There are only three days in the Jewish calendar on which the prevalent custom is to kneel and bow to the floor (bringing our heads to the ground) during davening: These are Rosh Hashanah (2 days) and Yom Kippur.
On Rosh Hashanah, we bow as part of the Aleinu prayer. While in our daily recitation of Aleinu we bow only the upper part of our bodies, on Rosh Hashanah we bow our body to the floor. On Yom Kippur, our bowing during the avoda recalls the prostration of the people during the Kohen Gadol’s Temple service on the day.
Aside from these, however, there are instances when we may kneel on the floor, or prostrate ourselves completely. For instance, we might kneel for comfort next to a baby’s bed, or we might fully prostrate ourselves while looking for a lost item under a bed—or for any one of many reasons.
In the present article we will explore the halachic angles of kneeling and prostrating one’s self on the floor. What restrictions are there on prostration, and what measures should be taken to avoid running into a potential prohibition? Is there a difference between men and women? These questions, among others, are discussed below.
The Torah Prohibition
The Torah records a prohibition of prostrating oneself on a stone floor: “And a stone covering – you shall not place in your land to prostrate yourself upon it” (Vayikra 26:1).
The Rambam (Avodah Zarah 6:6) explains that the manner of ancient idolaters was to establish a stone floor and prostrate themselves upon it before their gods. Because this was the way of idolaters, the Torah forbids it, even in the service of Hashem.
An alternative explanation is that because non-Jews bow in this manner before their gods, it follows that that one who sees someone kneeling to the stone will suspect he is serving idolatry (Chinuch 349; see also Ohr Zarua 1:93).
A third possibility (see Kessef Mishnah, based on Rashi) is that the prohibition is related to the service of the Mikdash. The floor of the Beis Hamikdash was made of stone, and the service in the Mikdash therefore included prostration on its stone floor. Since the Torah wishes to reserve this form of service to the Temple, it forbids performing the same service elsewhere.
The fact that it is permitted to prostrate oneself in the Mikdash is explicit in the Gemara (Megillah 22b). The Rambam notes this halachah, but as mentioned above he does not see it as the basis of the general prohibition against prostration on a stone floor, explaining rather that the Torah means to distance us from the ways of idolatry.
Saying Tachanun while Bowing
The Gemara (Megillah 22b) explains that the Torah term hishtachavaya (bowing down) refers specifically to a full prostration of the body on the floor, with one’s hands and feet fully spread out. The Torah prohibition is limited to this manner of full prostration (Rambam 6:8; Rosh, Megillah 3:4), when done on a stone floor.
Nonetheless, a rabbinic prohibition applies even where one prostrates himself without spreading out his hands and feet (Rambam and Rosh). Likewise, it is forbidden to fully prostrate oneself (with spread hands and feet) even on a non-stone floor, due to concern that one might come to do so on a stone floor.
The latter prohibition is mentioned by the Rema (131:8) and the Magen Avraham (131:20) concerning tachanun. Although it was customary to bow oneself to the ground while saying tachanun, authorities note that one must take care to refrain from bowing down on a stone floor. The prohibition is likewise mentioned by later authorities (see Be’er Heitev 22, Peri Megadim, Eishel Avraham 21, Mishnah Berurah 40).
Because of the prohibition of bowing down on a stone floor, the Shulchan Aruch (131:1) and the Rema write that one should not bring his head or face to the floor while reciting tachanun, but rather lie on his side.
In their days, tachanun was recited while bowing oneself fully to the floor, and the Rema (131:8) forbids saying tachanun in a position of full prostration, with hands and feet outstretched. When on a non-stone floor, for which there is no Torah prohibition, the Rema writes that the problem is solved by leaning slightly to the side, ensuring that one’s head does not actually touch the floor (see Rambam 6:7; Mishnah Berurah 131:42 and Biur Halachah 131).
For a stone floor, where a full Torah prohibition is involved, merely leaning to the side is not sufficient to permit the practice.
Another option for permitting full prostration (hands and feet stretched out) is spreading out a rug or alternative material on the floor. The Taz (131:15) writes that this helps even for full prostration on a stone surface, though the Mishnah Berurah (Sha’ar Ha-Tziyun 44) writes that this remains unclear, and is therefore stringent on this point. [See below for a further discussion of this idea.]
