While Jewish prayer has many aspects that are introspective, prayer is also designed to serve as a vehicle of communication with the Divine. The central focus of every prayer service is the Amidah, which literally means standing. Hence, during the recitation of the Amidah, it is customary to stand erect with feet together – reminiscent of the stance of angels. The Amidah is also known in rabbinic literature as tefillah – prayer, our attempt to communicate on the most sublime level with the Divine. The weekday Amidah consists of 19 blessings, three blessings of praise, thirteen supplications and three blessings of gratitude. The Shabbat and holiday Amidah consists of three blessings of praise, a single blessing of God to sanctify the Shabbat day and/or the holiday and three blessings of gratitude.

When reciting the Amidah, an individual should have in mind of truly standing before the King of Kings. For this reason, tradition suggests that the proper way of approaching the Amidah is to take three steps forward into the posture of prayer. An additional custom has developed to take three steps back prior to taking the three steps forward, which apparently derived from the practical need for space to move forward.

At the conclusion of the recitation of the Amidah, when ready to withdraw from the Divine communion, it must be done respectfully. Therefore, it is customary to take three steps backward and bow to the left, right and center while reciting: “He Who makes peace in His heavens, may He make peace for us and for all Israel, and let us say Amen.” This follows the dictates of the Talmud: “Rabbi Alexander said in the name of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi: A person who prays [the Amidah] should go three steps backward, and then recite ‘peace.’ Rabbi Mordechai said to him, ‘Having taken the three steps backward he ought to remain standing, as should a disciple who takes leave of his master’” (Talmud Yoma 53b).

Numerous explanations have been given for the significance of the number three. The most basic purpose of this movement, however, is that it creates a symbolic separation between that which is mundane and that which is holy.

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