In order not to disturb the concentration of a person davening Shemoneh Esrei, Shulchan Aruch forbids anyone from passing by (walking) in front—within four amos [approx. 7 feet]—of a person who is davening. Even if there is a table, shtender, another person or any other partition in front of the person who is davening it is still forbidden to pass in front of him, unless the partition is tall and wide enough to block the vision of the person who is davening.
Consequently, a person davening Shemoneh Esrei should be careful to daven in areas designated for davening, preferably in his proper seat and near a table or a shtender. One must not daven near the doorway or in middle of an aisle where people are always coming and going, since that will not permit people to walk in front of him as long as he is davening Shemoneh Esrei. If one disregarded this advisory and has now created a bottleneck or a disturbance in the Shul as people cannot pass in front of him, he should be told to move to another place, even though he has not yet finished davening Shemoneh Esrei. If he refuses to move, it is permitted to walk in front of him, when it is necessary to do so.
Question: Is it ever permitted to pass directly in front of a person davening Shemoneh Esrei in his designated place?
Discussion: Under certain extenuating circumstances, such as for the sake of a “passing mitzvah,” which is a mitzvah that cannot be fulfilled at a later time, or to avoid an embarrassing situation, it is permitted to pass in front of a person davening Shemoneh Esrei if no other option or alternative is available. Some examples:
- A child or baby who is disturbing the davening needs to be removed from Shul.
- An acute need to use the bathroom.
- To deliver a public Torah lecture.
- To daven Shemoneh Esrei with a minyan, to answer Kaddish, Barechu or Kedushah, to listen to birkas kohanim or Kerias ha-Torah, but only when these mitzvos will not be able to be fulfilled later.
- To complete or join a minyan.
- To receive an aliyah (after being called up).
- To serve as a sheliach tzibbur or baal koreh when no else is available to do so.
- To avoid a substantial monetary loss or a long delay that may lead to an argument. This leniency should only be relied upon if the person davening Shemoneh Esrei either covers his face with a tallis or davens with his eyes shut, and would therefore not be disturbed.
In all of the cases listed above one should make every effort to find a way to get to his destination without passing directly in front of the person davening Shemoneh Esrei. It is only when no other alternative exists that he may disregard the prohibition to pass in front of a person davening Shemoneh Esrei.
Question: Are there any restriction concerning passing by on the sides or behind a person davening Shemoneh Esrei?
Discussion: Some poskim forbid that as well. Their ruling is based on the Kabbalistic concept, quoted by the Zohar, that the Divine Presence (Shechinah) surrounds a person who is davening Shemoneh Esrei; one who enters that holy area is “interfering” (creating a hefsek) between the person davening and the Divine Presence, which is forbidden. L’chatchilah we follow the opinion of these poskim and refrain from entering the four amos of one who is davening, even behind him, and certainly not on either side of him. Still, in case of any pressing need or for the performance of any mitzvah, such as collecting charity, we are lenient and permit passing on the sides or behind a person who is davening Shemoneh Esrei.
Question: Is it permitted to take three steps back if the person directly behind is still in midst of davening Shemoneh Esrei?
Discussion: Based on the above, it follows that it is forbidden for one who finished davening Shemoneh Esrei to step back three steps if the person directly behind is still in midst of davening and he will enter his four amos when stepping back. Even if the person still davening is taking an extra long time to finish, and even if he began his Shemoneh Esrei after the congregation began davening, it is still forbidden to step into his four amos.
If one finished his Shemoneh Esrei but must leave and cannot wait for the person directly behind him to finish his Shemoneh Esrei so that he could step back a full three steps, or if he needs to fulfill a mitzvah and cannot wait, he should step back diagonally or sideways or take three small steps, thus avoiding entering the four amos of he person behind them. If those options are not available, he should recite Oseh Shalom without stepping back three steps and then walk away.
Preferably, one should not step back three steps until the person behind him has concluded the entire Shemoneh Esrei and stepped back three steps. But if for some reason he cannot wait, or if he needs to perform a mitzvah, then he may take three steps back as long as person behind him finished his Shemoneh Esrei, including Elokai Netzor, even though he has not yet taken three steps back [either because he is waiting for the person behind him to finish or for any reason]. Some poskim go further and permit taking three steps back if the person behind finished Shemoneh Esrei but is still in midst of reciting Elokai Netzor.
Sitting Near a Person Davening Shemoneh Esrei
It is forbidden to sit idly within four amos of a person davening Shemoneh Esrei, including on either side of him or behind him. Sitting around doing nothing in such close proximity to a person davening Shemoneh Esrei, appears disrespectful – it is as if he is declaring that he is not joining his fellow in his Service of Hashem.
