Question: I’ve noticed in shul that at the conclusion of Shemoneh Esreh some people take three steps back but do not take three steps forward. Is this practice acceptable?
Answer: The Mishnah Berurah (Orach Chayim 123:2) notes the numerous reasons offered by the Beit Yosef for taking three steps back at the conclusion of the Amidah. He then offers an additional reason (see Magen Avraham, ad loc., quoting Sanhedrin 96a):
When Baladan, King of Babylon, inquired about King Hezekiah’s health following an illness, he sent him a letter with the greeting: “Peace to King Hezekiah, peace to the city of Jerusalem, and peace to the great G-d.” Nebuchadnezzar, who later became king of Babylon, was at that time the scribe of Baladan but happened not to be present when this missive was written. When he inquired about the contents of the letter, he was dismayed that G-d was mentioned last and instructed that the greeting be changed. The king’s advisors suggested that he personally retrieve the message. He ran after the messenger, but after taking just three steps, the angel Gabriel stopped him.
The Gemara relates that had it not been for Gabriel, Nebuchadnezzar – who wound up destroying the Temple – would have wiped out the Jewish nation. Therefore, as we conclude the Amidah, we add the prayer: “Yehi ratzon…she’yibaneh Beit Hamikdash… – May it be Your will…that the Temple be rebuilt…” Shulchan Aruch HaRav (Orach Chayyim 123:1) offers another reason for saying this sentence: We pray for the Temple’s restoration so that we can perform the holy service and not merely say prayers which serve as a replacement for the Avodah.
The Rambam (Hilchot Tefilla 9:2-4) states as follows: “Every person who concludes the Amidah with the congregation should take three steps back and remain where he is….When the chazzan reaches Kedushah, all are permitted to return to the place where they stood during the Amida…”
The Mechaber (Orach Chayim 123:1-2) states much the same but adds, “One should bow and takes three steps back while still bowing before resuming an erect position. When he says, ‘Oseh shalom bi’meromav…,’ he should turn his face to the left. When he says, ‘Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu…,’ he should turn his face to the right. Then he should bow forward in the manner of a servant who takes leave of his master.”
The Mechaber continues: “And there he should remain and not return to his place until the chazzan starts Kedushah, or at least until the chazzan begins the repetition aloud.”
The rulings of both the Rambam and the Mechaber are based on the Gemara (Yoma 53b), in particular the ruling of R. Mordechai that one must wait after taking three steps back; otherwise, he appears like a dog treading in its excrement.
We now have two questions: First, why do we take three steps forward after taking three steps back? Second, what is the meaning of R. Mordechai’s statement that stepping forward immediately resembles a dog treading in its excrement?
In answer to the first question, the Ba’er Heitev (on Orach Chayim, ibid.) writes that the practice of taking three steps back and three steps forward comes from Ezekiel 1:7: “Veragleihem regel yeshara ve’chaf ragleihem kechaf regel egel… – The [angels’] feet were a straight foot, and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf’s foot.” This verse mentions “feet” twice (= 4) and “foot” twice (= 2) for a total of 6. Thus, we are required not only to take three steps back, but to take three steps forward as well.
As to the second question: Rav Boruch Leizerowsky, zt”l, late av beis din of the Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud Harabonim and chief rabbi of Philadelphia, explains in his responsa Ta’am Baruch (Orach Chayim 5), citing the Taz (Orach Chayim, ibid.), “that a person who steps forward immediately gives the impression that he is not satisfied with his prayer and wishes to say it again. He is thereby denigrating his prayer.”
Some people, however, do not wait before stepping forward. Is there any limud zechut, any justification, for their behavior? Both Shulchan Aruch HaRav and Mishnah Berurah state that one should wait at least until the chazzan starts his repetition of the Amidah. It is best, though, to wait until Kedushah (unless the area is crowded and squabbles might result in which case there is room for leniency). They also state, citing the Magen Avraham, that a person may step forward right away if Yotzrot are recited in the repetition of the Amidah. He need not wait until Kedushah.
My uncle, Rav Sholom Klass, zt”l, used to cite the Gemara (Shabbos 148b), “Hanach leYisrael. Mutav sheyihyu shogegin ve’al yehu mezidin – Be not so scrupulous with Israel. Far better they remain in error [due to ignorance] than be classified as deliberate sinners.” When we see a practice performed by such a large segment of Klal Yisrael, we look the other way even though it appears to diverge from the rules set down by some of our sages.