Our Bodies, Our Prayers

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Shemini: Orach Chayyim 95 and 97

These chapters of AH are short enough to do two this time, expand our perspective of how our bodies do and should support our prayers.

Our Feet Together

Siman 95 starts with the idea of placing our feet right next to each other during prayer, to emulate the angels described in Yechezkel 1;7, ve-ragleihem yeshara, their legs were straight, the word for straight in the singular, the two legs united as one. When we speak with God, in supplication and in kedusha, we do what angels do, and should do it how they do it, since they are the greater experts when it comes to dealing close to directly with God.

AH says custom extends the idea to Barchu. [Given the reason we had for it so far, the practice seems meaningless, but read on.]

Tur reported Yerushalmi Berachot 1;1, where another view (either R. Levi or R. Simon) related our stance during prayer to Shemot 20;22, where kohanim were told not to walk up steps to reach the altar, should rather walk a ramp, heel to toe, to avoid immodest spreading of legs. We, too, should not immodestly spread during prayer.

[AH doesn’t here address what kind of bodily modesty people should cultivate, solely because we know we are always in God’s Presence. This is one example, where even a clothed man should not walk too physically openly when in the more direct Presence.]

We don’t usually pay attention to a Yerushalmi when we have a clear Bavli pushing in a different direction. AH suggests Tur thought we could/should incorporate the second Yerushalmi reason as well, for example by walking with small steps in shul, since the synagogue is the place for whatever substitute for sacrifice we currently have. If someone is unable to hold his/her legs fully together, the person would at least make sure to have them no more distant than heel to toe, says AH.

Moving Into Position

In se’if three, he gives us the source for the custom to step forward three steps at the start of the standing prayer, Rema cited Rokeach, who said it is as if we approach to speak with someone, like Avraham steps forward in 18;23 to speak with Hashem, Yehudah to Yosef, 44;18, Eliyahu to the people to introduce the contest on Mount Carmel, I Melachim 18;21.

While Elyah Rabbah saw no need to take three steps back if there was enough room to go forward, AH prefers we follow the custom to take those steps anyways, the three steps back a further way to prepare for this sanctified situation. Adding layers to the custom, Maharil would stand up at Tehillot le-Kel Elyon (as many do) before the morning Amidah, and from the start of kaddish at Mincha and Ma’ariv (note the implication, they did not always stand for kaddish).

Eyes and Head

Se’if four returns to how to stand, with Yevamot 105b pointing us to I Melachim 9;3, where Hashem promises Shlomo HaMelech His “eyes and heart” will be there always. It teaches us the Shechinah, the more concentrated Divine Presence, did not leave the Temple Mount with the Destruction of the Temple,

Rashi says we should therefore face the Temple Mount, eyes down and heart above, in the Heavenly Temple [an image one will take more or less literally depending on where s/he falls on the rationalism/ mysticism scale; wherever, the Heavenly Temple directly corresponds to the earthly one). RY had suggested banished all pleasures of this world from thought during prayer, s/he will be as if standing in the Beit HaMikdash, prayer more accepted by God.

[It is easiest to take Rabbenu Yonah at his word, he thought a Jew should not think of anything earthly during prayer. A moment’s thought makes it harder to accept, because Chazal established the wording of prayer with many earthly requests among what we seek, and encouraged us to add their own. I suspect, without evidence other than my knowledge of his writings, that he meant our focus should not be this world, that all the earthly requests we do make should have the higher purpose of fostering God’s Presence in the world, and/or easing our way to be the best servants of God we can.]

AH praises the Jew who achieves this, thinks such a person will merit seeing the Divine Presence before his death.


For the last posture issue (se’if five, last in this siman), we have Rambam’s idea of placing the right over left hand, both on/over one’s heart, as a servant supplicates a master, with emotions of fear and awe. While Tur and SA accepted the idea, Magen Avraham thought it a question of local custom, how slaves stand before their masters [in our world, where official slavery is a thing of the past, we might not need to do it at all, MA implies].

