This week’s article discusses the part of tefilla right after the Amida, when everyone puts their head down – Nefilat Apayim or Tachanun, supplications. What is the source for this prayer? What are its inherent powers and how do they function? Why the differences between minhag Ashkenaz and Sefard in the text and position of recitation? And when is it not recited? Do women say it? Is it permitted to speak before it, and why? Of this, and more, in the following article.
Tachanun – Obligation or Permission?
In this week’s parasha we find Korach and his company who gather around to challenge Moshe Rabbeinu and his leadership.
“Korach the son of Yitzhar, the son of Kehat, the son of Levi … They confronted Moshe… They assembled against Moshe and Aharon… Moshe heard and fell on his face” (Bamidbar 16: 1-4).
Moshe Rabbeinu’s reaction is mystifying: a group of community leaders assemble around him and rebel, challenging his position and G-d-given leadership. Moshe hears their arguments but does not seem to answer at all; instead he falls to his face. What is the meaning of this? Why did he react in such a fashion?
The Rishonim (Rashbam, Chizkuni, Rabbeinu Bachye) explain that Moshe fell on his face in prayer. Rabbeinu Bachye adds that this is the source for falling on one’s face in prayer. What was the content of this prayer? Why was it necessary just then? And what is the power of the prayer modeled after this one?
Rashi, on passuk 4 here, quotes a midrash: “Moshe heard and fell on his face — because of the rebellion, for this was already their fourth offense. [When] they sinned with the calf, “Moshe pleaded” (Shemos 32:11); by the episode of the complainers, “Moshe prayed” (11:2); with the spies, “Moshe said to G-d, ‘But the Egyptians will hear…’ ” (14:13), but now, at Korach’s rebellion, he became disheartened [literally, his hands were weakened]. This is comparable to a prince who sinned against his father, and his [father’s] friend placated the king on his behalf, once, twice, and three times. When he offended the fourth time, the friend became disheartened, and he said, “How much more can I trouble the king? Perhaps he will no longer accept my petition.” – [Midrash Tanchuma 4, Bamidbar Rabbah 18: 6].
The Gemara explains the words “Moshe heard and fell on his face” differently. Moshe heard what people were saying, and that was the reason he fell on his face:
Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani says that Rabbi Yonatan says: “He heard that they suspected him of adultery with a married woman, as it is stated: ‘And they were jealous of Moshe in the camp’ (Tehilim 106:16). Rabbi Shmuel bar Yitzcḥak says: “This teaches that each and every man warned his wife to distance herself from Moshe and not enter into seclusion with him, as it is stated: ‘And Moshe would take the tent and pitch it outside the camp’ (Shemos 33:7). It was due to this slander that he withdrew from the camp.”
What is Nefilat Apayim, the prayer that was born of this encounter, and how did it remediate the dangerous situation?
The Beis Yosef (Orech Chayim 131:1) quotes the Zohar in Bamidbar (121a). There, we are instructed to recite perek 25 of Tehilim during Tachanun [why Ashkenazim recite a different perek will be discussed later]. The Zohar explains that during the prayers one connects his soul with the Tree of Life (Hashem):
Then, after he concludes his Amidah prayer, it must be apparent to him that it is as if he has departed from this world. This is because he took leave from the Tree of Life [by finishing his prayer] and gathered his feet to that Tree of Death… Since he has now confessed his sins and prayed for forgiveness in Tachanun] … And a person [when falling on his face] should imagine himself as if he departed from the world, since he gave his soul to that place of death in saying “To You, O G‑d, do I lift up my soul”… And that teaches us… that there are sins that are not atoned for until a person departs from this world. That is as it is written: “Surely this iniquity shall not be forgiven you till you die.” (Yeshayahu 22:14) This person most certainly gives himself to death …
When one says the words of the passuk “To You, O G‑d, do I lift up my soul,” he professes his preference of death rather than be a sinner in Hashem’s eyes. In giving himself up to death he is considered dead, and Hashem forgives him for all his sins. Then he receives his life again, as a gift, and with it — renewed strength to combat the Yetzer Hara.
