I have seen people pray at the Western Wall, and I’ve noticed they seem to step back or step forward during prayer, and I’m wondering if you could explain to me that aspect of the Jewish prayer. With all due respect, thank you.
Most of the formal Jewish prayer does not have a specific formula for the person’s posture or footwork. In general, during most of the prayer services one may sit, stand or sway, as long as one behaves respectably and with the appropriate decorum befitting prayer to G-d.
One of the few exceptions is regarding the standing, silent prayer, called the amida (which means “standing”) or shemoneh esreh (meaning “18”, the original number of parts of this prayer), which is the pinnacle of communion with G‑d, and has a fixed formula for posture. One of these requirements involves what steps we take when approaching G‑d in prayer, and what steps we are to take in order to disengage. These are the steps you’ve seen people make back and forth during prayer.
According to Rabbi Moshe Isserlis (Sh.A., O.Ch. 95:1), the essential requirement is to take three steps forward before commencing this special prayer. Elsewhere (Darchei Moshe 1, in the name of Rokeach), he writes that this is based on a precedent of the Patriarchs and Prophets in prayer: “And Abraham approached [G‑d in prayer] and said…” (Gen. 18:23); “Then Judah approached [Joseph, with a prayer to G‑d for his success]” (Gen. 44:18); “Elijah the prophet approached [G‑d] and said…” (I Kings 18:36). Based on this three-fold precedent for approaching G‑d in prayer, we take three steps corresponding to each instance.
Another explanation for these three steps is found in Kaf HaChaim (Sh.A., ibid, note 7, from the Shelah) and based on the precedent of Moses: “The People remained far off, but Moses drew near to the dark cloud of opaqueness, where G‑d was” (Ex. 20:17). According to kabbalistic teaching, three spiritual “barriers” must be traversed in order to appear before G‑d, “darkness” (choshech), “the cloud” (anan) and “opaqueness” (arafel). The three steps before prayer represent crossing this three-fold threshold.
One is to begin these three steps forward with one’s right foot, which is the more dexterous one for most people, in order to demonstrate eagerness to pray. The Talmud (Berachot 10b) adds that during the prayer itself, one must place his two feet together as one foot. This is akin to the ministering angels about whose service of G‑d the prophet describes, “Their feet were one foot” (Ez. 1:7). This symbolizes singularly focusing and directing all of our energies to G‑d during prayer.
According to many opinions, not only must one take these three steps forward toward prayer, but he must first take three steps back (see Mishna Berura, ibid, note 3). The Ben Ish Chai (b’Shalach 3) states that there is great kabbalistic meaning in first stepping back, and one must thus carefully choose and assume his place of prayer, take three steps back from it, and then return to that place in great awe and reverence. Kaf HaChaim (ibid) relates this to the teaching of the Talmud (Shabbat 88b) whereby at Sinai, each utterance of G‑d caused the Jews to fall back as their souls departed, but G‑d revived them with the “Dew of Resurrection” and the angels restored them to their place at the foot of Sinai. Additionally, this is compared to the way in which the angels are described as serving G‑d by “retracting back” and “running forward” (Ez. 1:14), which the Talmud (Chagiga 13b, see Rashi) explains is an expression of the fear, awe and reverence the angels have before approaching G‑d.
Just as one takes three steps before commencing prayer, one must take three steps back upon finishing it (Sh.A., O.Ch 123:1). This is in order to take leave of G‑d, much as a servant or subject departs from before his master or king (M.B. 1). But beforehand, one must remain in his place and may not even look back to see if the person behind him has finished until the leader of the prayer (the chazzan) has finished his own prayer (Rema, end of 2). This is to avoid distracting those praying behind him, who are presumed to not have finished their personal prayer until the leader does so (M.B. 12). Only after the leader has finished his own prayer may one look back. If someone is still praying behind him, he may not distract him by stepping back, rather he must remain in his place.
Once it is permitted to step back, unlike before the prayer, after the prayer he steps back first with his left, less dexterous foot, to indicate his reluctance to disengage from prayer (Sh.A., ibid 3; M.B. 13). Then, in order not to look as if he is anxious to depart from G‑d, he must remain stationary in his place until he takes three steps forward again to join the chazzan’s recitation of kedusha (M.B. 7,9). After the evening prayer where there is no such recitation, he must remain standing in that place until the chazzan recites kaddish, or at least for the amount of time it takes to walk four amot (approx. 2 meters; or three seconds).