According to one opinion in the Gemara (Berachos 26b), the daily Shacharis prayer was instituted by Avraham Avinu. The Gemara derives this from the verse in Parashas Vayeira (19:27), which states that Avraham “arose in the morning, to the place where he stood before Hashem.” This indicates that Avraham davened to Hashem in the morning.
While each of the three daily prayers has its own details, the main part of each of them is the Shemoneh Esrei or Amida prayer—the nineteen blessings that we recite while standing before Hashem, just as Avraham stood before him. In the present article, we will discuss a specific law concerning the Amida: the law of somebody who wishes to pass by in front of, or close to, a person praying the Amida.
What are the reasons for the prohibition against passing in front of somebody praying the Amida? What should a person do if he simply has to leave shul, and there is somebody davening by the door? What are the laws concerning walking on the side of somebody davening the Amida? Under which circumstances can one be lenient in this matter? These questions, among others, are discussed below.
The Source and Reason of the Prohibition
The source for the concept of not passing in front of somebody davening the Shemoneh Esrei is a Gemara in Berachos (27a), which teaches (based on an anecdote), “It is forbidden to pass before those who are davening.” The Gemara immediately asks that surely we know that Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Assi used to pass in front of people davening. The Gemara answers: “Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Assi were outside four amos.” We thus learn that it is forbidden to pass within four amos (approximately 2m) in front of somebody davening the Amida. This halacha is ruled by the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 102:4).
Three reasons are given for why passing in front of somebody davening is a problem. One reason is that doing so disturbs the kavana (intent) of the person davening. He will be disrupted from his davening by the person moving in front of him. This reason is mentioned by the Mishnah Berurah (102:15) and the Biur Halacha (citing the Maamar Mordechai), and also emerges from the rulings of other authorities, as will be clarified below.
A second possible reason, noted by the Chayei Adam (26:3) and recorded by the Biur Halacha, is that the Shechinah is present in front of a person davening the Amida, and entering within four amos of the person is separating the one davening from the Shechinah.
A slightly different reason may emerge from the Levush (102:4), who writes that it is forbidden to pass in front of somebody davening the Amida, since the one passing in front of him will go between him and the wall he is davening in front of. He explains that it is permitted to pass by the side of somebody davening. The concept of davening specifically in front of a wall derives from the Gemara in Berachos (5b), and is ruled by the Shulchan Aruch (90:21). However the Elya Rabbo understands that the Levush means that the prohibition is because of the distraction and thus, the Levush is just giving the first reason.
Shut Tzitz Eliezer (Vol. 9, no. 8) explains that because of the problem of interfering between the person davening and the wall in front of him, the Sages forbade passing in front of anybody davening the Amida, even when there is no wall before him. However he also writes, as a possibility, that according to the Levush the prohibition only applies when passing between the person davening and the wall.
Halachic Ramifications of the Different Reasons
What is the halacha when the person davening is closing his eyes, or has his eyes covered by his tallis? The Maamar Mordechai (noted by the Biur Halacha) writes that under these circumstances it may be permitted to pass in front of him, since he will not notice, and not be distracted from his prayer. Nonetheless, he writes that it is proper to be stringent where possible. The Biyur Halacha adds that based on the explanation that the problem is of entering the boundary of the Shechinah, as the previously cited Chayei Adam maintained, one should surely be stringent.
Another ramification, in which the reason of the Chayei Adam will lead to leniency, is passing in front of somebody reading the Shema. The Mishnah Berurah (102:15) writes that based on the logic of disrupting a person’s intent, it is forbidden to pass in front of somebody reciting the Shema, which also demands a person’s full intent. This, indeed, is ruled by the Eliyahu Rabbah. However, based on the reasoning of the Chayei Adam, that the issue is violation of the Shechinah, the prohibition does not apply to reading the Shema.
A third ramification is mentioned by the Chayei Adam (Klal 26 seif 3), concerning a situation where somebody has finished davening the Amida, while the person behind him is still davening: Is he permitted to take the three steps back at the end of davening? The Chayei Adam writes that based on his understanding (entering the Shechinah) it remains forbidden to do so until the one behind finishes as well.
Since the concept of passing in front of a person davening is not a Torah law, it seems that where there is a doubt involved, one may be lenient. However, we have already noted that the Mishnah Berurah leans toward stringency in the case of somebody with a tallis over his eyes, and the Aruch Hashulchan (102:13) is likewise stringent, while the Eshel Avraham is lenient. The Eshel Avraham is also lenient in cases of taking three steps back in front of somebody who has finished davening, while somebody behind him is still davening (see also Ishei Yisrael 29:9).
