Shiur #27: Appendix All My Bones Shall Say, HaShem, Who Is Like You

  • Rav Ezra Bick

If the Shemoneh Esrei was about praying with your head, and "Elokai netzor" about praying with your heart (see last week's shiur), then today we are going to speak of praying with your body. The Shemoneh Esrei is associated with certain movements - bowing, taking three steps forward, etc. That shall be our topic today, as a sort of appendix to our lengthy discussion of the Shemoneh Esrei text.

 

            But why limit ourselves to bodily MOVEMENTS? A short examination of the laws of prayer - specifically as applied to THE prayer par excellence, the Shemoneh Esrei - reveals a long list of laws which effect our bodies while praying, of which bodily movement is just one aspect, if admittedly the most dynamic. In fact, the Rambam was the first to realize the common thread behind these laws and he collected them in a single chapter in the laws of prayer (ch. 5):

 

There are eight things which one should be careful about when praying, but if it is difficult or inconvenient, or if one transgressed and did not perform them (one nonetheless fulfilled the mitzva of prayer). These are: standing, facing the Temple, posture, dress, proper location, moderate volume, bowing, and genuflection. (5,1)

 

            Without going into too much detail, let me explain the meaning of each of these items:

 

1. Standing - as opposed to sitting.

2. One faces in the direction of Jerusalem and the Temple when praying.

3. "When one stands to pray, one must carefully place one's feet side by side; and he should cast his eyes down as though he were looking at the ground, while his heart his free (to face) upward as though he were standing in heaven; and he should place his hands closed over his heart, the right over the left; and he should stand like a servant before his master, with awe and reverence and fear; but he should not place his hands on his hips" (ibid 5,4).

5. Dignified dress

6. One should pray in a low place, and not on a pedestal.

7. Shemoneh Esrei is said neither mentally, nor in a loud voice, but quietly so that one can hear only oneself.

8. There are five places where one bows - at the beginning and end of the first berakha, the beginning and end of modim, and at the end, where one bows and takes three steps backwards.

9. After the straightening up from the last bow ("oseh shalom"), one falls on one's face and supplicates as one wishes - in other words, "tachanun."

 

            What is the underlying theme of these laws and practices? In at least one case, the Rambam is explicit. "His heart is free (to face) upward as though he were standing in heaven; and he should place his hands closed over his heart, the right over the left; and he should stand like a servant before his master, with awe and reverence and fear" (no. 3 above). The cumulative result of all these laws is the realization that when one is saying the Shemoneh Esrei one is literally "standing before the King."

 

            Another statement in the Rambam is not quite as explicit, but nonetheless quite clear in its implication. Concerning the second of the laws in this list - facing Jerusalem - the question arises what one should do if one cannot determine the correct direction. Our text of the Talmud states that in such a case one should direct one's heart towards Jerusalem. The Rambam however, apparently based on a variant reading of the Talmudic text, states that one should direct one's heart towards the "Presence (of God)" (5,3). In both these cases we have a law mandating an external posture which is directly based on an intended inner intention of seeing oneself as standing in the presence of God. These cases should be, in my opinion, taken as indicative of the other laws which the Rambam chose to list together in this chapter. They are all directed towards creating the proper external conditions that will internalize the crucial definition of prayer - standing in the court of the King, presenting a petition directly to Him. The Jew is admitted three times a day to the presence of God, without any intermediaries, in order to serve Him by petitioning Him.

 

            Of course, being externals, it is not surprising that these requirements are only "likhatchila;" that is, "if it is difficult or inconvenient, or if one transgressed and did not perform them (one nonetheless fulfilled the mitzva of prayer)." This is especially appropriate in regard to the mitzva of prayer, which is, after all, the most inward of mitzvot. As we noticed in the first shiur of the series, the basis for the mitzva of tefila is "avoda she-ba'lev," the service of THE HEART. Nonetheless, like all halakhic obligations, this one as well is based on the principle that "after the actions follows the heart." The state of mind of one who has dressed for a formal interview, who stands erect, bows at the appropriate times, stands low (and hence, below), his face (and hence his heart) facing the seat of the majesty of the king, is completely different than for one who whispers into the air the spontaneous feelings of his heart at that moment. It is the difference between personal communion and service of the King. And so, we have come full circle from that first shiur at the beginning of the series. Just as there is prayer with one's mouth and heart, there is and must be prayer with one's body, with one's posture, even with one's dress (in other words, appearance). As we quote from Tehillim in the Nishmat prayer of Shabbat - "All my limbs shall say, God! who is like You!"

 

            Because prayer is a state of standing before the King, when one finishes, one must depart from before Him. Just as we saw that the last three berakhot are "leave-taking," so they are followed by three steps taken backward. One literally steps away from prayer, for prayer is not a state of mind, or a feeling of the heart, but a state of being in the presence of God in one's body.

 

            And that is the end of this series! I hope you have enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it. If anyone has any comments or questions from any of the individual shiurim, please feel free to communicate with me at [email protected]. I shall be most happy to hear from you.

 

 

            Yihiyu le-ratzon imrei phi ve-hegion libi lifanekha, HaShem tzuri ve-go'ali.

 

            May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart be pleasing before You, HaShem my Rock and Redeemer.

 

            kol tuv uverakha

            Ezra Bick