How Do We Use Space During Yom Kippur? - Episode 65
Rav Avi: Hi, and welcome to Responsa Radio, where you ask and we answer questions of Jewish law in modern times! I'm Rabbi Avi Killip here with Rabbi Ethan Tucker, Rosh Yeshiva at Hadar, a center for higher Jewish learning based in New York City. Good morning!
Rav Eitan:Good morning, Avi, how are you doing?
Rav Avi: I'm doing well! It's been a busy summer here at Hadar — we have our summer program, and this week our Executive Seminar.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, a lot of great stuff, amazing we fit in the time to do this, but halakhah and Torah calls.
Rav Avi: It's a jam-packed beit midrash, but I'm excited to make time to answer this question. We have a question we get to tackle today, which is zooming in into ritual practice, and the modern element of this question, I think, I will call "modern-day shul architectural structure." So we'll see where this takes us.
Rav Eitan: Great.
Rav Avi: The questioner writes: "On High Holiday musaf, when it is time for aleinu in the avodah service during the repetition of the amidah, in some communities people move the amud," which is the lectern, "so that the leader can bow low in full prostration. This is not always possible given the room setup. In my community, it would be difficult or impossible to move the amud. So, what's the best approach?" And then they give some options: "I know that some favor having the leader jump backwards with their feet together, but not everyone can do this easily. What are your thoughts? Is jumping the right practice?" Jumping, presumably, to keep your feet together, I'm assuming. "Is one step backwards permissible? Is it better to stay put and do a less through bowing? Are their other solutions?"
Rav Eitan: Okay.
Rav Avi: So it's a pretty technical question that we have, but we'll see if there's more behind it.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, let's see if we can draw out some of the, maybe, question behind the question. But, I think there's something — we had an earlier question, about, kind of, how you stand —
Rav Avi: Right, we once had a question about, do I have to stand with my feet together if it causes me pain. Listeners can go back and dig that episode up if you're interested in that element.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, and I think the fact that we would even get a question like that shows that there's this very strongly ingrained feeling of people with kind of traditional practice around the amidah of, oh my G-d, your feet have to be together — I only, maybe, because I have chronic pain, I can have an exemption.
Rav Avi: From your tone of voice, I'm gonna assume that you think it's not that serious.
Rav Eitan: Well, I'll start, actually, with saying, totally, in terms of how I was raised and growing up, I totally have that in a very strong way. Feeling like actually when I'm in the amidah, if I were to, like, move my feet, I don't know — the walls would come crashing down. And if I step a little outside of that —
Rav Avi: No pun intended.
Rav Eitan: Ah, nice. — that it feels like by having my feet together I'm constructing a certain reality, and I break the script if I move them, in a way that feels like something's been shattered. And actually it's always very difficult for me when I'm praying in spaces where, you know, there may be different Jews there with different degrees of background and practice and how much they even know what the amidah is or were raised with certain norms about it — when I see someone, like, clearly otherwise in the middle of the amidah, you know, clearly having a moment of, oh, I forgot something outside, and they go and walk, and I freak out — what are you doing?!
Rav Avi: I'll tell you my reflection on that, my image of that when I was a little girl at Camp Ramah, which is where I really learned to daven the amidah. I used to feel like, oh, I'm leaving a message on G-d's answering machine, and if I move, it's like I hung up. It's like the message is over, I missed my chance! You gotta get it all in before you sit down or move to the next thing. That was my little-girl image of what's happening there.
Rav Eitan: It's great. So this is deeply ingrained, but you are right to detect that I think there is a little more complexity here. Let's see if we can trace the history of this, like, where does this even come from?
Rav Avi: Okay, so the "this" we're talking about right now is the need to not take a step while you're standing davening your amidah. Not yet addressing the question of what's this bowing about and why do we need to do that.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, let's build up to that by just asking, why would you not be moving, or what's going on with not moving in the amidah? What are the parameters around it? And then, are there exceptions, and where does this Rosh Hashanah / Yom Kippur stuff fit into it? Great. So there are actually two competing sources, kind of, at the earliest level of this discussion. They're both from the Tosefta, early collection, materials from around the time of the Mishnah, so about 2000 years ago. One source says you should not be bowing down to the ground in the amidah — the only time you bow in the amidah is in the first blessing and the second-to-last blessing, and all you're doing there is an upper-body bow.
Rav Avi: This is about the High Holidays, or this is in general?