The siman ends with an overall message, regardless of specifics of how one sits or stands, we should be thinking of God’s Exaltedness, humanity’s lowliness, to have a proper sense of what it means to have been invited to present requests to God.

Orach Chayyim 97, Other Bodily Issues

Siman 97 looks at a less laudable aspect of having human bodies while we pray. It starts with the impropriety of burping or yawning during prayers. The prohibition applies to voluntary ones, where the smell of food or drink comes back up, or a yawn with mouth wide open.

Beit Yosef seems to have thought a burp could be stopped, but if a person must yawn, s/he should cover his/her mouth. However, Rambam, Tur, and Berachot 24b all think burps, too, might be involuntary. AH leans towards Beit Yosef’s view, says people can stop themselves from burping in polite company, so presumably can do so to honor Hashem and prayer. He concedes there are times a burp cannot be helped, thinks we should educate people as if that’s not true, and then if they have to, they have to.

[An interesting overall educational question: better to recognize reality and address it, or pretend it doesn’t exist and if it does, people will deal? I lean towards the first, first because if teachers pretend something isn’t true, those for whom it is true and inescapable will feel bad, with all sorts of possibly problematic results, and also because I worry people make mistakes when asked to handle what they haven’t been taught to handle. AH seems to disagree with me.]

Other than covering one’s mouth if a burp escapes, he opposed placing a hand on one’s chin or mouth during prayers, thought it arrogant. Except for chazzanim, cantors, who might need such actions to produce the beautiful voice they contribute to prayers.

Spit, Snot, Saliva

No one standing before a king would spit, se’if three points out, making it improper during prayer (note: he says Shemoneh Esrei, the standing prayer, a reminder that the run-up to Shemoneh Esei is not prayer, it’s preparation for prayer. The recitation of Shema also is not prayer, it fulfills a Torah obligation to remind ourselves of certain truths).

A sneeze or phlegm impossible to suppress should be placed in a cover, a tissue, handkerchief, or, if necessary, clothing where it will not be visible. An istenis, unable to tolerate the presence of such materials, who must spit them out, should spit behind, writes AH.

Then follows a fascinating debate about what an istenis will or will not tolerate. Rambam said to spit into one’s hand and throw it behind oneself. Tur and SA spoke of throwing it backwards, seeming to mean by turning one’s head. BY questioned how Rambam could have spoken of spitting into one’s hand, since the subject is an istenis, someone who can’t bear the disgustingness of holding a dirtied tissue. Much as that makes sense to me, AH can’t understand the claim, thinks it obvious even an istenis wouldn’t care about a moment of having spit or snot on one’s hand and immediately throwing it away.

What kind of istenis do you know?

To close out se’if three, MA included the added prayers at the end of the Amidah (what we call Elokai netzor) in these rules, because until we take our three steps back, we still stand before the King.

Se’ifim four and five discuss whether “behind” must be directly, or can also be to the left. (Right is out of the question, a reminder of what the world thinks of the left-handed).

A Bite and a Load

Instead, let’s finish with a louse, where AH allows removing it with a piece of cloth, to not ruin his/her focus. If not actively praying, the person can remove it by hand, and wipe the hand on a wall, instead of the usually needed hand washing.

With all this activity, a man’s tallit might fall off, a topic for a different siman but always fun to review. If the tallit still somewhat remained on the man, he need not make another berachah, can just put it back in place. Should it fall off completely, he must recite a berachah before restoring it, but cannot do so, since he is the middle of the Amidah. Instead, he should finish without it.

(He says the same is true for tefillin, which I believe, I just have never seen tefillin fall fully off a person during prayers).

Along the lines of hefsek, Jews should avoid any distractions during prayer. While there is room to permit a Jew to pray while wearing a load of up to about six quarts, AH thinks that is only if s/he fears it will be stolen, or must walk during prayers. Otherwise, s/he should place it on the ground, along with any walking stick; to avoid theft, it can be put in front of the person, who can watch it with slitted eyes, to mostly focus on prayers.

We want to stand the right way, control our bodily liquids the right way, to foster our full focus on our mission during prayers, to stand before God and speak with God with all our attention.

About Gidon Rothstein

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