Dear Rabbi Fried,
I was visiting an Orthodox synagogue this past week, and after the silent Amidah everyone sat down and put their heads on their arms, like a sleeping position. I have never seen that before. What is the reason they did that?
The prayer you witnessed is called Tachanun, meaning “supplication of compassion”; it is also called nefillat apayim or “falling on the face.” This is a prayer of particular intensity and expresses a unique level of closeness to G-d, through which we literally “fall on our faces” immediately after the silent Amidah prayer by sitting down and resting our faces upon our arms to recite the prayer. The Talmud teaches that when one places their head upon their arm in submissive prayer after the Amidah, this intense, heartfelt prayer will be accepted by G-d and will achieve powerful results (Bava Metzia 59a).
Sephardic and Chassidic Jews preface this prayer with the recitation of the vidui, confession of wrongdoings (the source being the Zohar). This is followed by the recital of the 13 attributes of G-d’s mercy expressed in His forgiving of sin, utilizing the closeness of the Amidah to achieve atonement.
On Mondays and Thursdays, the days we read the Torah, there is a lengthy prayer inserted before the “falling on the face,” called Vehu Rachum or “He, the merciful one.” This is a heartfelt plea to forgive the Jewish people their wrongdoings, end our duress in exile and return us back to our homeland with the rebuilding of the Temple. Mondays and Thursdays are considered, in Jewish tradition, to be days especially endowed with G-d’s mercy. Therefore we add extra supplications to tap into that outpouring of compassion.
I once read an account of life in the renowned Yeshiva of Mir in Poland before the war. The author offers a moving description of the recitation of this special insertion, showing how the entire week revolved around the emotions expressed during this exceptional prayer. (Sadly, in today’s world of “life in the fast lane” and the hurry to get to work, many synagogues rush through this prayer with little thought or emotion.)
The act of “falling on the face” is based upon the actions of Moses, Aharon and Joshua in the Torah who fell on their faces to beseech G-d’s mercy at times of national calamities. It is an expression of submission to G-d’s will, while conveying the belief that G-d’s mercy can be invoked even in the face of the most heinous crimes, achieving salvation. This submission is expressed by the falling on the face, as if to expose our necks to offer ourselves to G-d much like Isaac did while on the altar, bringing eternal merit to the Jewish people.
Another reason is the “return back to earth” after we soared the highest heights while reciting the Amidah prayer. During the Amidah every one of us stands before the heavenly throne and has a “private audience with the King.” After being in such lofty heights one cannot simply step back into the world, much as after leaving the king’s inner chamber one needs to spend time in the royal entry hall before walking into the street. A diver needs to come up slowly and decompress before coming up from the depths lest he contract the bends. When soaring down from the dizzying heights of Heaven with our Amidah prayer, we put our heads on our arms for that downward flight to be able to face the world once more.
Our prayer services, when recited with the proper focus and understanding, are wonderful opportunities for personal growth on a profound level.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Rabbi Fried,