Rav Eitan: This is about any day of the year. So the way, for those of our listeners who are familiar with the body language of the amidah, this is pretty much what we do on a daily basis, which is to say, the amidah opens with a bow, that next occurence of it is at the end of that first blessing, and then the second-to-last blessing at the beginning with the words modim, and then barukh atah hashem, hatov shimkhah ulechah naeh l'hodot. There's a bow, but these are not prostrations, of going flat to the floor.
Rav Avi: For the most part, we don't move our feet. It seems like moving the rest of the body is okay, it's only moving the feet.
Rav Eitan: Right, but it seems by this text saying you really shouldn't be bowing that much, other than these four times, and it should only be an upper-body bow. It seems like a pretty hard and fast rule, you do not move your feet during the amidah, no matter what.
Rav Avi: And that — so that because of not moving your feet, that's, otherwise we'd be doing full prostration?
Rav Eitan: Well, it's not 100 percent clear, but it seems like it is connected to that, or there is some notion of the amidah is supposed to be somewhat of, like, a controlled experience, you're kind of standing in place, and you are not meant to be doing all kinds of wild body movements. Now, this, you can get the feeling of the contrast here — a different passage in the Tosefta talks about how Rabbi Akiva would bow and prostrate so much during his private amidah that he would end up in a completely different part of the room than where he started.
Rav Avi: Wow.
Rav Eitan: So, he's obviously moving his feet, because he is literally starting in one corner of the room and ending in another corner of the room. Part of the tension in the conversation that we'll now kind of sketch out here is, those seem like competing models of what role movement has to play during tefilah, during the amidah. Is it basically stand, I don't know, one metaphor you could say, like, soldier at attention, rooted in place, or is there kind of almost an ecstatic, mystical experience of the whole body that's involved there?
Rav Avi: Yeah, it also makes me wonder, when I'm trying to picture the Rabbi Akiva story — is he davening by himself? Is there nobody else there? How is he not running into people? And is that the kind of thing that works only if you're Rabbi Akiva, or can everybody do that at the same time?
Rav Eitan: Yeah, so the Talmud kind of directly takes up what you're asking, about who else is there, and is actually very clear that, well, when he was with other people, he would be "normal" about it.
Rav Avi: Oh, interesting.
Rav Eitan: But when he was alone, he would do this crazy thing. But at the end of the day, it's the same amidah. So it seems like, great, he has concern —
Rav Avi: It's either okay or it's not okay.
Rav Eitan: Right. He had concern for maybe not disrupting other people when he was around them, but he fundamentally thought this is something that could be integrated. Alright, so that's like maybe the larger model question. There's another great text that's just dealing with a case. So it talks about someone who is praying in a public street or a public square, and a wagon starts coming towards them.
Rav Avi: That sounds like a good reason to move, as far as reasons go!
Rav Eitan: Right, so what do you do? So it says that you are allowed to move, but then it says, v'ein mafsik, but you are not allowed to interrupt. So you can physically move, but you can't interrupt. So, that text seems to suggest two things. First of all, ideally you should not be moving during the amidah.
Rav Avi: I'm surprised the text doesn't say, don't daven in the middle of a street.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, so it may or may not love that, and there are other texts that suggest you shouldn't do it, but, okay, you were there, or this text doesn't care about that. But it seems like ideally you should not be moving; it's only so you're not, like, run over by the wagon.
Rav Avi: And this is a pretty severe, like, sakanah, or danger, is one of the more extreme reasons why you could have to move.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, and we'll come to another version of that in a second. Though I want to say, it's not clear you would necessarily be run over here, it could be the wagon would stop. But it would be very awkward, and like — but you're in the road. So ideally you should stay in place. But when it says v'ein mafsik, while it authorizes you to move, it seems like the hefsek there, the interruption, is only an issue of speech, but not one of movement. Meaning it sounds like it's not considered an interruption in the amidah to move physically; it's just, don't talk or break it off. Okay? But then, you have another passage right after that that says, Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, which is a kind of interesting rabbinic, almost wonder-working type of figure, allowed a snake to bite him rather than be mafsik, rather than interrupting his amidah. Now, that there seems like interruption is about moving, because the way he would have avoided —
Rav Avi: Was not talking to the snake!
Rav Eitan: Probably not. He is the kind of figure who —
Rav Avi: He might!
Rav Eitan: A snake-charmy kind of guy, but it seems like l'hafsik there, the interruption, can also refer to movement, which is the way he probably would have avoided the snake.
Rav Avi: So that feels in line with our instinct not to move.
Rav Eitan: Right. So, again, clouded here in the record, right, what is actually demanded of us, what are the non-negotiables around the amidah? It does seem like there is a a strand that's like, ah, moving's not so bad — like, it's ideal not to move, but moving's not so bad, just make sure you don't talk. But another one that seems to be saying, movement itself is some kind of problem of interruption of the amidah.
