Simanim 112-113 First Three and Last Three Benedictions

  • Rav Asher Meir
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Mishna Berura
Yeshivat Har Etzion

SHIUR #61: Simanim 112 - 113

Pages 279-281


by Rav Asher Meir






R. Yehuda said: Never ask your personal needs in the first three [benedictions] nor in the last three, but only in the middle ones.  For R. Chanina said, [in] the first three [the one praying is] like a servant arraying praises before his master; the middle one, like a servant who requests a reward from his master; the last [three] - like a servant who received a reward from his master and receives leave and departs (Berakhot 34a).


            R. Hai Gaon and Rabbenu Tam point out that our custom is to ask community needs in the first three and last three blessings.  For instance, in "avoda" we ask for the restoration of Temple service, and in "ya'aleh ve-yavo" we ask God to bless us.  Therefore, they limit the prohibition to personal needs - as is indeed the plain sense of the gemara.  The MB (s.k. 2) explains why this custom does not contradict the basis for the prohibition as mentioned by R. Chanina.




            This subject was discussed in general, and in the specific context of the blessings of Keriat Shema, in shiur 41 on siman 68.  The SA and the Rema here merely recapitulate their positions from siman 68.  However, from the Beit Yosef we see that the objection is only to piyutim in the first three berakhot (which is when they are usually said).  Furthermore, the majority of the authorities quoted by the Beit Yosef himself support the custom of saying them even in the first three!  Perhaps the Beit Yosef deviates from the majority because of the tremendous authority of Rabbenu Chananel, who frowns on the practice.


            I know that many readers of this shiur have limited time for learning.  Still, I urge anyone who can to devote some time to studying some piyutim.  Even a cursory study of some medieval piyutim, such as the "Akdamot" which we recite on Shavuot (available in a detailed English translation and explanation - I'm pretty sure it is from ArtScroll) will impress the reader with the tremendous erudition as well as poetic sensitivity necessary even to APPRECIATE them, not to mention to COMPOSE them.  Yet, these poems were both widely written and widely appreciated in earlier generations.  Some paytanim could write very intricate piyutim ex tempore.  R. Kook greatly emphasized the need to revive this glorious aspect of Israeli culture, which was once the patrimony of the general community of educated Jewry.  (R. Kook himself composed some very intricate and beautiful piyutim which certainly also bear study.)


            Even Shabbat zemirot reward scrutiny, and a close examination of the zemirot is certainly an interesting Shabbat table occupation - a common one in our household.






            The Rabbis taught [in a beraita]:


These are the blessings in which you bow: in Avot beginning and end, [and] in Hoda'a [modim anachnu lakh] beginning and end.  But one who wishes to bow down at the end and beginning of each and every blessing is instructed not to bow.


R. Shimon ben Pazi said in the name of R. Yehoshua ben Levi in the name of Bar Kappara: For an ordinary person, the law is as we have just said.  [But the] kohen gadol - at the end of each and every blessing, and the king - at the beginning and end of each and every blessing.

R. Yitzchak bar Nachmani said, I explain R. Yehoshua ben Levi's dictum differently: For an ordinary person, the law as we have just said.  [But the] kohen gadol - at the end of each and every blessing, and the king - once he bows down he does not straighten up, as it is said [Melakhim I 8:54] "And when Shlomo finished praying ... he rose before the altar of HaShem from bending down on his knees [but not beforehand] ..."


            The Rabbis taught [in a beraita]:


"Kida:" [prostration] on one's face, as it is said [Melakhim I 1:31] "And Bat Sheva bowed [vatiKOD] on her face to the ground and prostrated [va-tishtachavu] herself to the king ..."

"Keriya:" on the knees, as it is said "from bending down [mi-KERA] on his knees."

"Hishtachavaya:" spreading out hands and feet [complete prostration], as it is said [Bereishit 37:10] "Will I and your mother and you brothers indeed come to bow down [lehishtachavot] to you to the ground?!"

R. Chiya the son of R. Huna said: I noticed that Abaye and Rava merely lean over [and do not prostrate themselves, during tachanun].


            One beraita says that bending the knee [kore'a] in "hoda'a" is praiseworthy, and another says that it is reproachable!  No difficulty - this [former] refers to [bending the knee at] the beginning, this [latter] refers to doing so at the end.  Rava bent his knee in hoda'a at the beginning AND end!  The Rabbis asked him, why do you do that?  He replied to them, I saw that R. Nachman would bend the knee, and I saw that R. Sheshet [also] did thus.  But is it not taught that one who bends the knee in hoda'a is reproachable?  That refers only to the hoda'a in Hallel!  But is it not taught that one who bends the knee in hoda'a OR in the hoda'a of Hallel is reproachable?  That refers to the hoda'a of Grace after Meals. (Berakhot 34a-b)


            Our custom, as documented by many early sources, is to BEND THE KNEE at the word "barukh," and to BOW at the word "ata."  The textual SOURCE for doing both may be the fact that the first beraita refers to "bowing" - "shocheh," whereas the one brought at the end refers to genuflection - "kore'a."  A REASON for doing so, as well as for the timing of the bending and the bowing, is explained in the Zohar.  (The Zohar also gives an explanation for the special customs of the kohen gadol and the king mentioned in the gemara.)


