Before one begins the Shemoneh Esrei, or any other Amida prayer, one takes three steps forward in order to “approach” G-d in prayer.1 Nevertheless, common custom is to first take three steps backward and then immediately return to one’s place by taking three steps forward.2 Even though taking three steps backward before Shemoneh Esrei is not truly essential,3 one should always do so for Kabbalistic considerations even when praying at home alone.4 Taking three steps backward and then three steps forward is also cited as an act of humbling oneself in preparation for prayer5 and as a sign of respect and reverence.6 One should commence the three steps with the right foot, which is deemed to be a gesture of honor for the Shechina. Indeed, whenever performing mitzvot one should always give preference to the right side whenever possible.7 At Shacharit, some people take their three steps backward prior to tehillot l’El elyon,8 while others to do so before tzur Yisrael. Yet others have the custom to take their three steps backwards and forwards only after concluding ga’al Yisrael.
The three steps forward are intended to be reminiscent of Moshe, who approached G-d in prayer on Mount Sinai after passing through three different barriers: the “darkness,” the “cloud,” and the “mist.”9 It also recalls the Jewish people distancing themselves from Mount Sinai three milin (miles) after hearing the awesome and frightening voice of G-d Himself, and later returning to their place.10 It is also suggested that the three steps represent the three times in the Torah that the word vayigash is used to refer to prayer, once by Avraham, once by Yehuda, and once by Eliyahu HaNavi.11 Finally, at the end of the ramp leading to the Altar in the Beit HaMikdash, there were three steps that the Kohen would have to ascend to actually reach the Altar in order to offer the daily sacrifices. He would then descend these three steps on his way down. Therefore, we take three steps before and after reciting Shemoneh Esrei, as this prayer serves in place of the daily sacrifices that were offered upon the Altar.12
Although it is true that virtually no interruptions are permitted between ga’al Yisrael and the beginning of Shemoneh Esrei, these three steps are deemed to be a component of the prayer, and as such, are not considered a hefsek.13 One should only begin saying the words “Adonai sefatai tiftach…” after one has completed the three steps forward.14 If taking three steps forward will bring one uncomfortably close to another worshipper who is already in the midst of Shemoneh Esrei, or otherwise disturb others, one may forgo the three steps.15
At the conclusion of the Shemoneh Esrei, one takes three steps backward in a bowing posture, as a slave takes leave of his master,16 and as a student takes leave of his rebbe.17 These three steps backward are especially significant, as we are taught that Nebuchadnezzar was granted permission to destroy the Beit HaMikdash as a reward for taking three steps in honor of G-d!18 Furthermore, the Talmud teaches that one who is negligent with the three steps backward at the conclusion of Shemoneh Esrei is better off not having prayed at all.19
One should take the first step back using one’s left foot (generally the weaker foot) as if to show one’s hesitation in taking leave of G-d.20 These steps should not be exceptionally large – just the distance from one end of the foot to the other.21 In the event that one is unable to take three steps backward, one may move three steps to the side or even diagonally instead.22 In a situation where there is simply no room to take three steps backward, one may suffice with three tiny symbolic steps.23 One who is confined to a wheelchair should roll himself backwards at the conclusion of Shemoneh Esrei the approximate distance of three steps.24
One should not speak after completing the Shemoneh Esrei until one has taken these three steps.25 The chazzan, however, does not take three steps backward at the conclusion of his repetition of the Shemoneh Esrei. The three steps backward that he will later take as part of the final Kaddish are sufficient for this purpose.26 The chazzan must not speak or interrupt in any way between his silent Shemoneh Esrei and his repetition, unless it is for the purpose of a mitzvah.27
It is proper to remain in place until the chazzan reaches Kedusha, or at least until he begins the repetition, before taking the three steps forward and returning to one’s original place.28 At Ma’ariv, one should wait until the chazzan recites the full Kaddish, or until va’yechulu on Shabbat, before taking three steps forward.29 Many are in the habit of merely waiting a few moments – the time it takes to walk about eight feet – and then taking the three steps forward.30 If necessary, one may sit before taking one’s three steps forward, such as while waiting for the chazzan to begin his repetition.31
There does not seem to be any source for the practice of some individuals to rise upon their toes, as is done when reciting Kedusha, after taking three steps forward at the end of Shemoneh Esrei.32
- Rema, OC 95:1.
- Mishna Berura 95:3.
- Mishna Berura 95:3; Minhag Yisrael Torah, OC 65:2. Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky was noted for not being particular to take three steps backward before beginning the Shemoneh Esrei – he merely took three steps forward from wherever he was standing and began his prayer. Orchot Rabbeinu 1:193. See also Rivevot Ephraim 7:29.
- Ben Ish Chai, Beshalach.
- Kaf Hachaim, OC 95:7.
- Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 18:2.
- Sota 15b; Zevachim 62b; Minhag Yisrael Torah, OC 134:1.
- Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 18:2.
- Mechilta, Yitro.
- Kaf Hachaim, OC 95:7.
- Rokei’ach, Tefilla 322; Darkei Moshe, OC 95; Rema, OC 95:1.
- Beit Yosef, OC 123. See there for more interpretations for the three steps.
- Tehilla L’David 111, cited in Piskei Teshuvot 95, n. 16.
- Tefilla K’hilchata 12:21.
- Piskei Teshuvot 95:2.
- Darkei Moshe, OC 123; OC 123:1.
- Yoma 53a.
- Magen Avraham 123:1; Mishna Berura 123:2. See Sanhedrin 96a.
- Yoma 53b.
- Magen Avraham 123:10; Aruch Hashulchan, OC 123:7.
- Kaf Hachaim, OC 123:24; Od Yosef Chai, Beshalach 16; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 18:12.
- Aruch Hashulchan, OC 123:5; Rivevot Ephraim 1:82:1; Otzar Hateshuva 77.
- Teshuvot Harashba 1:381; Rivevot Ephraim 7:44; Otzar Hateshuva 77. See also Mishna Berura 122:4; Rivevot Ephraim 1:72.
- Halichot Shlomo 8:30; Rema, OC 94:5; Otzar Hateshuva 77.
- Rivevot Ephraim 8:172:5.
- OC 123:5.
- Mishna Berura 111:10; Kaf Hachaim, OC 124:1; Rivevot Ephraim 1:83, 7:36; Otzar Hateshuva 80.
- OC 123:2; Or Yitzchak 47.
- Halichot Shlomo 13:12; Piskei Teshuvot 123:2; Rivevot Ephraim 1:176, 7:26:3; Shulchan Halevi 2:12.
- Rema, OC 123:2; Aruch Hashulchan, OC 123:4. See also Rivevot Ephraim 1:176.
- Mishna Berura 123:6; Sha’ar Hatziun 123:5; Aruch Hashulchan, OC 123:3; Vayeishev Moshe 1:88.
- Minhag Yisrael Torah, OC 123:3. But see Piskei Teshuvot 123, n. 36, for a creative interpretation. See also Otzar Teshuva 78.