Chapter 17: The Prayers after the Amida

01. Women are Exempt from All Prayers That Follow the Amida

Women are exempt from all the passages that men customarily recite after the Amida: Taĥanun, Ashrei, La-menatze’aĥ, Kedusha De-sidra (U-va Le-Tziyon), Shir shel Yom (The Psalm of the Day), Pitum Ha-ketoret (the mixture of the incense), and Aleinu. This is because not even men have an absolute obligation to recite them; rather, customarily recited them for several important reasons, and the custom eventually became obligatory. But women never took on this custom, and hence they are certainly not obligated. Women are only obligated to recite the Amida, not the subsequent customary prayers; however, women who wish to enhance the mitzva may recite those passages. 1

Nevertheless, it is worth studying the laws of these passages in order to complete our study of the laws of prayer and so that one who wishes to enhance the mitzva will know how to do so properly.

  1. Halikhot Beitah §7 and Halikhot Bat Yisrael 2:12-13 rule that women must recite Aleinu and that there is uncertainty about whether they must recite Pitum Ha-ketoret. However, since not even men have an absolute obligation to recite Aleinu, rather their obligation originates in custom, women, who were not accustomed to recite this prayer, cannot be required to do so. So states Maĥazeh Eliyahu §20. Women who wish to enhance their prayer may recite all the prayers like men do, as written in Kaf Ha-ĥayim 70:1.  

02. Nefilat Apayim

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.

03. Reciting Taĥanun Today

At first, it was customary to perform Nefilat Apayim by prostrating or by bowing down. Prostration (“hishtaĥavaya”) is when the person praying lies face down, completely horizontal to the ground, with his arms and legs extended. Bowing (“kida”) is when he goes down on his knees and bends his head forward until it touches the ground (Berakhot 34b; MT, Laws of Prayer 5:13-14).

However, due to a number of concerns, the practice of Nefilat Apayim while bowing or lying prostrate was annulled. Some of the reasons are halakhic and are connected to the prohibition on prostrating oneself on a stone floor and the prohibition on an important person falling on his face before the congregation without a promise to be answered like Yehoshua bin Nun. Still, the main concern appears in Zohar (Bamidbar 121:1), which greatly reinforces the virtue of Nefilat Apayim, during which the person praying must devote his soul to God and view himself as if he has left the world, thereby atoning for all his sins. However, if one does not surrender his soul in sincerity, he endangers his life, and therefore the custom is not to fall onto the ground. (see Peninei Halakha: Prayer 21:3).

In practice, it is the custom of all Ashkenazim and some Sephardim to bend forward and lean their head on their arm. By doing so, one maintains a certain aspect of Nefilat Apayim, for that is a type of bow, yet it is not a complete bow, and there is no fear of prostration on a stone floor (BHL 131:1). Those who follow Ben Ish Ĥai are careful not to fall on their face at all, and that is the practice of many Mizraĥi Jews.

During the period of the Ge’onim, a fixed text for Nefilat Apayim and the supplications after the Amida began to crystallize, a process that continued through the time of the Rishonim until all Israel accepted the recitation of certain specific supplications as an obligation. It seems that as a result of the ever-intensifying suffering of the Exile, hearts were dulled to the point at which it was necessary to introduce a fixed text for Taĥanun.  But since Taĥanun became widespread only after the scattering of Diaspora communities, the differences between the Sephardic and Ashkenazic rites are more pronounced.

Since the Nefilat Apayim prayer is one of heartbreak, negation of the body, and self-sacrifice, it is not recited on happy days (as listed in the siddur). Taĥanun is also omitted when someone celebrating a joyous occasion – for example, a bridegroom or a participant in a brit mila – is present in the synagogue (see Peninei Halakha: Prayer 21:7-8). It is also omitted in a house of mourning, since the divine attribute of judgment (midat ha-din) prevails there and should not be aggravated (MB 131:20).