            A common custom - the one recommended in the ArtScroll siddur - is to do this double bowing, bending the knee followed by bending forward, for the bowing at the beginning and end of Avot and the end of Modim - but NOT at the beginning of Modim.  There, one is merely "shocheh" - bending forward without bending the knees.  Although none of the standard halakha sources I consulted [including MB, Arukh HaShulchan, Kitzur Shulchan Arukh and others] seems to mention that the bowing of Modim should be different from the other three bowings, this is what logically stems from the explanation of the Zohar, which relates this genuflection (bending of the knees) to the saying of the word "barukh," which is not said at the beginning of "Modim."  And "the custom of Israel is itself Torah" [Responsa Rashba I:323, as well as other Rishonim].




            It seems from BH d.h. Ve-im that according to some commentators the custom is NOT in accordance with the explanation of the Zohar.


            According to the gemara, we know that bowing in the "hoda'a" section of the Amida is praiseworthy, and in the "hoda'a" section of  Hallel and grace after meals is worthy of reproach.  What about other places in the prayer service where gratitude to God is mentioned?  See SA se'if 3, MB s.k. 9.  (The story about R. Akiva is found on Berakhot 31a towards the end.)


            From the gemara, we learn that an ordinary person should not bow during the Amida apart from the designated places.  From the Zohar, we learn there is no NEED to bow down in blessings which are not part of the Amida.  This leaves open the question if it is PROPER to bow in any other berakha, if one is so "inclined?"  See MB s.k. 9, then compare it with Bi'ur Halakha d.h. Be-sof.




            This problem is mentioned in MB s.k. 2.  We discussed this in shiur 38 with regard to the MB 63:6 who expands a bit on this subject.




And R. Tanchum said in the name of R. Yehoshua ben Levi: When you pray, you must bend over until all of the links in your spine protrude; Ulla said, until you can see a coin against your heart; R. Chanina said, even if you nod your head it is enough.  Rava said, [nodding is sufficient] only if he exerts himself and looks as if he is actually bowing (Berakhot 28b).




            The Meiri explains that thesetwo berakhot require special concentration (as we have already learned in the SA and MB).  The Tosafot Rosh seems to connect it with what we learned in the previous siman: it is usual to bow down to one's lord at the beginning of a petition and at the end.




"Once someone descended [to lead prayers] before R. Chanina, and said: "The great, mighty and awesome God, the powerful and bold and feared, the strong and brave and certain and grave."  [R. Chanina] waited for him to finish, and when he did he said to him, Have you finished with all of the praises of your Master?  Why go to such lengths?  We would not even be able to recite those three [praises] which we say [the great, mighty and awesome], were it not that Moshe Rabenu said them in the Torah, and the men of the Great Assembly established them as part of the prayers.  And yet you go on and say so much!  This is like an earthly king who owns millions of golden coins, and yet people praise him for such a number of silver ones - is this not an insult to him?"  (Megilla 25a)


            This halakha is obviously related to the previous one.  If one person were to bow much more than everybody else, it would be as if to say that bowing four times can not express our subjugation to God, but bowing many times can!




            We could construct a general understanding of our siman, founded on the previous siman, based on the Rosh and inspired by the Zohar, as follows:


            The middle benedictions of the Amida are unique in that they are concrete requests to God.  And even though the three beginning and three ending berakhot are praises and thanks to God like other blessings, they are also unique because these are praises and thanks in the context of concrete requests - as we learned in the last siman.  Therefore, when we utter these particular blessings we must exhibit a unique degree of subjugation before our Lord, God.


            However, we must be careful not to exaggerate this display of homage to the extent that it loses its meaning by making our servitude to the Almighty seem merely symbolic.  Therefore, it is appropriate to bow at the beginning and end of the main benedictions indicating God's praise as a prelude to our requests (Avot), and the main one indicating our gratitude as a denouement to our requests (Modim - the only one of the three concluding blessings of which thanks is the main theme).


            Our subjugation to God has two aspects: He is our ruler and our provider.  We DIMINISH ourselves as a demonstration that He is our ruler, and we LOWER OUR HEADS in gratitude in recognition that He is our provider.  The formulation "barukh ata" includes both aspects: sovereignty (when Yosef was made viceroy his retinue declared "avrekh!") and providence (the fact that God is involved in our mundane world, enabling us to have a relationship with Divinity and even address God in the second person - which is never done with a king).  But the declaration "Modim" includes only the second.  So the appropriate form of obeisance differs accordingly.


            A king must take special care to demonstrate that he recognizes that God is his ruler.  In addition, the kohen gadol is one of the main instruments through which God's providence is made manifest in the world.  This is due to God's presence in the Temple itself; to the partial conditioning of material well-being on appropriate atonement for repentance, which is in large measure a function of the kohen gadol's service on Yom Kippur; and in the kohen's function as a teacher and judge of Torah.  So the kohen gadol should be able to achieve a special recognition of God's wondrous providence.