A Question of Jewish Law

February 6, 2012

Standing or Sitting

Filed under: Prayers and Blessings — chaimweiner @ 4:04 pm
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Question: How should one recite the Amidah on an airplane, train or in other circumstances where it is difficult to stand?

Answer: The Amidah is one of the central parts of our daily prayer. In the Mishnah it is known as the tefillah – literally the prayer, because it is the prayer par excellence. It is also known as the Amidah which means standing. This is because we stand when reciting it. When we recite the Amidah we feel that we are standing in the presence of God. The Shulchan Aruch states: A person should stand with his legs together as if they were one, to appear like the angels … a person should bow his head and look towards the floor … like a servant in the presence of his master, in a spirit of fear, awe and trepidation … [Shulchan Aruch, OC 95].

It is also important to concentrate during the Amidah and to focus on the words being said. One does not stand to pray except with serious concentration. The pious ones of old used to wait an hour and then pray, in order to direct their hearts to the Eternal One. Even if the king asks about one’s welfare, one does not reply. Even if a snake is curled around one’s ankle, one does not interrupt. [Mishnah Brachot 5:1].

There are times when these two requirements – the fear of God and total concentration – conflict with each other. Praying while travelling is such a situation. The problem of finding an appropriate place to stand and pray while travelling is already reflected in the Mishnah. It rules that if a person was riding a donkey at the time of prayer he should get down from the donkey.  [Mishnah Brachot 4:6] It also rules that persons on a boat, a wagon or raft should stay in their seats and direct their hearts towards the Holy of Holies.  It is simply impossible to stand and concentrate in these situations.

The Talmud [BT Brachot, 30a] further qualifies the obligation to get down from the donkey for prayer. Rabbi Judah the Prince, the editor of the Mishnah, rules that even if a person is in a position that he could get down from his donkey to pray he is not required to do so. The reason is that in any case he will not be able to concentrate on his prayer – and it is therefore better for him to sit. [Maimonides, – Commentary on the Mishnah) We are also told that Rav Ashi [according to tradition, one of the editors of the Talmud] used to pray while sitting down during his lectures at the Kallah convention in Babylon. According to Rashi he did this because it would cause too much commotion if he left the lecture room to go outside and pray. Later, he would repeat the prayer standing up once the lecture was finished.

Based on this, most authorities rule that concentration takes priority over posture, and if one is not able to stand and pray with concentration, it is better to say the Amidah while sitting. Some authorities rule that one should repeat the Amidah standing when it is possible. Joseph Karo rules that there is no need to do so – since there is no guarantee that one will have greater concentration second time around. [Beit Yoseph, OC 94]

Therefore, one should avoid praying in an airplane wherever possible. On a short journey one should pray either before or after the flight, which is usually possible. Otherwise, it is preferable to recite the prayer undisturbed while sitting in one’s seat. A person should only pray standing in the aisle if he is certain that this will not block the way and that he will not be disturbed during the prayers.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

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