Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Three Steps Forward, Three Steps Back

While Jewish prayer has many aspects that are introspective, prayer is also designed to serve as a vehicle of communication with the Divine. The central focus of every prayer service is the Amidah, which means standing, a prayer that, during the weekdays, consists of 19 blessings of praise, supplication and gratitude. During the recitation of the Amidah, it is customary that one stand erect with feet together - reminiscent of the stance of angels.

When reciting the Amidah, one should have the mindset of truly standing before the King of kings. For this reason, tradition suggests a proper way of approaching the Amidah, which is to take three steps forward into the posture of prayer. An additional custom has developed to take three steps back prior to taking the three steps forward, which apparently derived from the practical need for the space in which to move forward.

At the conclusion of the recitation of the Amidah, when one is ready to withdraw from the Divine communion, it is customary to take three steps backward and bow to the left, right and center while reciting: “He Who makes peace in His heavens, may He make peace for us and for all Israel, and let us say Amen.” This follows the dictates of the Talmud: “Rabbi Alexander said in the name of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi: One who prays [the Amidah] should go three steps backward, and then recite ‘peace.’ Rabbi Mordecai said to him, ‘Having taken the three steps backward he ought to remain standing, as should a disciple who takes leave of his master’” (Talmud Yoma 53b).

Numerous explanations have been given for the significance of the number three. The most basic purpose of this movement, however, is that it creates a separation between that which is mundane and that which is holy.

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