It is important to add that the Chida (More Be’etzba, 3:89) writes that in our times, when we don’t have the same energies of the previous generations, the preferable intention in this prayer should not be to die al kidush Hashem, but to live al Kiddush Hashem — living a life purely dedicated to learning Torah and keeping the mitzvos, overcoming one’s desires and serving Hashem.
Inner Meanings in Nefilat Apayim
Originally, Nefilat Apayim was practiced either by lying flat with one’s hands and feet extended or by kneeling and lowering one’s face to the ground. However, the custom nowadays is to just bow the head slightly and rest it on one’s arm.
Rebeinu Bachya (Bamidbar 16:22) sees here an expression of 3 ideas:
1) Fear of Heaven – with covering of the face we indicate that we are ashamed and in awe, unable to look at the Shechina.
2) Pain and submission – one of the main factors of teshuva is the feeling pain of the distancing from Hashem and subjugation of one’s self to His Kingship. Rabeinu Bachya adds that when one experiences pain and submission to Hashem, all those who caused him distress are vanquished. Therefore, reciting Tachanun carries the power to overcome all foes.
3) Expression of total self-nullification – one falls on his face, covers his eyes and closes his mouth in expression of complete self-negation sees not what does him good, nor does he have control over his future or present – he forgoes all control over his life and subjugates himself totally to Hashem. Prayer in this fashion is an expression of total submission of our present and future to Hashem’s will. Our feelings don’t exist, our eyes cannot see and the mouth is covered over and cannot talk.
Rabbenu Bachya adds an interesting anecdote – the nations of the world stand during prayer with their hands clasped together as if they are tied. They don’t know why they do so, but their forefathers wanted to express their submission to whomever they wish will answer their prayers. But since leg movement gets one much farther than hand motions, the Jewish nation has the custom of standing with the feet pressed together as if they have no power of their own.
“And We Will Not Know What We Shall Do”
At the end of Tachanun we say the passuk (Divrei Hayomim II 20:12) “And we will not know what we will do, for our eyes are on you”. The Tur explains (Orech Chayim 131) that up until this point in prayer we have done everything possible to ensure our prayers will be answered – we have prayed sitting down, standing up, prostrated. Now that there is no more to do in the matter, all that is left is to place our trust in Hashem.
Nefilat Apayim is a prayer of one who has nothing more to do, no argument worthy of having his prayer answered. It is a prayer of lack – lack of energy, lack of ideas. There is nothing more to do so he submits himself wholly to Hashem and is willing to die for Him.
The power and virtue of this prayer brings about forgiveness of all sins – although the person himself may not be worthy of life and energy with which to overcome the Yetzer Hara, since he relies totally upon Hashem he is granted these powers as a gift.
This is a prayer that is answered with a gift – a gift of powers one is not worthy of by his own merit. It is when he no longer has any energy to carry on, that he merits renewed energies from Hashem, even though he didn’t deserve it on his own right.
Moshe Rabbeinu and Nefilat Apayim
Seeing Korach attracted a large following, Moshe’s hands were weakened. He, the ultimate leader, was afraid for his people. He knew he had already appeased Hashem three times and he had no more weapons in his arsenal – nothing more to say for which to try and pacify Hashem. When Yisroel displayed lack of gratitude of the worst degree, suspecting him, their leader, of the lowliest sins, Moshe no longer had an argument with which to ask Hashem not to erase the nation. Therefore, Moshe fell on his face. The concept of falling on one’s face when there is no longer anything to do – and that itself being the reason for the prayer to be answered – is the gift of Tachanun.
The Alshich explains the Zohar here (Bamidbar 17:10) – Moshe Rabbeinu prayed to Hashem, saying that he, indeed, had nothing more to argue in Am Yisroel’s favor, but he gives himself up to die in their place. In merit of his mesirus nefesh, Moshe Rabbeinu’s prayer was answered and Hashem did not destroy the entire nation, only those who instigated the fight.
