Step into a synagogue, and you’ll find that most of the prayers are said either sitting down or standing up. You may also notice that there are several times when we bow. This is a sign of humility and demonstrates that we are servants of G‑d, before whom we are praying.

Typically, this bowing takes three forms:

  • Simply bowing forward from the waist.
  • First bending (or “bowing”) the knees, and then bowing forward from the waist.
  • Bowing slightly by inclining our heads forward.

Note that you should never bow so deeply that your face is at waist level, as that can appear to be an excessive and ostentatious show of false piety.1

In this article, we’ll address each of the bowings in the order in which they’re encountered during the prayer service.

The Barechu Call to Prayer

Before we begin saying the blessings that precede Shema, the leader calls out to the congregation:

Barechu et Hashem hamevorach, “Bless the L-rd, who is blessed.”

They then reply:

Baruch Hashem hamevorach leolam vaed, “Blessed be the L-rd who is blessed for all eternity.”

Although not mentioned in the Talmud, this is the first point at which many congregations2 have the custom of bowing.3

Some see this as echoing the verse in Chronicles:4 “And David said to the entire assembly, ‘Now bless the L-rd your G‑d,’ and the assembly … prostrated themselves before the L-rd and before the king.”5

How to Bow

In many Sephardic communities, the chazzan bows when he chants his call to prayer, but the congregation does not bow at all. Conversely, among Ashkenazim, the common custom is for the congregation to have their heads bowed during the call of the chazzan, and when saying their response, to bow a bit deeper.

Since this custom was adopted at a later point, you should only incline your head and not bow too deeply.6

(There are some who have the custom of bowing similarly when saying these same words before the Torah reading. Most, however, don’t bow.7)

Amidah (Silent Prayer)

The Talmud tells us that the sages instituted that we bow four times during the Amidah (Silent Prayer): at the start and conclusion of the first blessing, when we evoke the merit of our forefathers (Avot), and the start and conclusion of the thanksgiving blessing (Modim).8

How to Bow

According to the Zohar, when you say the word baruch (“blessed”), bend your knees.9

When you say the word atah (“you”), bow down in a single action, deep enough that all the vertebrae in the spine protrude.10

Before you say G‑d’s name, straighten yourself out, first raising your head and then your trunk, in order for it not to look like it was a burden to bow.

Some Sephardim follow two modifications when bowing:

  • Following the Arizal, do not bend your knees.
  • First, bow your head and then bend your trunk.11


The third of the four bows coincides with the start of Modim. Many, including Chabad, bend from the waist up but do not bend their knees at this point since we don't say “baruch.”12 Others bend their knees as well, similar to the other bows in the Amidah.13

When Taking Three Steps Back

After completing the Amidah, take three steps back and bow, akin to the ancient protocol for leavetaking from a king.

This farewell gesture begins with inclining the head to the left, symbolically acknowledging the Divine Presence to the right of the One you face. Subsequently, the head should be inclined to the right, corresponding to the left of the Divine Presence.

There are, however, different customs of how you should bow.

The Common Custom

  • First bow your head and take three steps back.
  • After completing the three steps, while still bowing, turn to the left and say Oseh shalom bimromav.
  • Turn to the right and say Hu yaaseh shalom aleinu.
  • Bow forward and say ve’al kol Yisroel ve’imru amen.14

The Chabad Custom

Others, including Chabad, have the following custom:

  • First take three steps back and then bow.
  • When saying Oseh shalom bimromav, turn and incline your head to the left.
  • When saying Hu, face forward and incline your head forward.
  • When saying yaaseh shalom aleinu, turn and incline your head to the right.
  • When saying ve’al kol Yisrael ve’imru amen, once again face forward and incline your head.15

When the Cantor Says Modim

The Jerusalem Talmud16 teaches us that when the chazzan says Modim during the repetition of the Amidah, the congregation should bow as well, while they say the text known as “Rabbis’ Modim.” Here, too, there are differing customs.

