Falling upon one’s face in prayer is an act that has been practiced since ancient times, before and during the era in which Yisrael’s Beth HaMiqdah (The Holy Temple) stood. The prayer of supplication, or Tahanun involves the action of prostration- also called nefillah appaiyim (“falling on the face”)/ “Hishtah-hawayah” (falling on the face laying flat on the stomach). After an individual gave his/her offerings, she would then make supplication to YHWH with his face bowed to the ground.-Mishna 7,3.
Since the Amidah prayer is the temporary replacement for the physical offerings that were given during the Holy Temple period (or the Beth HaMiqdash), we likewise fall upon our faces after reciting it, to supplicate to our Father in Heaven. During that era this practice was universal in Judaism. This is no longer the case in today.
We often sing Psalms 29 which also instructs us to prostrate to our Power in prayer . I think it is time that we begin to enforce this practice throughout our communities for the fear of heaven and for the sake of ge’ulah shelemah (complete redemption).
The following preparations for prayer include these steps which have been taught by our sages and Torah masters:
1. Thiqun Haguf ( תיקון הגוף= checking and preparation of the body)
2. Thiqun HaMalbush ( תיקון המלבוש= checking and preparation of one’s clothing)
3. Thiqun HaMaqom ( תיקון המקום= finding a suitable location)
4. Nokah HaMiqdash ( נוכח המקדש= facing east or the Temple)
5. Amidah ( עמידה= standing upright)
6. Hashwayath Haqol ( השווית הקול= tempering one’s voice)
7. HaKri’ah ( הכריעה= bending onto one’s knees)
8. Yoshev La’aras ( יושב לארץ= sitting on the ground)
9. Qiddah, al apaiyim (קידה, על אפיים = bowing upon one’s face)
10. Ha-hishta’hwaya ( ההשתחוויה= the prostration, explained above)
How NOT to Pray
It is important that you do NOT pray on any stone or stone derivative surface . . . Wayiqra/Leviticus 26:1. Some would go as far as to say that you should not even pray on a wooden
made surface. I will explain more about this later.
Despite the teachings of the TaNaKh, our prophets, our sages and our Torah masters, 19th & 20th century ‘leaders’ discouraged the practice of prostration before YHWH, the maker of heaven and earth. Their reasoning came from a superstition or fear based on a passage in the Beth Yosef and Zohar, which declare that, it is dangerous to recite Psalms 25 without the proper intentions (kawanoth) during Nefillath Appaiyim.
The decision to refrain from prostration, is not only inconsistent with the demands of the TaNaKh, prophets, HaZaL, RaMBaM and Yosef Qaro (the author of the Shulhan Arukh), but seems to have contributed to the general sense of harsh and irreverent behavior that many of today’s Jews have towards our Creator. Because of this recent ‘ruling’ by local rabbis in their respective communities, many Jews from these sects refuse to fall upon their knees, praying with the posture that may appear to be an act of haughtiness and the lack of contriteness to the Holy One, blessed be He.
The act of falling upon one’s “face” however, is indeed an act of piety, a state of humility before our Creator, Who is the King of kings. Prostration in prayer has remained a tradition for many African Jews i.e. Yemenite Jews, Egyptian Jews, Ethiopian Jews and West African Jews of the Diaspora.
After one lifts his head from the fifth bow of the Amidah (*see notes on the Amidah on page 59 for details), a person sits on the ground, then falls with their face towards the earth, and utters all the supplications that they desire.
It is written, “Exalt YHWH our Power and prostrate yourselves at his holy mountain, for YHWH our Power is Holy”, Psalms 99,9.
“Attribute unto YHWH the glory due unto His Name; prostrate unto YHWH in the beauty of holiness”, Psalms 29,2.