Rabbeinu Bachya (Bamidbar 16:4) and Shevut Yaakov (Iyun Yaakov, Maseches Sanhedrin 110) add that when one falls on his face, all his enemies are lost. Therefore, when Moshe fell on his face Korach and his following was destroyed.
Laws of Nefilat Apayim
After understanding the power of Nefilat Apayim let us turn to the practical aspects of this tefilla.
The Zohar (Bamidbar 120b) and the Ari Hakadosh (Sha’ar Hakavanos, Drushei Nefilat Apayim) explains that the central part of Tachanun is the 25th perek in Tehilim. This is also quoted in the Beis Yosef.
The Zohar warns, though, that saying this perek without proper kavana is dangerous – it can cause one to die prematurely. Therefore, Ashkenazim have the custom to recite other psukim: “Rachum vechanun chatosi…” and then adding the 6th chapter of Tehilim, starting from the second passuk and continuing until the end of the perek. This structure is mentioned in the Magen Avraham (131:5) and the Mishna Brura (131:8).
Eidot Hamizrah have another solution to prevent the danger posed by improper intention during Tachanun – they recite the 25th chapter, but are careful not to fall on their face or even tilt the head slightly. This minhag is mentioned in the Ben Ish Chai (701, Shana A, 13) and Rabbi Ovadya Yosef (Yechave Deah volume 6, end of chapter 7). See also Kara Ravatz (beginning of chapter 12) when this became the accepted custom.
Obligation or Permission
The Tur rules (Orech Chayim 131) in accordance with Rav Natrunai Gaon’s opinion that Nefilat Apayim in public after the Amida is a permit, not obligation. This teaches us that Tachanun is not part of the prayer obligation as Chazal instituted, but a minhag.
There is, nevertheless, an inherent difference between two classes of customs both labeled as minhagim. There are customs that are no more than traditions, or accepted manners of behavior such as singing zemiros at the Shabbos table, or eating kugel on Shabbos. Then there are minhagim which have the status of halacha, referred as “minhag Yisroel – Torah”. These are early minhagim such as the custom of refraining from eating kitniyos on Pesach. These are not simple niceties, but obligations that must be upheld. Tachanun is one such minhag, as it is mentioned in the Gemara. The Shulchan Aruch Harav explains (Orech Chayim 131:1) “Nefilat Apayim is a minhag accepted by all of Yisroel since the days of the world,” and one may not cancel it. Aruch Hashulchan reinforces this idea: once all of Yisroel have accepted Tachanun it has risen to the status of an obligation, a chova. Even in the Gemara, where it is mentioned as a reshut, we are told of its tremendous powers — one’s prayers during Nefilat Apayim are answered quickly.
However, since Tachanun still retains the definition of reshut, there are certain dispensations. Birkei Yosef (Orech Chayim 131:13) quotes Rabbi Yosef Molcho saying that if in doubt whether Tachanun should be said or not, it is preferable not to recite it.
The Kaf Hachaim (Orech Chaim 131:40) quotes the Ari Hakadosh saying that the Tachanun prayer is part of the tikunnei hat’filla. Nevertheless, he adds, the 26th chapter in Tehilim is part of obligation of prayer, but there is no obligation to fall on one’s face. The accepted practice dictates if one falls on his face or not, therefore wherever the custom is not to recite it, it should be said without falling on the face.
Why is Tachanun a prayer that is deleted sometimes? And who decides when it is and when it isn’t recited? The Rema (Darkei Moshe, ibid, footnote 5) quotes the Teshuvos Harivash (412) determining this concept: since Nefilat Apayim is not part of the obligatory structure of prayer but a custom accepted by Chazal, therefore the chachomim of every generation have the power to determine when it should or should not be recited. Everything related to recitation of Tachanun follows the accepted custom (minhag hamakom). For example, the Rema describes that Tachanun was recited on Purim and Chanukah at Rav Amram Gaon’s yeshiva, whereas at Ra Hai Gaon’s yeshiva it was not. This is the rule for everything that is labeled as a “custom” – the accepted practice of the city determines it.
