This weekend we complete the yearly cycle of Torah readings with the final parasha, V’Zot HaBerakhah. Here we read Moses’ last words to the nation before his passing, starting with a blessing for each tribe of Israel. The prologue to the blessings introduces God as coming for Israel “from Sinai, and arising from Seir unto them. He shined forth from Mount Paran, and He came with holy myriads at His right, [to give] a fiery law to His people.” (Deuteronomy 33:2) The Sages use this verse as one of the supports for the practice of taking three steps back and bowing to each side when concluding the Amidah prayer. What is the connection between the two, and why do we take three steps and bow, anyway?
The Talmud (Yoma 53b) teaches:
Said Rabbi Alexandri in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: One who prays must take three steps back and after say “Peace” …and if he didn’t do so, it would have been better that he not pray at all! And from Shemaya it was taught that one should say “Peace” to his right and then to his left, as it is said “…at His right, a fiery law to His people.” [Deuteronomy 33:2]
Rashi comments on this passage by reminding us that when we pray the Amidah, the Shekhinah is present in front of us. (This is why it is forbidden to walk directly in front of a person who is in the middle of praying the Amidah.) When one concludes praying, one should say Shalom both as a respectful farewell to the Divine Presence, as well as to “request permission to take leave”. One takes three steps back facing forward as is expected when taking leave of an honoured individual such as a king, or even when stepping away from the Torah or Ark in the synagogue. It would be disrespectful to immediately turn one’s back on the honoured presence, so one takes three courteous steps backwards before turning around to leave. The Sages add that after taking three steps back, one should stay standing in that spot for a moment.
Shemayah adds that one should bow to his right and left when saying Shalom. One of the Scriptural supports for this is the verse in our parasha which says that God came with myriads of angels and His “fiery law” at His right side. So, we bow to the right first. However, the Talmud goes on to say that Rava saw Abaye doing this and questioned him: “Do you maintain that you should bow to your right [first]? You should bow to your left first, since this is to the right of the Holy One, blessed be He…” The verse says that the holiness was at God’s right side, and if God’s Presence is in front of the person praying, the person should bow to their left, which is to God’s right. The Talmud concludes the passage by saying that, ultimately, Rava and Abaye both bowed once forward and took three steps back in prostration.
In later centuries, the law was codified to include all of the above: one should bow and take three steps back, then bow to the left and then to the right while reciting Oseh Shalom… Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575) summarizes all of the above in his Beit Yosef (Orach Chaim 123). He then presents a debate regarding whether one should step back with his left foot first or his right foot. The matter appears to be inconclusive, though stepping back with the left first seems preferred. The Beit Yosef goes on to cite earlier sources to give a number of other intriguing reasons for taking three steps back.
Ascending to God
The first explanation given by Beit Yosef is that when Israel stood at Sinai and God spoke, the force was so powerful that Israel was thrust back three miles. During the Amidah, it is like we are speaking “face-to-face” with God, so when we conclude we are “thrust back” three steps just like at Sinai. Another related reason is that when God’s Presence descended on Sinai, the mountain was engulfed in choshekh ‘anan v’arfel, “darkness, cloud, and thick blackness” (Deuteronomy 4:11). When Moses ascended the mountain to commune with God, he walked into that three-part darkness. When he finished speaking with God and descended, he took three steps back out of the “darkness, cloud, and thick blackness” of the Divine. We do the same following our session with God during the Amidah.
Beit Yosef then alludes to a more mystical reason for taking three steps back. It is worth noting that Rabbi Yosef Karo was a major Kabbalist. While he generally sought to avoid including Kabbalah in his law codes, those teachings inevitably crept in on occasion. Here he alludes very vaguely and briefly to the mystical concept of four olamot, “dimensions” or “universes” of Creation:
We inhabit the lowest, physical realm of Asiyah, the world of “action”. Superimposed above this is the realm of Yetzirah, “formation”, associated with the domain of angels and spiritual beings. Higher still is Beriah, “creation”, which can be compared to the mechanical room of a building, or the software that runs a computer—those invisible, fundamental elements that keep the whole operation running. The highest level is Atzilut, pure divine “emanation”. During our prayers, we ascend through the universes until we stand before God, basking in Atzilut. Upon completion, we take three steps back to “descend” three levels back to our physical realm of Asiyah.
Prayers Instead of Sacrifices
Beit Yosef reminds us that the Sages instituted the daily order of prayers to parallel the daily order of sacrifices that were brought in the Temple. When the priest would bring the offering, he would ascend the altar on the right side of the ramp, encircle the pyre, then descend on the left side of the ramp. The ramp didn’t reach up all the way to the altar floor but fell a bit short. Between the ramp and the altar there were three protruding rows of stones which were like a ladder for the priest to ascend and descend. So, the three steps back parallel the three steps that the priest would descend after completing the offering ritual.
From the same teaching, one might derive that a person should bow to the right first, then to the left, since the prayers parallel the offerings, and when bringing an offering the priest would first go up the right side then down the left side. By bowing right and left, one would commemorate the sacrificial procedure. Moreover, the Talmud above mentions that we generally prioritize the right side over the left, giving further support for bowing right first. However, the Divine Presence that is before us during the Amidah takes precedence, so we indeed bow to the left first, then to the right. When it comes to Kaddish, though, the Divine Presence is not standing before the one who recites it. Therefore, there are those who first bow to the right and then to the left when saying Oseh Shalom at the end of Kaddish.
In addition to the sacrifices, much of our prayer service is based on the visions of angels seen by the Prophets. This is most apparent with the Kedushah, where we mimic the blessings and actions of the angels as described by Isaiah and Ezekiel. Ezekiel (1:7) describes the angels as standing on one foot: “And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf’s foot; and they sparkled like the colour of burnished brass.” This is why it is customary to keep the legs straight and feet firmly together when praying the Amidah and during the Kedushah. Beit Yosef cites an earlier interpretation of the above verse pointing out that it mentions feet three times by saying ragleyem regel yasharah, literally “their two feet are one straight foot.” Altogether, there are three “feet” mentioned in the verse, alluding to the three steps we take back with our feet when praying.
Based on this, we can add one more insight. Ezekiel describes the angels as facing four directions simultaneously: “The appearance of their faces, the face of a man, and the face of a lion on the right for all four, and the face of a bull on the left for all four, and the face of an eagle for all four.” (Ezekiel 1:10) In mimicking the angels during our own prayers, we conclude by motioning in four directions—bowing straight, stepping back, turning to the left and right—and hopefully the angels will take our prayers up to the Heavens quickly, “running and returning like a flash of lightning…” (Ezekiel 1:14)