A minority opinion maintains that sitting directly in front of a person davening Shemoneh Esrei is forbidden even outside of his four amos “as far as the eye could see” (approximately 465 feet). This is because it appears as if the person davening is bowing down to the one sitting directly in front of him. Although the basic Halachah does not follow this opinion, many poskim suggest that it is appropriate to be stringent whenever possible.
As mentioned, the prohibition is to sit idly by while one is davening. Thus a person who is davening any part of the daily tefillah, including “extras” such as korbanos or Pirkei Avos on Shabbos Minchah, may sit down to the side or rear of one who is davening Shemoneh Esrei. Sitting directly in front, however, should be avoided, in deference to the minority opinion mentioned earlier.
Some poskim go even further and permit a person who is studying Torah, or who is writing Torah thoughts, to sit behind a person who is davening Shemoneh Esrei. Under extenuating circumstances they permit him to sit at his side as well.
If it is clearly evident that the person sitting down is doing so because he is ill or elderly, or even if he is otherwise healthy but is presently weak and needs to sit down, e.g., on a public fast day, it is permitted to sit to the rear and sides of one who is davening Shemoneh Esrei. Under extenuating circumstances it is permitted to sit in front of him as well.
It is permitted to sit within four amos of one davening Shemoneh Esrei, even directly in front of him, if there is a partition which is attached to the ground and is at least 35 inches high and 14 inches wide between them.
1. Man or woman, adult or child, including a minor who is mature enough to daven with concentration.
2. O.C. 102:4. Similar rules apply also to a person reciting the first verse of Shema Yisrael (Beiur Halachah, s.v. assur) and one who is reciting Kaddish (Sha’arei Teshuvah 56:1).
3. Mishnah Berurah 102:2. Some poskim are more lenient and permit passing in front as long as the partition is attached to the ground, at least 35 inches high and 14 inches wide; Chayei Adam 26:4; Eishel Avraham, O.C. 102; Aruch ha-Shulchan 102:13.
4. See Eishel Avraham and Da’as Torah, O.C. 102:4; Halichos Shelomo 1:8-36; Btzeil ha-Chachmah 6:30-31.
5. See Mishnah Berurah 102:15, 17. In addition, some poskim are concerned that walking on the side or behind a person who is davening will disturb his concentration as well; see Meiri, Berachos 31b.
6. Kaf ha-Chayim 102:27; Minchas Yitzchak 8:10. Aruch ha-Shulchan 102:13 is even more lenient and permits passing behind or to the sides at all times.
7. O.C. 102:5. Similarly, it is forbidden to take three steps before one begins Shemoneh Esrei if the person behind him has already begun to daven his Shemoneh Esrei; Halichos Shelomo 1:8-33.
8. Mishnah Berurah 102:21.
9. Based on Mishnah Berurah 123:13, Aruch ha-Shulchan 123:5, and Kaf ha-chayim 123:25.
10. Halichos Shelomo 1:9-1. See Mishnah Berurah 104:9.
11. Halichos Shelomo 1:8-34, based on Mishnah Berurah 97:3, 102:3 and 122:5. See also Ketzos ha-Shulchan 20:12 (Badei ha-Shulchan 26.)
12. Aruch ha-Shulchan 102:13; Da’as Torah, O.C. 102
13. Leaning heavily, i.e., the person leaning will fall if the item he is leaning on were to be taken away, is considered like sitting; Mishnah Berurah 102:1.
14. O.C. 102:1 and Mishnah Berurah 5, based on the Tur. The aforementioned Kabbalistic concept that the four amos surrounding a person who is davening is “holy” and may not be breached applies here as well; see Mishanh Berurah 102:14.
15. Peri Chadash, Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, Tehilah l’Dovid 102:1; Ben Ish Chai, Yisro 6; Aruch ha-Shulchan 102
16. Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 18:18; Mishnah Berurah 102:9; Kaf ha-Chayim 102:10.
17. O.C. 102:1 and Mishnah Berurah 5. See Kaf ha-Chayim 102:9 who includes Chazaras ha-Shatz as well.
18. O.C. 102:1 and Mishnah Berurah 6.
19. Mishnah Berurah 102:10-11. See Beis Baruch 26:9.
20. Peri Megadim, quoted in Sha’ar ha-Tziyun 102:14.
21. Mishnah Berurah 102:2.
Weekly-Halacha, Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Neustadt, Dr. Jeffrey Gross and Torah.org.
Rabbi Neustadt is the Yoshev Rosh of the Vaad Harabbonim of Detroit and the Av Beis Din of the Beis Din Tzedek of Detroit. He could be reached at [email protected]