After the Amidah (Silent Prayer) in the morning and afternoon, I often see members of the congregation sit down and rest their heads on their arms. It looks almost as if everyone is taking a short nap. What’s up with that?

Three Positions

What you see is not actually resting, it’s praying. Look carefully in the Torah and you will find that Moses prayed in three different positions: sitting, standing and “falling on his face” (prostrating).1 Therefore, it was once customary that, after the conclusion of the repetition of the Amidah, the congregation would prostrate themselves on the ground and recite prayers of supplication.2 This is known as nefilat apayim, “falling [on one’s] face. ”The congregants thus prayed in all three positions: until the Amidah, sitting; during the Amidah, standing; and during nefilat apayim, prostrating.

Although nefilat apayim is discussed in the Talmud,3 it isn’t considered as obligatory as other parts of the prayer, and there isn’t one set way of doing it. As such, the customs regarding nefilat apayim vary from community to community.4

Limitations on Prostrating

Originally, nefilat apayim was practiced either by lying flat with one’s hands and feet extended or by kneeling and lowering one’s face to the ground. However, the custom nowadays is to just bow the head slightly and rest it on one’s arm (more on this below).5

One reason for this change is that there are a number of restrictions regarding prostration in the Talmud.6 For example, a distinguished person is not permitted to fall on his face in public unless he is confident that his prayers will be answered, since it may be considered disgraceful for him to fall on his face and not have his prayers answered.7

Also, outside of the Temple, a person is forbidden to prostrate himself on a stone floor (regardless of whether he spreads out his hands and feet entirely).8

However, these reasons seem incomplete. After all, the halachah states that even a distinguished person may bow on a stone floor if he does not press his face to the ground, but rather turns to the side (albeit without spreading the hands and feet).9 So why do we not bow in that manner?

Some explain that the reason we refrain from bowing down or prostrating ourselves today goes to the very heart of the reason for prostrating oneself during prayer.

Reasons for Nefilat Apayim

Rabbeinu Bechaye (1255–1340) explains that there are three intentions one should have during nefilat apayim:

A sign of fear and awe of the Divine. When we pray, we are in the presence of G‑d. Just as Moses hid his face when he first encountered the Divine Presence at the burning bush, we hide our faces as a sign of humility and shame.

A sign of pain and subjugation. Bowing when we ask for G‑d’s forgiveness is a sign that we are in pain and are subjugating ourselves to His will. When G‑d sees our pain and humility, he will surely forgive us and fulfill our request.

Sign of nullification of all our faculties to G‑d. When we lie immoble, flat on our face, we show that we have no wants of our own and are completely nullified to G‑d.

A Grave Warning

There is, however, an additional intention outlined in the Zohar:10

After he concludes his Amidah prayer, it must be apparent to him that it is as if he has departed from this world. This is because he took leave from the Tree of Life [by finishing his prayer] and gathered his feet to that Tree of Death [since every such descent is a form of death compared to the high level that was attained] . . .

After describing how the person must visualize that he is giving up his very life in order to uplift the holiness “trapped” within the Tree of Death, the Zohar concludes with an ominous warning:

. . And this rectification must be with intention of the heart, and then G‑d has mercy on him and forgives his sins. . . . Woe unto him who comes to appease his Creator with a distant heart, unwillingly. It says, "Nevertheless they did flatter Him with their mouths, and they lied to Him with their tongues.”11 . . . And this causes him to depart from the world before his time, during a period when this tree is awakened in this world to exact punishment.

In other words, the Zohar is explaining that, on the one hand, nefilat apayim with the proper concentration and intention has the power to atone for the gravest of sins, but on the other hand, if done without proper and sincere intention, it can have a very detrimental effect.

Thus, based on this warning of the Zohar, together with the halachic concerns mentioned earlier, the widespread custom is not to actually prostrate oneself but rather to lower one’s head, lean it slightly to one side, and cover one’s face. This both maintains an aspect of nefilat apayim and alleviates the concerns outlined above.12

Some communities, concerned about the warning of the Zohar, omit psalm 25 during nefilat apayim.13 (Some Sephardic Jews who follow the rulings of Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad [1832–1909], known as the Ben Ish Chai, don’t do nefilat apayim at all due to the Zohar’s warning.14)

How Is It Done?

As mentioned, the custom nowadays is to “lower one’s head and cover one’s face.”15

The face is covered by a garment (e.g., tallit or sleeve), as it is not sufficient to cover one’s face with one’s forearm. The arm and face are parts of the same body, and the body cannot cover itself.16

Additionally, we are careful to avoid placing our head on our palms during nefilat apayim,for the Kabbalists explain that our sins are “written” upon the palms of our hands and it is therefore “dangerous” to put our face on our palms while we are asking for G‑d’s forgiveness.17 While according to some, covering the palms with a garment would alleviate this concern,18 according to others it would not make a difference. Thus, we are careful to use our arms (together with a garment) when covering the face.19

Which Way to Lean

Some have the custom to incline their heads to the left, for when a person prays, the Divine Presence is on his right, as it is written, “G‑d is your protective shade at your right hand.”20 It would not be fitting for a servant to turn his back to his master, so by leaning to the left, one is facing the Divine Presence.

Others, however, maintain that one should rest his head on his right arm. And when inclining one’s head to the right with the Divine Presence opposite him, he should have in mind the verse “His left hand is under my head and His right hand embraces me.”21

The most common custom is that at Shacharit, the morning service, one leans to one’s right out of respect for the tefillin worn on the left arm. During Minchah, the afternoon service (or even during the morning service if one is not wearing tefillin on his left arm), one should incline to one’s left.22

Sitting or Standing

The way nefilat apayim is done nowadays, it would technically suffice to simply lower and cover one’s face but remain standing. However, according to the Kabbalists, it should be done in the sitting position.23 If one is in a situation where he cannot sit down, it can be done standing, but one should try to at least lean on something.24

Before the Ark

Many have the custom not to do nefilat apayim unless they are in a place where there is a Torah scroll. An allusion to this is found in the verse that relates to the battle in the times of Joshua against Ai:25 “And [Joshua] fell on his face . . . before the Ark of G‑d.” In a place where there is no Torah scroll, their custom is to still recite the supplications but without covering their faces.26

However, if one is praying alone at home at the same time as the congregation, he may do nefilat apayim since it is considered as if he were standing together with them in prayer.27 Additionally, some hold that one can do nefilat apayim in a room full of sefarim (Torah books), even if there is no Torah scroll.28


After nefilat apayim, one should raise his head and briefly recite supplications while sitting. Afterward, it is the custom29 to recite the passage Va’anachnu lo neida, “We do not know what to do . . . .,” as if to say: We have prayed in every position in which a person could pray—sitting, standing and prostrated—just as was done by Moses, our teacher. We have done all that we know. Now, G‑d, “remember Your mercy and kindness . . . save us and atone for our sins for the sake of Your Name!”