Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What to Do During the Amidah/Shemoneh Esrei

The Amidah (also known as the shemoneh esrei) is the high point of the prayer services. This is the long, silent prayer where you see all the rocking. Except for the maariv service and any time there is not a minyan, the Amidah is repeated by the chazzan after (most of) the congregation has finished the silent version. 

Because it is silent, I found this to be one of the harder unwritten-rule situations in my first congregation. It probably took me 2 or 3 years to figure all this out, so benefit from my awkwardness.

First and foremost: Yes, you may pray in English. That's just fine. In fact, it will be a long time before you could read Hebrew fast enough to keep up with the congregation. If you feel bad about this, don't. As you become more comfortable, you can take as long as you want to finish the Amidah, but most people are too nervous to do that for a long time. Even I find that intimidating and will only daven my long Hebrew version of the Amidah in certain shuls.

Secondly: Yes, you can shuckle too. Do what feels right, and experiment with different movements. And if you don't want to shuckle, that's fine too. You'll see it all in the congregation.

Face the direction everyone else is facing. That's Jerusalem, not the Torahs, you're facing.

Interruptions: Don't interrupt others. Don't interrupt yourself. Don't talk around people who are still davening silently, it's incredibly distracting.

The Practical Bits
To begin and end the Amidah, you take three small steps backward and then immediately three steps forward. You will usually be taking very small steps because there will be people around you. Be considerate. I suggest using the Artscroll siddur because it has better instructions on physical movements than other siddurim do. Many liberal siddurim don't give any instructions, and the Koren siddur only gives the Hebrew keywords even in the instructions over the English version. You can even review these instructions and the prayers at home before going to services.

The Amidah should be pronounced. At a minimum, your lips should be moving. You should be speaking loud enough to hear yourself but low enough that no one else hears you. The worst part of this is that your mouth and lips will develop incredible bouts of drymouth. My mouth stubbornly refused to cooperate for years. At least for the lips, I can suggest a generous dousing of chapstick when the congregation gets close to the Amidah (Note: Not Shabbat-friendly). But in the end, you just have to stick it out and your body will adjust eventually.

There are times when you bend the knees and bow and one time when you only bow. This is where the instructions being in English is very important. You can stop your prayer and watch the people around you if you find that helpful. But...don't be too obvious about it. There are many ways to do the bend and bow, so do whatever you think "bend and bow" means, and you will be fine. You don't have to copy your neighbor. I don't suggest scraping the floor, but you may bow as deeply or shallowly as you wish. 

For the triple bow at the end of the Amidah, you will want to look around and see how your neighbors do it. There is a lot of variety here, but you are perfectly correct if you follow the instructions as written: Bow left, bow right, and bow to the front. Some people completely cut out the right bow (at least it would appear they do), and I've never understood that. But that's irrelevant to my own davening, so you don't need to worry about it either.

One last point: Remember to check your blindspot. Don't walk backwards into your neighbor. Nothing ruins your kavanah more than being stepped on and/or knocked over.


Now, here's the tricky part: 
What happens if you finish the Amidah before or after the congregation?

After the Congregation
Just keep going until you finish, even if you finish after the chazzan has finished his repetition and moved on to the other prayers. Don't worry about what the other congregants are doing. You can catch up later. (But know that you are close to the end of the service.) When you finish, join the congregation where they are. If you missed all the rest of the service, at least say Aleinu (beginning "It is our duty..."). You know, unless they're locking you inside the building at that point.

Before the Congregation
What to do if you want to get a gold star of halachic compliance: When you finish your personal silent Amidah, take the three steps back and do the bowing. Stay where you are, without taking the three steps forward. You will take the three steps forward when the chazzan begins the kedusha (or at least until he begins the repetition).

What people actually do: You can sit down if you finish early. Technically, you're not supposed to, but people do all the time.  Once the chazzan starts his repetition of the Amidah, stand again. You don't have to do the three steps or bowing at any point during the repetition. Don't let the chazzan confuse you: he may bend his knees and bow at every "Blessed are you..."