Today there are many customs as to when to recite or refrain from reciting Tachanun. We will mention here the opinions of the Shulchan Aruch, the Rema and the Mishna Brura.
The Shulchan Aruch (Orech Chayim 131:6-7) lists the weekdays when Tachanun is not recited: Rosh Chodesh, Erev Yom Tov, between Yom Kippur and Sukkos, Chanukah, Tu Bishvat, Purim, the 14th and 15th of Adar Alef, the whole month of Nissan, Tisha Be’av and the 15th of Av.
The Rema (ibid, and 494:3) adds several more days to the list: Erev Rosh Hashana, Erev Yom Kippur, Lag Ba’omer, from Rosh Chodesh Sivan until Isru Chag of Shavuos. The Mishna Brura adds that some do not to recite Tachanun from Rosh Chodesh Sivan until the 12th of Sivan. Some opinions add the days from after Sukkos until the 2nd of Cheshvan and Pesach Sheni to the list.
Additionally, there are many traditions whether Tachanun is recited in the Mincha before the days mentioned in the previous list, or not. The general rule is clear: whatever the accepted custom is, it must be upheld.
Nevertheless, the Ben Ish Chai (Shana alef,701) quotes Kabbalists who write that on days that Tachanun is not recited, those who are familiar with Hashem’s secrets should recite it in their minds so as not to lose out on the great power of the tefilla. He adds that on days that Tachanun is not recited due to the day’s holiness, that holiness has the same effect as Tachanun. On the other hand, on days when things are affected only through the power of the minhag, one who is knowledgeable in Hashem’s secrets should make the effort and direct his mind’s thought to it.
Women and Tachanun
Machaze Eliyahu (chapter 20, answer 10) writes that he found no mention of woman’s obligation regarding Tachanun. He rules that women are dismissed from this prayer since the nature of the obligation is public — the public are obligated to recite it. Although minhag Yisroel — Torah, nevertheless since women never had the tradition of reciting it, they are not obligated to start doing so. Even a woman who prays the entire prayer is not obligated to recite it. This opinion also appears in Yalkut Yosef (Orech Chayim 131:1); Rivevos Efraim (Part 4, chapter 34); Halichos Beisa (Chapter 7:1). See also Kora Ravatz (Chapter 12, 8 p. 595) an Halichos Bas Yisroel (chapter 2:12).
The Power of Nefilat Apayim
Kaf Hachayim (Orech Chayim 131:33) writes that one merits many levels of greatness through Nefilat Apayim:
- He becomes renewed – it is as if he has already died and reborn again.
- He is given powers and energies to fight against his Evil Inclination.
- He receives additional capacities to understand the Torah and its secrets.
- He receives additional connection with his Creator.
- He merits fulfilling the passuk (Tehilim 84:6): “Fortunate is the man who has strength in You, in whose heart are the highways” – i.e. he is provided with Heavenly guidance as to the correct pathway to amend his ways for service of Hashem.
- He has influence on the Shechina, that says, “Give me this for so-and-so, my son.”
- Sin does not come his way. And if it should come to him by chance, he will be inflicted by temporary yisurim which will rectify his sin.
- If he should merit and die during this prayer, he is greeted with “Shalom” with no delay, whereas other tzaddikim are delayed for the entire seven days of mourning.
Additionally, as was mentioned before, the prayer causes ones’ enemies to be vanquished.
The Ya’avetz (Siddur Sha’ar Hashomayim) quotes the kabbalist Tola’at Yaakov (Sod Nefilat Apayim) saying that when one falls on his face the Satan thinks he is dead and does not prosecute him any longer.
Talking between Shemone Esrei and Tachanun
The Shulchan Aruch (131:1) rules that speaking between Shemone Esei and Tachanun is forbidden. The Mishna Brura explains that if one separates between the two parts of prayer with conversation or other activities his Tachanun will lose its potency and his prayer will not be heard properly. However, answering Amen and other words of kedusha are certainly permitted.