According to both reasons, our Sages established these three steps as a way to show honor in our departure. The Zohar goes to great length to describe the deep significance of exactly how these steps are done, and how the directions that we bow correspond to different aspects of G-d’s Presence (Beis Yosef 123). Even if these reasons may seem beyond our comprehension, they inspire us to recognize how important it is to take the steps properly.
While bowing, we take the first step backward with our left foot (Shulchan Aruch 123,3). Although halacha generally gives preference to the right over the left, in this case since the right foot is generally more agile, by starting with the left we show that leaving prayer is difficult for us (Mishna Berura 123,13). Therefore, a lefty should take the first step backward with his right foot (Biur Halacha).
We place the left foot behind the right one, taking a full step back. After moving the left foot back, we move the right foot behind the left one (i.e., the length of two feet). Finally, we complete our departure by bringing the left foot alongside the right one (Mishna Berura 123,13).
After we have finished our steps back, while still in a bowed position we turn left, bow and say, “Oseh shalom bimromav” (“He Who makes peace above”). We then turn right and say, “Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu” (“may He make peace upon us”). In conclusion, we bow forward and say, “V’al kol Yisrael, v’imru amen (“and on all of Israel, let us say amen”) (Shulchan Aruch 123,1 and Mishna Berura 123: 3,5).
What should a person do if there is no room to take three steps backward? In this situation he may take three steps to the side (Aruch Hashulchan 123,5). If even this is not possible, he can take very small steps backward (Mishna Berura 123,14).
Text Copyright © 2010 by Rabbi Daniel Travis and Torah.org