04. How to Perform Nefilat Apayim (for those who practice it)

As mentioned, according to Ashkenazic custom and that of some Sephardim, Nefilat Apayim is performed while sitting by lowering one’s head and leaning it on his forearm while slightly inclining the face to the right, so that one does not directly face the floor. She must cover her face with clothing or a sleeve. It is not sufficient for her to bury her head in her arm, since the arm and the face part of the same body, and the body cannot cover itself (SA 131:1; MB ad loc.). The main reason that the face must be covered is tzni’ut, like that of one who hides her face from God out of trepidation and shame. Be-di’avad, one who is wearing short sleeves and does not have a handkerchief may lean on her bare arm. If there is a table there, she rests her head and arm on it, and the table is considered the main cover for her face (Peninei Halakha: Prayer 21:4).

Nefilat Apayim is customarily performed only where a Torah scroll or even other printed sacred texts are present. Where there are no sacred texts, the Taĥanun prayer is recited while sitting, without falling on one’s arm. In Jerusalem, it is customary to perform Nefilat Apayim even in a place without sacred books, since the sanctity of the city serves as a substitute for books (Peninei Halakha: Prayer 21:4).

Where it is impossible for someone to perform Nefilat Apayim while sitting – for example, if there is no chair available or if someone is praying the Amida directly behind her and she cannot go elsewhere – she may perform it while standing (MB 131:10). If she is next to a wall, it is best that she leans her arm and head against the wall, in the manner of Nefilat Apayim, so that without the wall she would fall. In this way, she is considered to be partially sitting and bowing (Kaf Ha-ĥayim 38).

05. The Taĥanun Passages

A woman who wishes to recite Taĥanun should not make an interruption by talking between Shemoneh Esrei and Taĥanun, because these prayers are more favorably accepted when connected to Shemoneh Esrei (SA 131:1; MB 1).

The Sephardic custom is to say Vidui (confession) and recite the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy before Nefilat Apayim, so that the atonement that they bring will lead to a climax with Nefilat Apayim (Kaf Ha-ĥayim 131:5). According to Ashkenazic and Yemenite (Baladi) custom, we only begin with Vidui and the Thirteen Attributes on Mondays and Thursdays.

It is said that the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy have great power of atonement for sins. By accepting the highest level of faith represented by the Thirteen Attributes, we connect to God in such a profound and exalted manner that our sins become marginal and external to us in comparison to inner devotion to God and His actions. This is the source of the atonement, and this is why we constantly repeat the Thirteen Attributes in Seliĥot and on Yom Kippur.

The Thirteen Attributes are considered a sacred matter (davar she-bikdusha) and therefore requires a minyan (Peninei Halakha: Prayer 21:5). Therefore, a woman praying without a minyan who wishes to recite Taĥanun omits the Thirteen Attributes.

In Sephardic custom, Tehilim 25 is recited during Nefilat Apayim, whereas Tehilim 6 is recited according to Ashkenazic rite.

On Mondays and Thursdays, additional Taĥanun prayers are recited, since those days are days of Divine grace when prayer is more accepted. The extra passages are recited while standing (SA and Rema 134:1). The text of Ve-hu Raĥum was compiled by three elders who were exiled from Jerusalem, as stated in the works of Rishonim (Abudraham, Raavan, Manhig, Kol Bo §18). Therefore, the distinctions in its wording between the various customs are slight, except that Sephardim add more Taĥanun prayers before it and Ashkenazim add more Taĥanun prayers after it.

Another difference is that in the Sephardic and Ĥasidic rites, the additional Taĥanun prayers of Mondays and Thursdays are recited after Nefilat Apayim, whereas in the Ashkenazic rite they are recited before Nefilat Apayim.

06. Ashrei, La-menatze’ach, and U-va Le-Tziyon

After Taĥanun, and on Mondays and Thursdays following the Torah reading, men regularly recite three prayers. The first is Ashrei (Tehilla Le-David). Although this prayer was already recited in Pesukei De-zimra, it is repeated because of its considerable significance (Peninei Halakha: Prayer, 23:1-2 and ch. 14 n. 5 state that men recite Ashrei thrice daily).

Afterwards, we recite the psalm “La-menatze’aĥ mizmor le-David, ya’ankha Hashem be-yom tzara” (“For the One Who grants victory, a psalm of David. May God answer you on the day of distress”; Tehilim 20), which serves as a continuation of Taĥanun. Since La-menatze’aĥ invokes the day of distress, it is not recited on days of joy (as listed in siddurim; the differences in customs are clarified in Peninei Halakha: Prayer 23:1).

