Orach Chayyim 113, Where to Bow in Prayer

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Behar

Our last few times learning together, we saw chapters where AH has many more paragraphs than did SA (as we will again next time, on steroids!). Our siman has nine se’ifim, in both SA and AH. For whatever that’s worth…

Basics of the First Blessing of Shemoneh Esreh

Although the chapter will discuss where we bow in the Amidah (the standing prayer, often also called Shemoneh Esreh), the first se’if reviews the structure of the first blessings (where those bowings take place). Megillah 17b teaches us to start our prayers with reference to the Patriarchs because Tehillim 29 adjures the descendants of the mighty to give praise (or greatness) to God. So we speak of ourselves in that context first.

[The Gemara and AH do not explain why Chazal modeled our prayers on this chapter in Tehillim; I think it’s because it speaks of havu la-Shem, giving praise to God, laying out a model for us to follow.]

After that, a mention of God’s gevurot, mighty deeds, because the chapter inTehillim continues with a call to give to God honor and might, followed by the honor of God’s Name, the reason we have the blessing of kedushot, where we exalt God’s kedushah, sanctity.

Starting and Closing with Avraham

Among the Patriarchs, we open with Elokei Avraham, God of Abraham, based on an inference from Bereshit 12;2, where Hashem promised Avraham to make him a great nation (according to Pesachim 117b, brought to fruition by God’s Name being linked to Avraham), to bless him, (his son, Yitzchak, would also have a Divine Name attached), and make him great (Ya’akov).

Why not close the blessing referring to all of them? Because Hashem then said to Avraham, ve-hyeh beracha, you shall be a blessing, giving him a leg up on his son and grandson.

In brackets, AH raises an interesting question, why our blessing refers to Ya’akov rather than Yisra’el, and reports he heard—he does not say where—it was to have thirteen letters in the Patriarchs’ Names. Along with the thirteen in the Matriarchs’ names, they add up to twenty-six, the number of letters in the Four Letter Name of God. (He calls this gematria, a word I had always seen used to mean taking the value of the letters.)

Opening with a Full Beracha

The blessing starts with the word baruch despite coming immediately after the last blessing of Shema. Usually—like in the rest of the prayer, for example—when one blessing follows another, the second one does not need an opening. Here, we start again because it is the first blessing of Shemoneh Esreh, distinct from the previous berachot (despite our making efforts to link the two parts of prayer, to have our turning to God with requests come immediately after our recall of God’s salvations, semichat ge-ulah le-tefillah).

We also end this with a separate beracha, because it has multiple ideas in it, making it a berachah aruchah, a long berachah. All the rest of the prayer has no openings, because they’re linked to the first one, just ending ones.

Usually, a new berachah needs a mention of God’s Kingship as well (Melech ha-olam, King or Master of the universe, Berachot 40b); here, speaking of Hashem as Avraham’s God suffices, Tosafot tell us, because Avraha dedicated his time and effort to bringing awareness of God’s Kingship to the world. Avraham’s God is clearly King and Master, because that’s what Avraham worked so hard to teach us.

Alternatively, Tur says, the words ha-Kel ha-Gadol ha-Gibor ve-ha-Nora, the Powerful, Great, Mighty, and Awesome substitute for Melech, king, an idea we also see on Rosh HaShanah, where one of the ten verses we say in the blessing about God’s Kingship is Shema, a statement about God’s Oneness also being a way of referring to His Kingship.

Finally, the Bowing

When we start the blessing, Baruch atah, blessed are you, we bow, based on a baraita in Berachot, we bow at the beginning and end of this first berachah, about the Patriarchs and the blessing of thanksgiving at the end of the prayer. AH says to bow in the first two words, and stand up at the Name of God, to fulfill Tehillim 146;8, God straightens those who are bowed over. In se’if seven, he cites Magen Avraham, who reported the Zohar’s idea of bending the knees at Baruch, bowing forward at Atah.

Tur points out the High Priest would bow at the beginning of every blessing, where the king would bow and not straighten up until he was done (a verse describes Shlomo that way), because the higher a person’s social rank, the more s/he needs to demonstrate submission to God. Regular people, though, should only bow where Chazal said to, not make their own decisions about where a good bow feels right.

People do have some discretion, because the middle of a blessing doesn’t impact Chazal’s rule, so a Jew who chose to bow there would not be stopped. AH is sure we would discourage a Jew who asked, but would not make a fuss if s/he did it. Essentially, because mid-blessing bows are meaningless, we don’t think they disregard Chazal, nor can be considered arrogant expressions of excessive religiosity.

Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur prayers provide a practical example, in se’if four, because people have the practice to bow in the middle of the berachah (I think, e.g., at Aleinu, although he does not specify. He gives the impression there were people who bowed for almost the entirety of the prayer). Such people must be sure to stand straight a bit before the end of a berachah, and before any point Chazal said to bow.

He questions the practice, though, given that Chazal denigrated those who bow for the words nodeh Lecha, we thank you (Hashem) in Grace After Meals, and/or for Hodu LaShem, give thanks to God, in Hallel. The Gemara gives the impression that bowing fits only where Chazal instituted it. AH dispels the error; those two examples are places in the liturgy very similar to where Chazal in fact instituted bowing.

To bow there would mislead people about what Chazal instituted. People will recognize bowing in other places to be a post-Chazal and independent initiative. Aside from Aleinu, at the end of prayers daily and in the High Holidays, AH knows of bowing during the Avodah, the part of the chazzan’s repetition of Musaf on Yom Kippur where we summarize the High Priest’s service in the Temple that day. I mention it because this is a hundred and fifty years ago, and he doesn’t think bowing for Barechu is an obvious religious necessity!

Bowing’s Proper Connections

In se’if six, AH disconnects the language of blessing or thanks from bowing. They refer to gratitude and praise, where Chazal established bowing for other purposes. Bowing at other places, of praise or making requests, or whatever other reason appeals to a person, common practice, or out of simple religious fervor, are all praiseworthy, as long as it doesn’t seem to add to what Chazal instituted.

It explains the Talmudic tradition that R. Akiva would traverse an entire room during his prayers, because he bowed and got up multiple times, all expressions of his personal involvement in his prayers.

The Physical Act

Bowing should show all the vertebrae of the spine (meaning, not just a perfunctory dip of the head and/or body). Nor is it enough to bow from the hips and keep the head straight, people bow their heads before the mighty, let alone before the Master of the Universe.

On the other hand, bowing too deeply—where one’s eyes can see one’s belt—has the whiff of spiritual arrogance. And, in the reverse direction, if health issues make it difficult, bowing one’s head can be enough, because it shows the desire to bow, if not the capability.

On the way to bend, the person may move quickly, but should rise slowly, head first then spine, to avoid the impression it was burdensome.

Other Problems of Adding

From bowing to phrasing. In se’if eight, AH reminds us we may not add descriptors to the ones in the prayer, because if we add and stop, we foster the impression we have completed God’s praise. We only say the praises we do because they were included in the Torah and Anshei Kenesset HaGedolah, the illustrious council of rabbis of the early Second Temple who established many lasting practices, included those words in our prayers.

Elsewhere, such as Tachanun or where a Jew is making private requests, the limitation does not apply. To AH, the problem once again lies in going beyond Chazal, with the incorrect impressions that then arise. For personal situations, the praises are clearly part of that personal prayer and carry a whole different aura, do not raise concerns.

Rambam objected nonetheless, AH chooses to report, because in the Moreh/Guide, he opposed all positive descriptions of God [a position I have become ever more attached to as I age; people who say things about God quickly go to troubling extents, in my experience]. The solution lies in finding verses in Tanach to express our praises, because those have the imprimatur of being in Scripture and therefore being clearly proper ways to speak of God.

On the issue of praise, AH reminds us we may not say “You shall be remembered for the good you do,” because we must bless God for what seems to us difficult or bad as much as for the good. Same result for different reasons, we may not say God’s mercies extend to birds’ nests (a reference to the mitzvah of sending away a mother bird before taking the eggs or hatchlings), because mitzvot are decrees, not expressions of God’s mercy.

[A real mouthful this is not the place to analyze. It gets into ta’amei hamitzvot, the reasons God gave commandments. I believe he means that even if we find reasons, all mitzvot must also and always remain decrees, what we do because God said so, not solely because of whatever reasons we inferred. I could go on, but will restrain myself.]

The Redemption

To close on a sobering although positive note, AH records Tur’s reading of the words “Who remembers the kindnesses of the Patriarchs and brings the redeemer to their descendants with love.” Tur read it to say that even if we have used up the merits of the Patriarchs [a common idea, despite how much we invoke those merits in our High Holiday prayers], Hashem will nonetheless bring the redeemer.

AH notes a Midrash that conceives of God redeeming us because we deserve it or because it is necessary for God’s plan for the world. Even if the latter, if we are redeemed despite rather than because of ourselves, God will do it with love. As we say in the blessing.

A good dive into the first blessing of Shemoneh Esreh, its bowings, and its wording.

About Gidon Rothstein

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