei De-zimra and Birkhot Keri’at Shema, during which one may walk, hint, and in cases of great need, like greeting a person who will otherwise be insulted, even speak (below, 16:14 and Peninei Halakha: Prayer 14:4 and 16:5-6). However, in the middle of the Amida, it is forbidden. The Sages only allow interruption in life-threatening situations or for the sake of prayer itself. If we stand before a human king in dread and are careful not to interrupt with other matters, then we certainly must be careful not to interrupt while standing before the supreme King of kings.

Even if a Jewish king greets someone while she is reciting the Amida, she may not respond. However, if a non-Jewish king, who is liable to kill her, addresses her in the middle of her prayer, she must interrupt to respond, for saving a life takes precedence over prayer (Berakhot 30b).

If a non-venomous snake is wrapped around the leg of the person praying, she should not interrupt her prayer to request assistance. However, if it is a snake or scorpion that may be venomous, she must call for help, for saving a life takes precedence over prayer (Berakhot 33a; SA 104:1-4).

Walking is not considered a significant interruption. Therefore, when began praying in a place where it is hard for her to concentrate, she may move elsewhere. For instance, if a non-venomous snake approaches her, disrupting her kavana, she may move elsewhere to continue praying kavana, even though the situation was never life-threatening (MB 104:10).

One who is praying the Amida and hears Kaddish or Kedusha may not respond. However, she may silently concentrate on the ĥazan’s words, and it is considered as if she recited those words. This is indeed the custom. Nevertheless, if such an interruption will disturb her kavana, she may continue praying (Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 17 n. 11).

If, in the middle of praying, one becomes uncertain regarding a law that may prevent her from continuing, such as a case in which she forgets to recite a particular passage and does not know what to do, she may walk to find a book to determine the correct practice. If she does not know how to search for the answer in a book, some say that she may even interrupt verbally to ask for a ruling (MB 104:2). 1

  1. As explained above, 13:2, if the interruption lasts the amount of time it would take for her to recite the entire Amida, then according to Sephardic custom she must return to the beginning of the Amida. According to Ashkenazic custom, if the interruption was due to elements out of her control, such as the presence of excrement or danger, then she must repeat the Amida. However, if she interrupts of her own volition – including to ask a halakhic question – she returns to the place where she stopped.

02. Interruption for the Sake of Kavana

If a woman is praying and adults or children are talking nearby, disturbing her kavana, she should hint for them to be quiet, for nonverbal suggestion is considered less disruptive than walking. However, if they will not comply, she may walk to a different place and continue praying (MB 104:1).

Similarly, if a woman comes to synagogue to pray and her child disrupts the Amida to the extent that she or others cannot have proper kavana, she must hint to him to leave. If the child does not understand, she must take him out of the synagogue silently and then continue praying outside.

If a domestic problem that will cause monetary loss if not handled immediately arises, she may not interrupt her prayer (MB 104:2; Kaf Ha-ĥayim 6). However, if she becomes so preoccupied that she cannot concentrate, she may go home to resolve the issue.

If a siddur falls to the floor and one cannot concentrate until it is picked up, she finishes the berakha that she is saying and then goes to pick it up. If one starts praying by heart, becomes confused, and cannot continue, she may go get a siddur and continue praying (MB 96:7).

If the telephone rings while one is reciting the Amida, she must continue praying. However, if she cannot maintain her kavana, she may turn off the phone and continue praying.

Likewise, if there is a knock at the door and the woman praying can control herself and continue her prayer, she must do so. However, if the distraction preoccupies her to the extent that she worries that perhaps the matter is urgent and if she does not open the door the person knocking will leave, she may open the door and hint to the person that she cannot respond at the moment. But she must be extremely careful not to interrupt by talking (Tefila Ke-hilkheta 12:86).

03. One May Not Sit Within Four Amot of one Praying

Due to the significance and sanctity of the Amida, the Sages prohibit sitting within four amot of one who is praying. One reciting the Amida is standing before the Shekhina, and anyone sitting there idly appears as one who does not accept the yoke of heaven and shows contempt for a place of worship.

Four amot are approximately two meters. To be more precise, an ama is the approximate length of an average man’s arm. According to most poskim, it is approximately 45cm, which means that 4 amot are c. 180cm. However, there obviously is no need to measure one’s distance from the person reciting the Amida down to the centimeter; instead, everyone must go according to her visual estimation, and if it seems that one is not within 2 of a person praying, she may be seated.

One who is engaged in prayer or engrossed in Torah study may sit next to one reciting the Amida. Since she is engaged in prayer or Torah, there is no affront to God’s honor (based on Peninei Halakha: Prayer 17:17).