  • Some bow just for the opening phrase and then again when saying al she’anu modim lach toward the end.17
  • The Ashkenazic (as well as Chabad) custom is to recite the entire prayer in a bowed position.18

When Bowing is Mentioned in Aleinu

The prayer service concludes with Aleinu, which includes the words va’anachnu kor’im, “and we kneel.” When saying those words:

  • Some just bow their head slightly.
  • Others first bend their knees and then bow from the waist.
  • Yet others don’t bow at all while reciting these words. (If your custom is not to bow, but you are praying with those who do, bow along with them so as not to disassociate yourself from the congregation.)19

Times When Only the Leader Bows

When Saying Kaddish

Many have the custom to bow by the following words:20

  1. Yitgadal
  2. Yehei Shemei Raba
  3. Yitbareich
  4. Berich Hu
  5. Amen (the second time it appears)

The Chabad custom specifies bowing at:

  1. Shemei Raba
  2. Viykareiv Meshichei
  3. Ve'imeru Amen (after which one momentarily stands erect and raises their head before bowing again)
  4. Yehei Shmei Raba Yitbareich (after which one stands erect and momentarily raises the head before bowing again).
  5. Veyishtabach…Veyithalal (after which one stands erect and momentarily raises the head before bowing again)
  6. Shemei Dekudesha Berich Hu.
  7. Ve’imru Amen. (When saying the post-Amidah Kaddish Shalem), the head is only slightly bowed at this point.21

Oseh Shalom of Kaddish

After completing Kaddish, it’s customary to take three steps back and recite Oseh shalom bimeromav, similar to the conclusion of Amidah discussed above. And here, too, we bow. Some, including Chabad, reverse the procedure this time, bowing first to the right and then to the center and then left.22

The Priestly Blessing

Another point during prayer at which the chazzan bows is when saying the Priestly Blessing at the conclusion of his repetition of the Amidah. There are varying customs as to how this is done. The following is the Chabad custom:

First stanza:




Bow right

Face right

Bow forward

Second stanza:






Bow left

Face left

Bow left

Bow left

Bow forward

Third Stanza





Bow forward

Face forward

Bow forward

Bow forward




Bow right

Bow left

Bow forward

When reading the third verse: (a) he bows forward when saying Yisa; (b) he faces forward, but with head erect, when saying G‑d’s Name; (c) he bows forward when saying panev; (d) he bows forward when saying eilecha; (e) he bows to the right when saying veyasem; (f) he bows to the left when saying lecha; and (g) he bows his head forward when saying shalom.23

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

In addition to the bowing during the daily prayers, we also fully kneel and bow at a few points during the High Holidays prayers. This is beyond the scope of this article.

When Welcoming the Shabbat

At the conclusion of Lecha Dodi during Shabbat prayers on Friday night, the custom is to turn around and face west before saying the stanza that begins with the words bo’i veshalom (“come in peace”). The custom is to bow the head slightly when reciting the last words bo’i challah (“come, oh, bride”), which we say three times. There are, however, different customs as to how this is done.

Some do as follows:

  • Bow to the left while saying the first bo’i challah.
  • Bow to the right while saying the second bo’i challah.
  • Then turn back to the front and bow (to the east) and say bo’i challah Shabbat malketa in an undertone.24

Others,25 including Chabad, do as follows:

  • Bow to the right while saying the first bo’i challah.
  • Bow to the left while saying the second bo’i challah.
  • For the final words bo’i challah, bow to the “middle.” What is the “middle”? Some bow toward the west, while others bow after turning to the east.26

What If You Can’t Bow?

  • Elderly or sick individuals who can’t fully extend their spine when bowing due to pain or physical limitations may just bow their heads, indicating that they would bow fully if they could.27
  • If you find yourself with no choice but to pray facing a non-Jewish icon (such as on a wall or on a person’s necklace), do not bow.28