As Yom Yerushalaim approaches, it is fitting that we should examine one of the many customs that distinguish Yerushalaim from other places because of its unique holiness.
After the amida prayer, we say the penitential tachanun. As befitting an emotional supplication, we prostrate ourselves for this prayer, and indeed the gemara refers to tachanun as NEFILAT APAYIM, meaning “falling on the face”. However, the actual custom is not to actual bow down but merely to lean forward and to the side and cover the face. Indeed, the Rema uses the term KISUI PANIM, “covering the face”, in addition to the NEFILAT APAYIM (OC 131:2.)
One source for this custom is the incident where Yehoshua prostrated himself in prayer after the military debacle at Ai (Yehoshua 7:6). The gemara explains that Yehoshua was sure that Hashem would answer his prayer and tell him to arise, but for any lesser person to completely prostrate himself would show an unwarranted certainty that Hashem would answer him. (Megillah 22b. Like the story of Choni who practically demanded that Hashem answer his prayer for rain, stating that he would not leave his circle beforehand. This would have been improper for anyone else as the Mishna states – Taanit 3:8.)
The Rokeach infers another principle from this story. Since Yehoshua bowed down “before the Ark of Hashem”, the Rokeach writes that NEFILAT APAYIM is done only in the presence of a sefer Torah (Chapter 324, cited in Beit Yosef OC 131. Of course tachanun is still recited without a Torah scroll, but without leaning).
Despite this ancient custom, in Yerushalayim the custom is to recite tachanun reclining even without a sefer Torah. Rav Moshe Feinstein understands that the requirement for a sefer Torah is because it shows that the place is sanctified and dedicated to prayer; he writes, “Yerushalayim is a place which is holy and dedicated to prayer, and so even without a sefer Torah NEFILAT APAYIM is appropriate.” (Igrot Moshe YD III:129.)
Here is a complementary explanation, which relates this custom back to the source of Yehoshua’s prayer. The Yerushalmi explains that the problem of complete prostration is particularly for an individual praying for the community (Yerushalmi Ta’anit 2:6). The Rosh explains that if they aren’t answered even after such an earnest prayer, the community could take it as a sign that they are unworthy. But a single person in private is permitted even to prostrate himself (cited in Tur OC 131).
Paradoxically, the custom is the opposite. An individual praying privately in his home is forbidden to even lean during tachanun! (Rema OC 131:2)
One explanation is that our tachanun is formulated specifically as a prayer for the entire community. For this reason it is written in the plural, even at the expense of altering the wording of Biblical verses (for example, Tehillim 40:12). While a private petition may be said prostrated, we want to emphasize that our tachanun prayer is not a private petition at all, but rather one said for the community, like that of Yehoshua which was said before the ark which was the focal point for the entire nation.
For that reason, we are careful not to say tachanun leaning except in a place with a sefer Torah. A private petition could be said leaning anywhere. But by limiting this posture to a place where there is a Torah scroll, the symbol of Torah observance and study which unite the Jewish people, we show that our petition is for the salvation of the entire nation.
Yerushalayim also symbolizes the unity of the entire Jewish people. It is the place where “All Israel come to see the face of Hashem your G-d in the place which He chooses” (Devarim 31:11). In Yerushalayim, each individual is intimately bound up with the entire Jewish people, and even private prayers assume a communal character. There it is always proper to say tachanun in a leaning position.
Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.