During The Repetition

Each time the chazzan says "Blessed are you..." the congregation will mumble "Baruch hu uvaruch sh'mo" ("blessed is He and blessed is his name") before he completes the blessing. Go ahead and memorize that one. It is nearly impossible to learn by ear because most people slur it. At the end of the blessing, the congregation responds "Amen." You will learn to listen for the pause a chazzan will insert in a blessing for the Baruch hu. (Note that this phrase comes up in other blessings throughout the service, but not all of them, so don't make it a habit. When in doubt, don't say it.)

During the repetition, Kedusha is added. Kedusha is going to be in a box or otherwise marked as not being part of the silent Amidah. Again, the instructions will give you instructions on the physical movements, but they won't be adequate. The instructions will tell you when, but not necessarily how. You just have to watch your neighbors. It's simply bouncing up on your toes three times or once. No one will notice if you don't bob up and down until you figure it out. Once Kedusha is over, many opinions hold that you can sit again. You will know the time is right when other people sit down. (Good rule of thumb: Whenever everyone is standing, you should probably be standing too.) Some people may remain standing, and that's ok. You can sit if you want to.

There will be more confusing movements when you read Modim (also known as Thanksgiving), which begins "We gratefully thank you..." At this time during the silent Amidah, you only bowed. During the repetition, you will bow again, and you will say a different version of Modim that is located in a little box beside or under the silent version of Modim. You don't necessarily have to stand up for this bow. People differ on this, but it is generally acceptable to bow forward in your seat far enough that your bottom leaves the seat. Some people don't even get the entire thing off the seat. Sometimes you're just sore, tired, distracted, or caught by surprise. However, you can always stand just before Modim and properly bow. If you do that, you can sit back down afterwards.


Now get out there and daven like a pro!

8 comments:

  1. Thanks for this! It really could not have come at a better time...

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  2. I love this blog! Especially now I have managed to actually read the correct year. One thing I have learnt recently to add to this is that if you haven't finished davening shemoneh esrei before the repetition, you are fine to carry on, but you have to pause during kedusha. You can't interrupt kedusha, but you also can't interrupt yourself if you haven't finished shemoneh esrei! So you should just bob along when everyone else does but not say anything. After kedusha you can resume shemoneh esrei and finish in your own time. Apparently there is also the opinion that if you KNOW you will not finish shemoneh esrei before the chazzan begins his repetition, you shouldn't start but just wait for the repetition and go along at the same time.
    Another interesting point you have raised is the bending, bowing, straightening etc. I wonder how long it is before people feel comfortable doing this - I still feel so self-conscious and worried about people looking at me and thinking I am doing it wrong or how silly I look. I try and do just the minutest movements ie just taking three steps backwards with my toes in the privacy of my own shoes, but really that isn't good enough, I know. SIGH! I suppose the more routine it becomes the less you think about these things.
    Thanks again for a great post!

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    Replies
    1. Originally posted: October 23, 2011 at 4:20 PM

      I don't think it is good advice to wait until the repetition begins. If I did that, I wouldn't finish until after everyone had left. I'm still clocking 15-25 minutes, depending on which amidah it is. I think this would be similar for most people, and it is more important for them to stay with the congregation as much as possible in order to learn.

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  3. consider updating this w/ regards to Anna's comment. You missed one of the biggest halachos of the shemonah esray. That being the fact that if you aren't finished with your personal davening when the chazan begins the kedusha, you must pause and wait until he has finished ALL of kedushah. There are varying opinions as to whether you should recite kedusha if you havent finished your personal amidah, but you must pause. you should learn the halachos and fix your post as to not mislead people. "lifnei eever, lo titein michshol" vayikra 19:14

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  4. Skylar-

    I just found your blog yesterday, and I've already bounced around and spent WAY more time than I should've reading various posts. You write very well and keep it interesting.

    First let me point out that Anna and Anon are mostly right. The majority opinion is that you should stop wherever you are in your silent Amidah, listen to everything the Shaliach Tzibbur says for the Kedushah while saying nothing yourself, and then continue on your way once the Shatz says baruch atah Hashem, haKel hakadosh. You get bonus points if you stop at the end of a sentence and superduper bonus points if you stop between brachot.