Rav Avi: Yeah. It does feel like it puts the immovable lectern into perspective, when you're comparing it to getting, having a horse and buggy run at you or being bitten by a snake.
Rav Eitan: Exactly.
Rav Avi: Suddenly it seems like we have it pretty good, actually.
Rav Eitan: Yeah. And it is also reflecting the difference between what it is to be in a kind of institutional context of prayer, where you get to set up the environment, as opposed to, I don't know, I'm out in the world —
Rav Avi: I gotta pray.
Rav Eitan: — there's some snakes, there's some wagons, out of our control. Okay. So the question, then, is, great — if those are some of, like, the core texts, if that's the lexicon that everyone's gonna deal with, so, what are the halakhic positions that emerge? So in the Middle Ages it's really interesting — you have different voices that try to reconcile the, hey, you shouldn't be bowing at all during the amidah with the Rabbi Akiva flailing around the room from one end to another. So Rav Yosef of Orleans, who's one of the tosafot, so he's from medieval France, he kind of sidelines the Rabbi Akiva source. He says, yeah yeah yeah, Rabbi Akiva only did that at the end of his amidah. So he would start his amidah, be like a soldier in one place — then after hamvarech et amo yisrael b'shalom, at the end of the statutory part, then he would go bonkers flailing all over the room. And that's why you'd find him somewhere else at the end, but even he agreed you're not allowed to move at all during the amidah.
Rav Avi: Yeah, it's funny, it makes me think of modern-day, saying, we added a meditation circle at the end, but that was at the end! That was different.
Rav Eitan: Exactly. So you can see how that view becomes the basis for, yeah, anyone who wants to say you are not allowed to move during the amidah, they're going to sideline Rabbi Akiva as being irrelevant. Rav Yitzchak of Dompierre, who was one of the tosafot, he totally rejected that. He said what are you talking about? Rabbi Akiva is obviously doing this movement in the middle of the amidah. And he interprets the earlier text as saying, no no no, it's not that you're forbidden from bowing at other times in the amidah other than the first and second-to-last blessing, you're just not allowed to do it at the beginning or end of other blessings. Like at the other places where it says barukh atah, like chonen ha'daat, chanun me'arbeh lisloakh, other parts that are in the middle, you shouldn't be bowing at those specific words of barukh — that should be reserved for this early and late ones — but when you're just, like, in the middle, you're just praying for people to be healed, but you haven't gotten yet to the end, you can throw yourself down on the floor, you can move around, and that's what Rabbi Akiva was doing. So that's a totally different approach, and actually a more, almost, radical version of that approach is the Rambam's son, Rabbeinu Avraham ben haRambam, he said, actually, that text that said you should only bow at the beginning of the first and the second-to-last brakha, was only requiring you to do it then, but you're allowed to bow anywhere in the amidah. And actually, we have record of, he, the Rambam's son, when he davened the amidah, he went flat down on the ground for every single blessing in the middle of the amidah, and it's pretty clear he's not, like, keeping his feet together the whole time.
Rav Avi: Yeah, So it's a totally different model. And also, that last story seems very pro-prostration, in terms of, what's the priority here, when the questioner said, is it okay to do a less thorough bow, it sounds like Avraham ben haRambam would say no, do the more thorough bow and move, what's the big deal?
Rav Eitan: Yeah, he seems to think that is actually the more powerful religious experience. Hard not to see some influence from Islam in his particular context, where the entire pious environment in which he operates is one in which actually, the full prostration down to the ground is the way you actually demonstrate real submission to G-d. And for those who have done full prostration — we'll get to the Yom Kippur case in a minute — there's no question that there is a power to completely submitting yourself in this, like, humbled posture, of just, like, helpless, being down on your face. That when you stand erect, like a soldier at attention, well, you also kind of feel like a soldier in the sense of, you're armed, you're in control, and you're not actually subject to someone else's power.
Rav Avi: Yeah. There's a beautiful Yehuda Amichai poem that people could look up, that talks about standing and moving in prayer. He writes about, his father would stand still and force G-d to move, is the image in the poem.
Rav Eitan: Beautiful. So that's the debate in the Middle Ages. And I would say it's fair to assess it as the view of Rav Yosef of Orleans, which was the one that said you really can't be moving during the amidah itself, generally gets the default upper hand — that is to say, that's the way most people begin to think about it, which is, really, we don't make exceptions for that. And these other views are not ever totally struck down, and you actually get interesting insight into that if you turn now to the Rosh Hashanah / Yom Kippur question.
