I noticed that at the end of Kaddish as well as the Amidah, we take three steps back, and then say “Oseh Shalom,” a prayer for peace. It was explained to me that we step back similarly to how one would respectfully depart from a king. But why three steps? And why only afterward do we pray for peace?


Indeed, the Talmud1 teaches that upon concluding the Amidah one should retreat in a respectful manner by taking three steps backward, and only afterward should one bid shalom, meaning “peace or farewell.” 2

Commentaries explain that the three steps back demonstrate that we are leaving a place of holiness, as it were, and transitioning to a mundane place. Just as we would take leave of a king once our appointment is concluded, we respectfully “take leave” of G‑d after these special prayers.3

For similar reasons, we also take three steps back after Kaddish before bidding shalom.4

But the question remains: why specifically three steps? Rabbi Yosef Caro, in his commentary Beit Yosef, cites a number of explanations:

The Three-Mil Retreat

Upon hearing the awesome sound of G‑d giving the Torah on Mount Sinai, the Jews reacted by “retreating a distance of three mil” (a Talmudic-era measurement).5 We commemorate this sense of awe, and also take three steps backward at the end of our personal rendezvous with the divine.6

Moses and the Heavenly Partitions

When Moses ascended Mount Sinai to be in G‑d’s presence and receive the Torah, “the mountain burned with fire up to the midst of the heavens, with darkness, a cloud and opaque darkness.”7 The Midrash explains that “darkness, a cloud and opaque darkness” refer to three heavenly partitions that Moses had to go through when he entered and when he took leave of the Divine Presence.8 Similarly, when we take leave of the Divine Presence after the Amidah, we take three steps back.9

Descending the Altar

Our prayers serve as a substitute for the services performed in the Holy Temple. More specifically, they correspond to the daily tamid offerings brought on the altar, after which the priest would descend the altar backward. Since there were “three strata of rock” between the altar and the ramp that the priest would descend,10 when we depart from the Divine Presence after prayer, we do so in the same fashion.11

Ezekiel’s Prophecy

When we pray, we endeavor to be like the angels. The verse in Ezekiel that describes the position of the angels states, וְרַגְלֵיהֶם רֶגֶל יְשָׁרָה, “Their legs were a straight leg.”12 In addition to this verse being the source for the halachah of placing both feet together during the Amidah,13 it is also the source for taking three steps backward, since the minimum for the plural “legs” is two, which plus the singular “leg” makes a total of three steps.14

Countering Nebuchadnezzar’s Steps

Early in Nebuchadnezzar’s career, before he ultimately became king and destroyed the first Holy Temple, he served as the royal scribe of King Merodach-Baladan of Babylonia. It happened that after G‑d miraculously healed King Hezekiah of Judah, King Merodach-Baladan had a letter of greetings written up and sent to King Hezekiah. The letter, however, first mentioned greetings to King Hezekiah before mentioning G‑d. When Nebuchadnezzar, who was not there at the time, heard about it, he said that this was disrespectful to G‑d, and he ran after the messenger in order to rewrite the letter.

According to the Midrash, it was in the merit of these three steps (backward15) that Nebuchadnezzar took for G‑d’s honor that he merited to become king and ultimately destroy the Holy Temple.16

Countering his three steps, we too take three respectful steps backward when taking leave of the Divine Presence. After taking three steps back, we say a short prayer for peace and a prayer for the rebuilding of the Holy Temple. We pray that, unlike Nebuchadnezzar’s steps, our steps should lead to the rebuilding of the Holy Temple.17

May it be speedily in our days!