While there is no formal prohibition against mere kneeling, many refrain from kneeling due to its Catholic associations.
Bowing in Davening
Our prostration on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is generally done without stretching out our arms and legs. Nonetheless, as we have learned, there remains a rabbinic prohibition to bow in this manner on a stone floor. Based on the principles above, one must therefore spread something out between his head and a stone surface when kneeling and bowing oneself to the ground (Mordechai, Avodah Zarah 807; Darchei Moshe 621:6).
The Mishnah Berurah (621:14; see also Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 133:23) adds that one can also separate one’s head from the ground by means of a tallis. This should be done by means of taking a corner of the tallis, and using it as a separation between head and ground (Eliyah Rabba 131:15), and not by merely draping the top part of the tallis further over one’s head. The reason for this is that one cannot use one’s actual clothing as a separation (see Shut Shevet Ha-Kehasi 2:61:2); the corner of the tallis is not worn on one’s head, so that it can serve as a separation.
If this is not possible for some reason, one should bow on one’s side, ensuring that the head does not touch the ground (Rambam 6:7).
Type of Flooring
The above relates specifically to stone floors. Some authorities write that marble has the same halachah as stone with regard to the prohibition of bowing down (Magen Avraham 20, Mishnah Berurah 41), and it seems that common ceramic tiling will also have the same halachah. Asphalt and cement likewise share the stringency (Avnei Yashfei 2:9:1).
However, the same Poskim write that bowing down on a brick floor does not raise any concern. Although there is a rabbinic prohibition against bowing down on any floor, this prohibition applies only to full prostration (outstretched arms and legs), and not to bowing down alone (even when touching one’s head to the floor).
Some mention that the custom today is that one does not kneel and bow on any floor—even floors with a permanent carpet or PVC—without a separation. However, the Aruch Ha-Shulchan (623:8) writes explicitly that a non-stone floor does not pose any halachic problem, and there is room to argue that the “new custom” does not carry halachic weight. Nonetheless, if the entire shul is careful to place a separation between head and floor when bowing, one should not act differently.
Men and Women
Is there a difference between men and women with regard to prostration on the floor?
From a purely halachic perspective, it seems that there is no difference between men and women. Certainly, the laws related to the prohibition against prostration on a stone floor (and other floors) apply universally. However, concerning the custom of bowing down on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur it seems that there is some distinction between men and women.
Shut Rivevos Efraim (3:421) opens by citing a contemporary that it is inappropriate and immodest for women to prostrate themselves in shul, and that the practice should not be adopted.
However, he cites Rav Shmuel Tuvia Stern that the custom in Frankfurt communities was that even women prostrate themselves on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He adds that though women would not have been present in the Mikdash to hear the enunciation of the Holy Name on Yom Kippur, a woman who hears the Name would still have been obligated in prostration, and that there is no difference in this matter between men and women.
Still citing Rav Stern, he concludes that while the custom (or the obligation) remains unclear, there is surely no prohibition for women to bow as do men.
Looking Under a Bed
Does the prohibition against prostration on a stone floor apply even outside the framework of a religious or ritual practice? For instance, is there a problem of prostrating oneself on the floor to search for something under a bed or when exercising, or does the prohibition apply only to prostration that has some religious nuance?
Based on the reasoning of the Rambam for the prohibition (and the reasoning of the Kessef Mishnah citing Rashi), it is possible that an act of prostration unrelated to religious service does not resemble the ways of idolaters (or resemble the service of the Mikdash), and will therefore be permitted.
Even according to the Chinuch, who states that the reason for the prohibition is that someone who sees prostration will suspect he is serving idolatry, it can be argued that there is no suspicion of idolatry when a person is clearly engaged in the mundane act of searching for something under a bed.
An interesting proof to the point can be brought from a Gemara (Zevachim 5a) that mentions how Reish Lakish used to lay down on his stomach. Rashi explains that he used to do so on the floor. This implies that no prohibition applies where the act of prostration is unrelated to any religious service. Nentheless, the Shut Avnei Yashfei (2:7:4) remains in doubt as to the actual halachic ruling.
May we merit seeing the bowing in the rebuilt Beis Hamikdash, speedily in our days.
We wish all our readers a Gmar Chasimah Tovah.