Rav Avi: Okay, great.
Rav Eitan: So, this notion that during the avodah, during this moment of public prayer on Yom Kippur, the leader would prostrate, right, the person leading davening would actually go flat comes up — we already hear about it in medieval Germany, the Ravya, Rabbi Eliezer ben Yoel Halevi talks about it, and it seems to be, it's a reenactment of what's going on in the Temple, right? Like that would have happened in the presence of the high priest saying the ineffable name of G-d on Yom Kippur when he came out of the sanctuary.
Rav Avi: In the sense that the whole avodah service is a reenactment.
Rav Eitan: Correct, though you could read it as simply a narrative retelling. It's the prostration that gives it the dimension of a reenactment. Okay?
Rav Avi: Yeah. The first time I heard Rabbi Mark Baker daven the avodah service, he did it with so much emphasis, actually, I really experienced it differently as, oh, this is a reenactment — you could feel like it was playing out in a different way. It can be a very powerful ritual.
Rav Eitan: Yeah. So listen to this one, which is an incredible medieval snapshot of a community, communities, it seems, that did something quite dramatic. So the Rivash, Rav Yitzchak bar Sheshet, who's in North Africa, describes the following: he says the leader of Yom Kippur musaf would be standing at the box, the amud, the place where he was leading davening, and in the middle of the repetition, when he got to this part, he would walk from the middle of the room up to the ark, up to the aron kodesh in front of the room, and bow down flat on the floor. So not just, oh, I'm inserting this into the amidah, it's like I am walking away, across the room, and going flat.
Rav Avi: So that's great precedent for this questioner.
Rav Eitan: Except that the Rivash attacks this mercilessly.
Rav Avi: Of course.
Rav Eitan: And says, what are you talking about? The Talmud only licenses people to move when, like, a snake is attacking you, or a wagon is coming your direction, but obviously those are the only exceptions! Otherwise you can't, like, construct a ritual reason that's going to be meaningful to do this. And he's clearly following Rav Yosef of Orleans and that approach that says no, Rabbi Akiva must have done that stuff at the end of the amidah, there's no justification whatsoever for this practice. But this is a good example where the practice that he's critiquing almost certainly is coming from the other strand of thought, which is, actually, moving during the amidah is not the biggest deal in the world, and for this powerful religious experience, yeah, just like you move when a wagon comes at you, like obviously you would move to get people in.
Rav Avi: It's worth it.
Rav Eitan: Exactly, it's worth it in some way. But the Rivash really comes down hard on this, and in fact the Ramah, Rav Moshe Isserles in the Shulkhan Arukh, he scolds chazzanim who move their feet and bow during the repetition, and says it's fine if everyone in the shul does it, like, that's great, we're happy to have the reenactment by the masses, but the leader should not go down to the floor.
Rav Avi: Ah, so that's not a case of, if it requires moving. It's just in general, that's too much movement for the leader.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, the leader shouldn't be moving at all. It's not a question of whether it's worth it; it's a question of, is this appropriate, is this in keeping with the canon of how we manage our bodies during the amidah?
Rav Avi: Yeah, we have many communities nowadays where only the leader prostrates.
Rav Eitan: That's right. And actually that may be, even, what the Rivash is describing happened in the community he did, where one person walks up to the aron and does it. By the time of the Ramah, there's some notion of, well, the whole community has gotten in on this, we'll let them keep doing it, but the leader —
Rav Avi: Don't take it away from everyone.
Rav Eitan: Right, the people who are gathered, they already did their private amidah, so they're kind of in more of a listening mode, but the leader is still in the actual amidah, so it's not allowed there. Like many crackdowns, it does not completely succeed. So the Livush, Rav Mordechai Lafi, who's the same time as the Ramah, he's in Poland, late 16th or early 17th century — he says, even though there's widespread rabbinic objection to the practice, in most places he knows, the chazzan goes down to the floor. And just seems to kind of tolerate that, and later commentators say, yeah, that seems to be following the view that it's not as big a deal to move during the amidah. So it won't surprise you that what you then get after that are attempts to avoid the problem. And that's what the questioner is talking about: oh, so, can I set up a little stand that I'll whisk away that can then give the leader room to go down? Or some of this shtick of people jumping, which I always find to be very weird, to be honest, but is part of that thing of, oh, maybe I can move —
Rav Avi: Not sure it's any more or less weird than all of the other things we're doing on that day, ritually.
