- Question: [Tuesday, 28th Sivan, 5781]
My daughter’s class in elementary school was just taught by their teacher how to Daven Shemoneh Esrei and take the three steps back and forth in the beginning of Shemoneh Esrei. There was a controversy amongst the class as to how the three steps back are to be done and if one is to take three steps back or four steps back and I was wondering if you can clarify this matter.
The entire concept of taking three steps back prior to Shemoneh Esrei [as opposed to three steps forward] is based on tradition as brought in the later Achronim and is not recorded in the Shulchan Aruch or earlier Poskim. Furthermore, even regarding the three steps that are taken forward before Shemoneh Esrei, which is recorded in the Poskim and Shulchan Aruch, we find no record of how these steps are to be taken and hence we must rely on tradition. However, regarding the three steps taken after Shemoneh Esrei we do find in the Poskim an exact tradition of how this should be done. Practically, we find two traditions regarding how to perform the three steps back:
The first and more popular tradition: Most people take a total of three steps before Shemoneh Esrei by moving their left foot to the heel of the right foot [first step] and then move the right foot to the heel of the left foot [second step] and then move the left foot to be symmetric with the right foot [third step]. [To note that while this is the widespread custom, and so should be followed after Shemoneh Esrei, prior to Shemoneh Esrei it is more proper for one to move his right foot first, and so I believe was witnessed to be done by the Rebbe. However, Rav Eli Landau conjectured that the tradition is even here to move the left foot first. Vetzaruch Iyun.] This tradition is based on the explicit ruling of the Poskim regarding after Shemoneh Esrei who describe that the three steps back are to be taken in the above manner and that the third step is when the 2 feet are placed together.
The second tradition: Others, however, do it as follows for a total of what seems like four steps: They move their left foot to the heel of the right foot [first step] and then move the right foot to the heel of the left foot [second step] and then move the left foot to the heel of the right foot [third step] and then move the right foot to be symmetric with the left foot [fourth step]. It seems that the Rebbe followed this latter tradition [it is difficult to see clearly from the videos I have in my possession and if any of our readers have a clear video they can send it to us]. Rabbi Eli Landau Shlita confirmed with us that this latter tradition is the tradition that he has seen and witnessed and that he was educated to practice. Seemingly, this tradition is based on the fact that we rule that any step that does not reach the heel of the other foot is not considered a step, and hence when one moves his foot by the last step to place them together symmetrically this is not considered one of the three steps at all. This tradition contradicts the many sources who explicitly write that the third step is considered the step that one takes to place the feet together. Nonetheless, this tradition is likewise recorded and defended regarding after Shemoneh Esrei, and was followed by Gedolei Yisrael, and certainly it may be followed before Shemoneh Esrei.
Sources: See regarding the tradition of taking three steps back before Shemoneh Esrei: Admur 95:2; Kitzur Shelah Dinei Tefilas Yud Ches in interpretation of Rokeiach ibid [brought in Kaf Hachaim ibid]; Chut Hashani 54 that just like it is an obligation to take three steps forward, so too he must take three steps backward; Siddur Yaavetz 19; Chesed Lealafim 93:6; Kaf Hachaim [Falagai] 15:2; Kitzur SHU”A 18:2; Ben Ish Chaiy Beshalach 3; Kaf Hachaim 95:6; Piskeiy Teshuvos 95:2 See regarding how to take three steps back after Shemoneh Esrei and that the first tradition is described: Orchos Chaim Tefila 28; Birkeiy Yosef 123:6; Shaareiy Teshuvah 123:9; Shalmei Tzibur p. 135; Beis Oved 123:3; Chayeh Adam 1:24; Kaf Hachaim Falagi 123:40 and 43; M”B 123:13; Shaar Hatziyon 123:13; Biur Halacha 123:3; “Veshiur”; Kaf Hachaim 123:24; Piskeiy Teshuvos 123:1 See regarding that a step is only considered a step if one moves the foot to the heel of the other foot: Admur 123:6; Michaber 123:3; Orchos Chaim Tefila 25; Ohel Moed Tefila Derech Beis Nesiv Tes; See regarding defense for second tradition: Dinim Vehanhagos 4:19 and Orchos Rabbeinu 1:68 that so was the custom of the Chazon Ish and of the Jewish people are not prophets then they are the sons of prophets and corresponds to the four steps of Nevuchadnetzar, as brought in Sanhedrin 96a and M”A 123:1; Piskeiy Teshuvos 123 footnote 6