If she sat down and then the person sitting next to her began to recite the Amida, although she is neither praying nor learning, she may continue sitting there; she did not show contempt for prayer, rather, the person praying did not act lawfully by beginning to pray within someone else’s four amot. Even so, it is indeed a righteous act to show respect for the prayer by standing up (SA, Rema 102:3).

A weak or frail person, even when not engaged in prayer, may sit within another person’s four amot, since everyone knows that it is because of her weakness that she needs to sit, and therefore there is no affront to God’s honor (SA 102:2). On Yom Kippur, almost everyone is considered to be weak because of the fast, and therefore one may sit within four amot of a person praying (Beit Barukh 26:9).

There is a stringent opinion that it is forbidden to sit directly in front of a person praying, even at a distance greater than four amot, since it causes the person who is praying to appear as though she is bowing down to her. Therefore, even if she is reciting Shema, and she sat there before the other person began to recite the Amida, she must stand. Le-khatĥila, it is good to follow this opinion (SA 102:1; MB 9; Kaf Ha-ĥayim 10).

04. It is Forbidden to Pass in Front of People Praying

It is forbidden to pass within four amot in front of a person reciting the Amida, since doing so is likely to disturb her kavana. Others say that the reason for the prohibition is that the person reciting the Amida is standing before the Shekhina, and one who passes before her offends God’s honor (Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 17 n. 16).

The poskim disagree about where exactly it is forbidden to pass. According to Eliya Rabba, the prohibition only applies to passing directly in front of the one reciting the Amida, since only this will be disruptive. In other words, if a person’s width is approximately half a meter, one may not pass through that half meter up to a distance of four amot. According to Magen Avraham, it is forbidden to pass anywhere that the person praying can see within his four amot, since passing there is likely to slightly disrupt his kavana.

ציור

 

They disagree further. According to Eliya Rabba, one may come and stand within the four amot of a person praying and remain standing there; only when one crosses through the four amot directly in front of his face does it disturb his prayer. However, if she approaches from the side and remains standing in front of him, she does not disrupt him as much. According to Magen Avraham, it is forbidden to enter into the four amot in front of a person praying at all.

 

ציור

 

Le-khatĥila, one should follow Magen Avraham’s strict opinion and not walk anywhere within four amot in front of a person reciting the Amida. In times of need, however, one may adopt Eliya Rabba’s lenient practice and pass alongside a person praying or come to a standing stop directly in front of him. Therefore, one who arrives late to the prayer service may pass alongside a person reciting the Amida in order to pray in her regular seat. Yet, if in order to do so she must pass alongside a number of people praying, she may not pass, since it is almost certain that she will disturb at least one person’s concentration (Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 17 n. 17).

In a case of great need, when there is no other option, it is even permissible to pass directly in front of a person reciting the Amida. Hence, one who must leave to conduct a Torah class may pass in front of a person praying. Likewise, one who is in a great hurry, such as one who fears she will miss her bus or ride, may pass as well.

If one is reciting the Amida while standing in an aisle, since she did not act in accordance with the law and instead stood in a place that blocks the passage of those coming and going, there is no obligation to take her into consideration, and it is permissible to pass directly in front of her when necessary (ibid. note 18).

05. One Who Finishes Reciting the Amida

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:

 

איור

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

  1. 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).
  2. 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. 

06. Additional Details of Certain Laws

As we have learned, le-khatĥila it is proper to follow the stringent opinion of Magen Avraham and refrain from taking three steps within the four amot in front of the person reciting the Amida, even if the one praying is not directly behind her.

However, there are times when one prolonging her prayer becomes distracted by the thought that she is preventing the person in front of her from taking three steps back. When the person who is waiting senses that, it is best that she follow the opinion of Eliya Rabba and take three steps back if the person praying is not directly behind her.

Similarly, one who usually prays for a long time may ask the people praying in front of her not to wait for her until she finishes. Then they will be permitted to step backwards immediately upon the conclusion of their prayer. One who prays directly in front of her should walk back diagonally, so as not to step directly in front of her (Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 17 n. 20). In general, when one knows that she tends to prolong her prayer, it is proper for her not to stand in prayer behind another so as not to make her wait and cause her anguish.

The Aĥaronim disagree as to whether the law regarding an adult, namely, that it is forbidden to step before her and sit within her four amot, also applies to a minor (see Dalet Amot shel Tefila pp. 254-257). Since this is a rabbinic ruling, the halakha follows the lenient opinions, yet those who are stringent enhance the mitzva.