There are two holy days of the year on which we kneel and bow to the floor during davening: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. On Rosh Hashanah, this is done as part of the Aleinu prayer, whereas on Yom Kippur we bow as we recount the Kohen Gadol’s unique Temple service for the day.
The rulings of some poskim (see Eliyah Rabba 131:15) imply that there used to be a distinction between the full prostration of Yom Kippur, and the partial bowing down of Rosh Hashanah. Today, our practice on the two days is similar: in both cases we go down onto our knees, and bring our heads to the ground.
Aside from these instances, however, there are many times when we kneel on the floor, or actually prostrate ourselves completely. This can happen while doing push-ups, while looking for a lost item under a bed, or in many other cases.
In the current article we will explore the halachic aspects of kneeling and prostrating oneself on the floor. Is this permitted? What restrictions are there on prostration, and what measures should be taken to avoid running into a potential prohibition?
The Torah Prohibition
The Torah notes a prohibition of prostrating oneself on a stone floor: “And a stone covering – you shall not place on your land to prostrate yourself upon it” (Vayikra 26:1).
The Rambam (Avodah Zarah 6:6) explains that ancient idolaters used to put down stone flooring 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, one who sees someone kneeling on the stone will suspect that person as bowing to avodah zarah (Chinuch 349; see also Ohr Zaruah 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 Temple service included prostration on its stone floor. The Torah permits this prostration in the Temple, but forbids the same service elsewhere.
The fact that one may prostrate oneself in the Mikdash is explicit in the Gemara (Megillah 22b). Although the Rambam mentions this halachah, he does not understand it to form the foundation of the prohibition, and according to him the intention of the Torah is to distance people from the ways of idolatry.
Saying Tachanun while Bowing
The Gemara (Megillah 22b) explains that the Torah term hishtachavayah (bowing down) refers specifically to a full prostration of the body on the floor, with one’s hands and feet spread out. The Torah prohibition is thus limited to this manner of prostration (Rambam 6:8; Rosh, Megillah 3:4).
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) with regard to the laws of tachanun. Although it was customary to bow to the ground while saying tachanun, authorities note that one must refrain from bowing down on a stone floor. The prohibition is also 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, based on the Biur Halachah) and the Rema write that one should not bow to the floor while reciting tachanun, but rather lean over to one side while bowing.
In their days, tachanun was recited while bowing oneself fully to the floor, and the Rema (131:8) even mentions the possibility of saying tachanun in a position of full prostration, with hands and feet outstretched. The problem of doing this on a stone surface (and even on a non-stone surface for a full prostration) was solved by leaning slightly to the side, ensuring that one’s face does not actually touch the floor (see Rambam 6:7; Mishnah Berurah 131:42 and Biur Halachah 131).
The Mishnah Berurah stresses that for full prostration on a stone floor – which is the full Torah prohibition – merely leaning to the side is not sufficient.
Poskim suggest spreading out something out on the stone floor, which likewise avoids the prohibition. 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 is not clear, and is therefore stringent on this point. See below for a further discussion of this idea.
Although there is a rabbinic prohibition against bowing down to the floor – even without spreading out hands and feet – there is no prohibition on merely kneeling. Although many feel that kneeling is a goyish act that should be avoided, there is no actual prohibition against kneeling, even on a stone floor (Mishnah Berurah 40).
Bowing in Davening
Based on the principles above, when davening on a stone floor on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, one must spread something out between his face and the floor when kneeling and bowing 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 if nothing else is available, one can also separate one’s face from the ground by means of a tallis.
This should be done by taking a corner of the tallis, and using it as a separation between face and ground (Eliyah Rabba 131:15), and not by merely draping the top part of the tallis fully over one’s head – for one may not use his actual clothing as a separation (see Shevet Ha-Kehasi 2:61:2).
If this is not possible for some reason, one should bow on one’s side, ensuring that the head/face does not touch the ground (Rambam 6:7). This is permitted provided one does not prostrate himself fully (stretching out hands and feet). This is not generally done today.
The prohibition of bowing on a stone floor applies to men and women alike. Yet, the custom of many is that women do not bow to the ground at all on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – though some women do bow down (see Rivevos Ephraim 3:421:2).
Type of Flooring
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 follows that common ceramic tiling might also have the same halachah. Asphalt and cement will likewise share the stringency (Avnei Yashfei 2:9:1).
However, the same poskim write that bowing down on a brick floor is not a concern. Although there is a rabbinic prohibition against bowing down on any floor, this prohibition applies only to a full prostration (stretched hands and feet), and not to bowing down alone (even when touching one’s face to the floor).
Some mention that the custom today is that one does not kneel and bow on any floor – even a floor with a permanent carpet or PVC – without a separation.
On the other hand, 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 ‘custom today’ does not carry halachic weight. Nonetheless, if the entire shul places a separation between face and floor when bowing, one should not act differently.
Push Ups and Giving a Bath
An important question with regard to the prohibition is whether it applies even when not performing a ritual service.
For instance, is there a problem of prostrating oneself on the floor while searching for something under a bed? Is there a problem of resting on the floor during a session of push-ups, so that the entire body is on the floor with outstretched hands and feet?
It can be argued that the prohibition applies only when a person bows down as part of a religious service.
Based on the reasoning of the Rambam for the prohibition (and the reasoning of the Kessef Mishnah citing Rashi), it is certainly possible to say that an act of prostration unrelated to religious service does not resemble idolatrous ways (or resemble the service of the Mikdash), and will therefore be permitted. According to the Chinuch, it is possible that the prohibition will apply, because the suspicion of idolatry might still be relevant.
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 lay down on his stomach on the floor. This implies that no prohibition applies where the act of prostration is unrelated to any religious service.
Yet, because the question is not discussed by poskim, and the Avnei Yashfei (2:7:4) is in doubt as to the halachah, it is better to do push-ups on a carpeted floor rather than a stone or tiled floor.