    BUT, there is a Gadol who disagrees with the above. The reason that do not answer during kedushah when you're still in the middle of your Shmona Esrei is because you do not want a Hefsek -- a "break" (halachically) in your Amidah. It's the same reason that you do not talk between washing and hamotzi. BUT (there's that word again), The Rav (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik) came along and looked at that reasoning with a kind of "huh?!" look on his face. His reasoning was something along the lines of "I'm talking to Hashem. Directly to Hashem. Of course I do not want to have a break in that conversation. But, if I stop to listen to Kedushah, um, I *AM* putting a break into the conversation!" Therefore, his opinion was that you should just continue through your davening while the rest of the kehillah says Kedushah. I'm not saying *YOU* should do that; just know it's an opinion -- from a highly regarded gadol hador.

    All that time, and I didn't even get to the topic I *wanted* to address from the beginning. My time to write has run out for now. I'll try to follow up later this evening with the anecdote I originally wanted to share.

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  5. Ugh, I meant to respond to that comment above and forgot about it. Thank you, Jonathan for that breakdown, it was very interesting! I had been taught the issue is as simple as the poster above you describes.

    However. You both have to remember that I'm writing for a very specific audience. As I mentioned in the State of the Blog recently, I don't expect my readers to have any Hebrew knowledge, possibly not even the ability to read Hebrew. And even if you do read Hebrew, it is an entirely different thing to hear Hebrew and listen for specific words.

    I did not mention not interrupting Kedusha because I don't believe a reader who needs the level of information I provided above will be able to tell when Kedusha begins. If they are new enough to shul to not understand the movements people are making, I don't expect them to be at the level of hearing kedusha. I hope that is a fair assessment. Even if they can read Hebrew, it is a horse of another color to continue davening while *also* listening for the chazzan's words that begin the Kedusha. All Hebrew likely blends together in their ears. I can hardly do that in English conversation, quite honestly.

    Assuming they figure it out when they hear "Kadosh...," what they're really noticing is that everyone around them is bouncing up and down. They may not even know the word Kadosh at that point. More importantly, by the time they catch that, they've already interrupted the Kedusha by continuing to daven until that point. I guess if you want to look at it as a continuing transgression...

    Would you suggest that the person stops their Amidah once the repetition begins and not continue until after all the bouncing has stopped? I think that's bad from both the kevana and educational standpoints. We're dealing with people who are learning to be frum. (And may not even be obligated in these rabbinic rulings to begin with, so the point could be moot.) If we made them wait until Kedusha was over (assuming they can tell when that is), we're making their already-long davening significantly longer, reducing their ability to learn the other parts of the service, as well as how a normal amidah should be. And perhaps I subconsciously was thinking the same as Rav Soleveitchik that it's more important to have a naturally-flowing conversation with Hashem rather than impose obligations upon them that they can't properly fulfill at this stage. I would rather leave it out entirely than worry them they are committing an aveirah when it's something that can't obligate themselves to at this time and fulfill it properly. There is enough stress. (I also wonder how many observant Jews actually know this because I feel like many of the "slower" daveners don't stop during Kedusha, based on the occasional glance around. I find many people have never really studied the laws of tefila because it's so ever-present that they think they must have it right.)

    Frumkeit is a process, and there are stages of learning. I wrote this as a very "elementary"-level piece. I think both of you are well beyond my target audience. I'm glad to have your expertise here, exceptionally glad! But remember to keep your audience in mind.

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  6. I appreciate the fact that Anna, Anon, and I probably went *WAY* deeper than the target audience. Like I said, I hadn't even intended to comment on that. It was just one of those "have itch, must scratch" type things when I saw the "you must". As my rabbi says, the correct answer to most halachic shailas begins with "It depends"!

    IY"H, I'll get to type up my (IMO) very on-topic comment this evening. You know, the one I *really* wanted to spend 15-30 minutes on instead of my comment above. :-D

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  7. As someone who's been observant for many years, I think that this is a great instructional guide for davening. Have you considered writing a step-by-step guide version of this post?

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