After that, U-va Le-Tziyon, also called Kedusha De-sidra, is recited. It contains the verses “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh…” (Yeshayahu 6:3), “Barukh kevod Hashem mi-mkomo” (Yeĥezkel 3:12), and “Hashem yimlokh le-olam va’ed” (Shemot 15:18). The uniqueness of this Kedusha is that the verses are recited along with their Aramaic translations. The Sages ordained their recitation (even though they were already recited in Yotzer Or and in Kedusah of Ĥazarat Ha-shatz) so that every person praying would learn some verses of the Prophets every day. The verses are translated into Aramaic, so that the whole nation, which was fluent in Aramaic at that time the prayer was ordained, would understand their meaning.

The reason for instituting the recitation of verses from the Prophets is so that men, who are commanded to study Torah, to learn verses of Torah, the Prophets, and the Sages every day. By reciting Shema they study Torah, by reciting these verses of Kedusha they study the Prophets, and rabbinic teachings are added at the end of the prayer service.

The Sages offer great praise for the recitation of Kedusha De-sidra, stating that after the destruction of the Temple, it became one of the things in whose merit the world stands (Sota 49a). Rashi explains that its recitation possesses two virtues: it is a form of Torah study, and its verses deal with God’s holiness, so when they are recited in a minyan, God’s name is publicly sanctified. There is no need to say Kedusha De-sidra in Shaĥarit of Shabbat since one’s obligation to study words of the Prophets has already been fulfilled by reading the haftara. Nevertheless, to avoid canceling its recitation altogether, it became customary to recite it before Minĥa, thus adding extra Torah study on Shabbat, particularly study that pertains to God’s holiness (see Peninei Halakha: Prayer 23:2).

07. Shir shel Yom, Pitum Ha-ketoret, and Aleinu Le-shabe’aĥ

Shaĥarit was instituted to correspond to the morning Tamid offering, and after the offering of the Tamid sacrifice in the Temple, the Levites would recite the Shir shel Yom (Psalm of the Day). It therefore became customary to recite the Shir shel Yom after Shaĥarit (Sofrim 18:1). Although it was not instituted originally as an obligation and some did not recite it, by the end of the era of the Rishonim, all had already adopted it.

Before reciting the psalm, there day is invoked according to the format: “Today is the first day from Shabbat,” in order to fulfill the mitzva of remembering Shabbat every day of the week (based on Ramban on Shemot 20:8; Arizal as cited in Kaf Ha-ĥayim 132:26).

After the Shir shel Yom, it is customary to recite Pitum Ha-ketoret, introduced by the liturgical poem Ein K-Elokeinu. There are two reasons for the recitation of Pitum Ha-ketoret: The first is that it corresponds to the incense which was offered every morning and evening in the Temple. The second is so that all men, who are commanded to study Torah, may study the words of the Sages each day, and additional aggadic (non-legal) materials were appended to ensure that men study aggada each day as well (see Peninei Halakha: Prayer, 23:5 n. 5).

Aleinu is regularly recited at the conclusion of Shaĥarit in order to imbue faith in God and hope of redemption in our hearts, and so that later, when the Jew who prayed meets non-Jews at work and through business, he will not be enticed by their gods and beliefs (Baĥ §133). Based on Arizal, it became customary to recite Aleinu after Minĥa and Ma’ariv as well. Due to the significance of this prayer, it is customarily recited standing, and one bows slightly when saying the words “Va-anaĥnu kor’im” (“We bow”) in the Ashkenazic rite and “Va-anaĥnu mishtaĥavim” (“We prostrate ourselves”) in the Sephardic rite (MB 132:9).

Since these passages are all relatively late additions to the prayer service, there are differences between various versions of them. For instance, in the Sephardic rite, more songs and verses are added before the Shir shel Yom and the wording of Pitum Ha-ketoret is longer. There is also a difference in the order of the prayers: in the Ashkenazic rite, Aleinu is recited before the Shir shel Yom, whereas in the Sephardic and Ĥasidic rites, Shir shel Yom is recited first, then Pitum Ha-ketoret, and finally, Aleinu (see Peninei Halakha: Prayer 23:4-5).