Rabbis of the West African Jews of the Diaspora, have always encouraged their congregants to pray from the heart. Being consistent with the prophet Yermiyahu (Jeremiah), our rabbis of blessed memory, taught that a contrite-hearted prayer should flow like a river from the heart, see Lamentations 2,18. We call such a prayer ‘Liquid prayer’. The content of the Tahanun should always include the confessions of sin, self-examination, humility, repentance, forgiveness and deliverance. This prayer is one of the few prayers within our tradition that is said directly from the heart. It is truly a personal prayer. It is a universal custom among Jews, not to say the Tahanun on Erev Shabbath (Shabbath evening), Shabbath, Yom Tov, Rosh Hashanah, Rosh Hodesh, Hanukkah, Purim, Minhah (afternoon), and during Arvith (evening) prayer of any day (with the exception of Yom Kippur). –MT Hilkhoth Tefillah Uvirkath Kohanim 5,14.
Covering the Floor During Prayer
The Halakhoth (Laws) and minhag concerning prostration are found in Mishne Torah Hilkoth and read: “Do not make idols or set up an image or a sacred stone for yourselves, and do not place a carved stone in your land to bow down upon it. I am YHWH your Power” -WaYiqra/Lev 26,1.
It is a universally accepted custom among the Jewish people to place mats, straw, or hay in synagogues that are paved with stones, to keep their faces and the stones separated during prayer. If it is impossible to find anything to maintain this separation, the person praying should go to another place to prostrate himself, or lie on his side, so that he will not press his face to the stone.” –MT Hilkhoth Avodah Zarah 6,7.
The above teaching from the Mishne Torah is the premise we base using carpets for prayer on. This quells the concerns about keeping the tefillin’s beth (box) from touching the floor. For mats, carpet and similar objects used for covering a floor during prayer, do not have the status of being ‘floors’. Therefore, we recommend dedicating a carpet or mat for the sake of prostrating. According to RaMBaM a leader of public community prayer should not prostrate with his face to the ground, but instead should lean on his left side while laying on the ground. -*MT Hilkhoth Tefillah Uvirkath Kohanim 5,14
Remove Your Shoes Before Praying!
Another tradition among West African Jews of the Diaspora is the removal of our shoes before praying the Amidah and prostrating. The Creator tells Moshe robennu and Yehoshua Ben Nun to take off their sandals saying; “ויאמר אל תּקרב הלם של נעליך מעל רגליך כי המקום אשר אתה עומד עליו אדמת קדש הוא`” (He (YHWH) said [to Moshe], ‘Do not come any closer’. ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.’) -Shemoth/Exodus 3:5.
“ויאמר שר צבא ה’ אל יהושע של נעלך מעל רגלך כי המקום אשר אתה עמד עליו קדש הוא ויעש יהושע כן” (“Remove your sandals off and away from your feet; for the place whereon you stand is holy.’ And Yehoshua did so.”) -Yehoshua/Joshua 5:15.
Rabbi Eliezar Brooks z”l, explained that we practice this because the act of prayer is holy, and we are commanded to prepare to call on our Maker who is Holy, -Amos 4,12.
The Creator also commanded us saying: ‘be holy, for I AM HOLY’.- Wayiqra/Leviticus 19:1-2.
Removing shoes is only observed in places where it is the custom to take one’s shoes off. If however, you find yourselves in a beth kenesseth where shoes remain on, then you must follow the custom of the people in that place.
The Tahanun begins with the recital of T’hillim/Psalms 25, thereafter a person may pray as he or she wishes. “One that is praying along with a congregation should not lengthen their prayer excessively. However, it is permissible to do so only when praying alone. If after praying, one desires to lengthen their prayers, they may, include the Widduy (confessions) of Yom Kippur. –MT Hilkhoth Tefillah Uvirkath Kohanim 6,2
Beloved, let us not forget that we are nothing but dust before the Creator of heaven and earth. Falling on our knees in prayer not only reminds us of this, but gives honor to the King of kings, HaQadosh Barukh Hu (The Holy One blessed be He).
Rabbi Yehudah BenLewi
*This is an excerpt from Hokhmath Israel Weekday Siddur (coming soon). ©2014