Rav Eitan: That may be true. But that's clearly grounded in an attempt of, oh, can I move and do this prostration but keep my feet together? I'm not sure that's what we have in mind when we say keeping your feet together, I think it means not moving them at all. But those are all efforts to kind of find a way around this. And so indeed, I mean, this is what I do, coming out of this tradition, is I always make sure that the thing I'm davening from either has wheels, or there's some stand, like a music stand, that I'm using, that then gets taken away. And then I roll down on the balls of my feet, down onto my knees, and then go flat.
Rav Avi: In an effort to not move your feet?
Rav Eitan: But try, essentially, to have my feet always be, at least some part, at least my toes, be connected to the floor continuously at the point where they were from the beginning of the amidah.
Rav Avi: And why do you take such care to make sure you do that? It doesn't seem obvious to me, given the sources you've laid out.
Rav Eitan: So I think it goes to — I thought you could also ask me, why do you bother going down, right, if it's so important? So you feel in that practice there's a real effort to hold two things together. On the one hand, there's something incredibly powerful about this ritual, and personally, as someone who leads most years on Yom Kippur, I would feel like it was a total loss, like something was being taken away from me, if I didn't end up going flat down. But what we started with, in terms of some of our memories, even as kids, of what it is to kind of be in one place, that also feels, like, overwhelmingly powerful to me. Speaking just personally, yeah, I have a strong taboo on any kind of feet moving, and we've seen the sources that that's anchored in. And yeah, I think I don't want to break — there is, I like, almost, your idea, of whether it's the answering machine, or being like, you know, you're locked into a certain portal with G-d — there's something, actually, I find, about being, right, almost, like, fastened to the ground, that emphasizes your, kind of, subservience in that moment. You are there standing before G-d, you've picked a position, and then you don't get to move until the ruler dismisses you, as it were. In a way that when you comfortably walk around, part of the way, actually, we kind of mark territory and show we're in charge is we kind of pace around where we want to. I feel like it's balancing those two in a way that I acknowledge creates a little awkwardness, the physical awkwardness of rolling down on the balls of your feet, but that is preserving these, sort of, I don't know if it's values, these two values, are sort of experienced together.
Rav Avi: Yeah, one of the things I find really powerful about this question is that both sides of the issue are piety versus piety. It's not a question of, should I be strict or lenient on one thing, because it's if you're strict on one, you're sacrificing the other, the value of bowing versus the value of standing in one place are both in service of really showing kavod to G-d with your body, physically, through the way that you are holding yourself on this day during this prayer that's so important to you. So at the end of the day, you said you make sure that you can move the amud, the lectern, or you put something there that you can move. This person can't — that's where we started. So what's your recommendation?
Rav Eitan: Yeah, so, look, like a lot of questions like this, where there's some complexity in the tradition, I think context matters, right? If you're in a community that has had a practice of setting up something like that, whisking something away, I would resist changing that, because that community has really found a way to say it really matters that you stand in one place during the amidah, and really kind of structures the prayer space to keep that. I think that's very powerful, the notion of being completely rooted in one place when you pray to G-d, I think, really creates a kind of sense of awe and purpose that has this long pedigree through the generations, including, like, the Rivash, saying, yeah, sorry, you can't do that expression of piety. And, you know, there are a lot of times, technical solutions that can enable you to do that. But if a community just doesn't have the ability to do that, they don't have the furniture for it, or they didn't set it up, whatever it is, and there are strong reasons to allow the chazzan, the prayer leader, to take small steps during the repetition in order to enable prostration. So I think we've seen there's many authorities over the generations who would have permitted that outright.
Rav Avi: Permitted the moving in order to bow?
Rav Eitan: Permitted the moving. And it's probably not worth fighting a huge battle over that. That is to say, it's one of these examples, I think there are many of these in halakhah, where you would say to someone, look, ideally when you're running an institution and setting up a space, so, design it to kind of work with all the things you're dealing with. But sometimes someone is hired to take a job for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, in a place where they're not local in the community, they can't control every element of what's going on, their community is insistent that there be some kind of practice of bowing during the amidah. And there, I think once we see Rav Yitzchak of Dompierre, Rav Avraham ben haRambam, those are authorities that are great enough to rely on, that this is not worth tearing a community apart over.
Rav Avi: Great. My hope for everyone is that whichever way you end up practicing in the end, you find meaning and connection in your posture in this coming chagim.
Rav Avi: Responsa Radio is a project of the Hadar Institute and Jewish Public Media. Thanks to Baci Weiler and Annah Leah Bernstein Simpson for producing this podcast, and to Noa Gendler for editing this episode. Have a halakhic question you'd like answered on the show? Email us at [email protected]