How To Pray

Use Siddur or Not

You may use a prayer book (siddur) or not—whichever way helps you concentrate on the prayers.

Saying Prayers Out Loud

Say prayers (and blessings) out loud, but not overly loud, in order to help you to concentrate on what you are saying.

Exception: The main exception is the amida prayer, which is said quietly enough that you can hear yourself but that people near you cannot hear what you are saying.

Praying in Own Language

Praying in Hebrew is preferable, even if you don't understand Hebrew.

Note: You MAY pray in your own language, but only if that is the language of the country in which you are praying.

Note: If your native language is not commonly spoken in the country in which you are now present, you may not pray in that language, even if you are with a minyan. If several languages are commonly spoken in your country (such as Hebrew and English in Israel, or English and Spanish in Florida and California), you may pray in any of those languages.

Ashkenazi Jew, Sefardi Pronunciation

An Ashkenazi Jew should ideally not pray using Sefardi pronunciation, but since it is OK to pray in any language, this is not a problem.

Actions: Bowing

Bowing: Halacha or Custom?

The places in the prayer services where we bow are required by halacha and are not just customs.

When To Bow toward Jerusalem

Normally, when saying the amida, or bowing at any other prayers such as kaddish, alenu, and bar'chu:

  • If you are in a room with an ark (aron kodesh), face the ark—even if the ark is NOT in the same direction as Jerusalem.
  • If you are not in a room with an ark, face Jerusalem during the amida. You do not need to face Jerusalem when bowing at any other times except during the amida.

Waist-Bowing and Knee-Bowing

There are two main types of bowing during the prayer services:

  • Bowing just from the waist (with and without taking steps), and
  • Bowing with the knees, plus two variations on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur (hands and knees on floor).
  1. Waist-Bowing (Two Forms)
  2. Waist-Bowing/No Steps, for:
  • Modim;
  • Modim in reader's repetition of amida;
  • Bar'chu;
  • Lecha Dodi; and
  • Alenu.

To bow this way, keep your legs straight and bend forward from your waist.

B.  Waist-Bowing/Take Steps, for:

Oseh shalom at the end of:

  • Amida, and
  • Kaddish.

To bow this way:

  • Bow down from waist with your legs straight.
  • Take three steps backward (left foot, right foot, left foot),
  • Then:
    • Bow from your waist to the left and say, oseh shalom bi'mromav,
    • Bow from your waist to the right and say, hu ya'aseh shalom alenu, and
    • Bow from your waist to the front and say, ve'al kol yisrael v'imru amen.
  1. Knee-Bowing (Three Times during Amida)
  • Beginning of amida's first blessing,
  • End of amida's first blessing, and
  • Next-to-last amida blessing: ha'tov shimcha.

To bow this way:

  • Bend knees (at baruch),
  • Bow forward (at ata), and
  • Straighten up (before God's name).

III.  Knee-Bowing to Floor (Two Forms)

A.  Knee-Bowing to Floor--Hands and Knees Only

(Rosh Hashana musaf: alenu in reader's repetition of amida)

To bow this way:

  • Kneel (with your back straight up) (at “hayu kor'im”), and
  • Bow down with hands and knees on floor (at “u'mishtachavim u'modim”), but
  • You are not required to touch your forehead to ground.

Note: You should still bow from your waist (but not to the floor) on Rosh Hashana--even if you are praying alone and even if there is no Torah present.

  1. Knee-Bowing to Floor--Hands, Knees, Forehead

(Yom Kippur musaf: alenu reader's repetition of amida describing how the people bowed down on Yom Kippur.)

To bow this way:

  • Kneel (with your back straight up) (at “hayu kor'im”),
  • Bow down with hands and knees on floor (at “u'mishtachavim u'modim”),
  • Touch forehead to floor (at v'noflim al pneihem).

NOTE: You may not bow down (modim for Yom Kippur) on a bare stone floor (this also includes concrete, terrazzo and other stone-like materials). You must put a cloth, paper, or some other separation on the floor where you will place your forehead and your knees. A talit may be used for this purpose. If you have only one paper towel, put it under your forehead.

NOTE: It is customary today to cover any floor, not only if it is bare stone.

Situation: You are bowing down (modim for Yom Kippur; also for Rosh Hashana if you bow down this far) on a bare stone floor (concrete, terrazzo, and other stone-like materials).

What To Do: You may not touch your forehead or knees (if covered by pants legs or skirt) to the floor. You may cover the floor with some separation such as cloth, paper, or even a talit at the place where your forehead (or knees) will touch.

Reason: You might wipe off any dirt from the floor on your pant knees or skirt, which is prohibited on Yom Kippur. There is no need to use a paper towel or other separation for knees if they are bare (for example, due to wearing shorts or a short skirt). 

Note: There is no problem with brushing dirt off your hands, so you can touch the bare stone floor with your bare hands during the bowing.

Bowing: Women

Women are not required to bow to the floor on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, but some women have that custom.

Bowing If Animal in Front of You

You may not bow down, as during the amida, if an animal is in front of you.

Mirror or Picture of People in Front of You

Don't face a mirror or picture of people when saying amida or any other prayer at which you will bow.

Reason: You should not bow down to an image.

Bowing-Like Activities

Bending Down during Amida To Pull Up Socks,...

You may bend down during the amida to slide up your socks, scratch your legs through your pants, and other permitted actions.

Exception: You may not do so when you are saying the final sentence (the actual blessing) in each paragraph.

When You May Crawl on Stone Floor

You may crawl on a bare stone floor if you are trying to find something on the floor, are chasing a child, or for any purpose other than prayer.

When Kneeling Is Forbidden

Kneeling is only forbidden if it is for praying (except for prescribed prayers such as at “hayu kor'im” in Yom Kippur) or if it looks like praying, but there is nothing inherently wrong with kneeling for fun, gardening, or other purposes.

Copyright 2015 Richard B. Aiken. Halacha L’Maaseh appears courtesy of Visit their web site for more information.