Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions, by Ronald L. Eisenberg, published by the Jewish Publication Society.
Tahanun (Supplication) is a prayer unit containing confessions of sins and petitions for God’s grace and mercy that is recited immediately after the reader’s repetition of the Amidah in the morning and afternoon services on weekdays. The talmudic sages added personal appeals to God after the prescribed prayers (Ber. 16b-17a), a custom that gradually was adopted by most worshipers, who added their own prayers after the formal service concluded (Ber. 31a).
These prayers were optional for centuries and, when offered, were a spontaneous outpouring from the heart in which worshipers expressed their innermost thoughts and concerns. A standardized text for Tahanun became part of the congregational service only in the 16th century.
When the prophet Gad offered King David the choice of who should punish the monarch for the grave sin of taking a census of the people in a manner contrary to that prescribed in the Torah (Exod. 30:12), David replied: “Let us fall, I pray you, into the hand of the Lord, for His mercies are many, but let me not fall into the hand of men” (2 Sam. 24:14). Except on Monday and Thursday, Tahanun begins with these words of David. The central penitential psalm is Psalm 6 in the Ashkenazic ritual and Psalm 25 in the Sephardic rite.
I’ve Falled on my Face and I Can’t Get Up
A major feature of Tahanun is the act of nefilat apayim (“falling on the face”). This submissive posture is based on the actions of Moses and Aaron in response to the Korah rebellion (Num. 16:22) and Joshua after the disastrous defeat at Ai (Josh. 7:6). In the Temple, the people knelt and prostrated themselves until their faces touched the ground, a gesture of absolute humility and total self-effacement, indicating complete submission to God.
In modern times, however, the prayer is recited in a seated position with head lowered and the face buried in the bend of the left forearm. Worshipers who wear tefillin on the left arm rest the head on the right arm out of respect for the tefillin. This posture indicates the feelings of desolation and guilt that threaten to overwhelm the worshiper but that are mitigated by the unquenchable hope that God’s mercy will provide salvation from even the most desperate situation. Because the Bible records that Joshua (7:6) “lay with his face on the ground in front of the Ark of the Lord,” the traditional posture of Tahanun is assumed only in the presence of a Torah scroll (in the ark) to designate the sanctity of the place; otherwise, it is recited with the head erect.
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