The Diagonal Question
The Tur (102) writes that it is only prohibited to walk in front of the person davening, but not to pass by on the side of him. The Beis Yosef notes that this is ruled by Rabbeinu Yona (Berachos 18b, in pages of Rif), and this is ruled by the Shulchan Aruch (102:4). However, it is not clear if one may pass a person davening, if he is at a diagonal: Is this considered the sides, and therefore permitted, or is this in front of him, and forbidden?
The Magen Avraham (102:6) is stringent on this point, and writes that diagonally in front is considered in front of the person davening. The Eliyahu Rabbah, however is lenient and writes that it is permitted to pass diagonally in front of a person davening. The Mishnah Berurah notes both opinions, and writes that under extenuating circumstances one can be lenient based on the Eliyahu Rabbah. The Aruch Hashulchan (102:11) writes more broadly that one may be lenient in this matter.
The Eshel Avraham adds that even for those who are stringent in passing diagonally next to somebody davening, somebody taking three steps back at the end of his Amida may be lenient and pass diagonally in front of the person davening behind him.
In fact, while the Shulchan Aruch (102:5) clearly rules that one must not take three steps back within four amos of somebody davening the Amida, the Magen Avrohom (102:7) writes that the implication of Rashi is that the prohibition is only to “pass by and return to his place.” However merely taking three steps back does not constitute a problem. The common custom is not like this lenient ruling.
Passing for a Mitzvah
Authorities write that it is permitted for a Kohen to pass in front of somebody davening in order to wash his hands before duchaning. This is because it is permitted to pass by somebody davening in order to perform a mitzvah (Eshel Avraham).
A lenient ruling on this question has also been given in the name of Rav Elyashiv (see Dalet Amos Shel Tefillah Vol. 1, Biurim Chap. 7, 1:3), and is supported by the general custom (see Haberachah Hameshuleshes 4:19). Shut Minchas Yitzchak (Vol. 8, no. 10) however, writes that one should pass diagonally in front of the person davening (rather than directly in front of him), which as we have seen involves a dispute and is permitted where there is a need.
Concerning something that is a custom, but not a full mitzvah, such as the washing of Kohanim’s hands by Leviim, Rabbi Mordechai Potash (Dalet Amos Shel Tefillah p. 61) writes that one should not pass in front of somebody davening since this is only an “added virtue” (the same ruling is given by Shut Anaf Eitz Avos no. 9). In addition, we find that some authorities are stringent concerning passing by somebody davening in order to hear Kaddish and Keduash (see Shut Yad Eliyahu 6, cited by Daas Torah), while others are lenient (see Shut Tzitz Eliezer, based on Eshel Avraham).
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Paksher (Haberachah Hameshuleshes p. 174) explains further that the principle mitzvah of washing hands is incumbent on the Kohen rather than the Levi, so that even where there is no other Levi to wash the Kohen’s hands, the Levi may not cross in front of somebody in prayer and the Kohen should wash his own hands.
Yet, where the Levi will not be passing directly in front of somebody praying, but only crossing at a diagonal, it seems that this will be enough of a need for leniency.
Does a Partition Help?
The Mishnah Berurah (102:2) notes (citing the Chayei Adam) that even when there is a partition in front of the person davening, whose dimensions are at least ten tefachim high (80cm) and four wide (32cm) one should still not pass in front of him. This is because the person davening will still be able to see the person walking by, and this will disturb his intent. A similar ruling is given by other authorities (see Peri Megadim 90:5).
However, the Aruch Hashulchan (102:13) is lenient in this case, ruling that a halachic partition is sufficient to permit walking by, even if the person davening can see past it. The Eshel Avraham, who is also lenient, explains that in this case the person’s intent is not disrupted, since it is normal to walk past him and he expects it to happen. (He adds that the concern for disrupting intent relates to the possibility of something dropping or happening, and not to merely passing by.)
Somebody Blocking the Aisle
When somebody is davening in front of an aisle or other public place, Shut Tzitz Eliezer notes that there is greater room for leniency. Based on the Maharsham, he writes that under these circumstances it is permitted to pass in front of the person davening, since the needs of many defer the prohibition. The Eshel Avraham similarly notes this possibility, adding that somebody who davens in such an area takes into account the fact that people will pass by him.
At the End of Davening
Another possible reason for leniency is raised by the Maharsham (Daas Torah 102), who writes that it is only forbidden to pass by somebody davening when he is still in the main part of the Amida. If, however, he is davening the last part of the Amida, the tachanunim (where somebody can also add private supplications), it is permitted to pass by.
A similar ruling is given by the Aruch Hashulchan (102:13) concerning taking three steps back when the person behind is davening the tachanunim at the end of the Amida.
However, the Mishnah Berurah (102:3) states that this does not constitute grounds for leniency.