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Why do people step back three steps before the Amidah (as mentioned here in Mishnah Berurah, S'if Katan Gimmel) if the Gemarah only mentions stepping three steps forward? Is there a kabbalistic source or is it just practical and not really a requirement (as the Mishnah Berurah quotes from E.R.)?

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It is in the gemara. See my answer. –  Chanoch Aug 10 '10 at 16:33
    
Chanoch, it is not in the Gemarah. You misunderstood my question. See my comment on your answer. –  Yahu Aug 10 '10 at 19:59

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Sefer Ben Ish Hai Year 1 Parashat B'Shallah Ot 3(Quoting from the translation by R' Shmuel Hiley under the auspices of R' Yaakov Hillel and published by Yeshivat Ahavat Shalom 5765):

There is a reason for taking three steps backwards in the Qabbalah, but the simple explanation for the custom is in order to recall the three miles which the Israelites retreated from Mount Sinai, (from fear, upon hearing G-d's voice), before they returned and were given the Torah.

So on account of popular demand, the Kabbalistic sources(though notably most simply discuss that actual Kavvanot). I am starting with the Shemen Sasson on the Siddur HaRaShaSh mostly because he lists all of the other sources in Kitvei HaAri, and books up to his point in time(there are only the Ben Ish Hai's works and the Simchat Kohen that discuss it after him). Another primary source is Sha'ar HaKavvanot starting toward the end of 28b. Then there is the way it all plays out in the Siddur HaRaShaSh(Rav Yedidiya Raphael Abulafia wrote this one but that is another story), and continued on the page after.

In short essentially our three steps back is symbolic(for lack of a better word) of drawing down various spiritual energies so that we can lift up(with our three steps forward) other spiritual energies from the lower worlds. It actually coincides nicely with the piece from Pri Eitz Haim I quoted in the earlier answer.

If all of this is very confusing(if its not you are an absolute genius) don't worry. It is precisely the study of this in all of its intricacies that keep Kabbalists so busy. Rav Kaduri used to say that it takes a person, at minimum, 15 years of study and practice through use of the Siddur before they truly understand it.

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The translation is by Shmuel Hiley. –  Chanoch Aug 11 '10 at 22:06
    
The R'ma makes no mention of taking three steps back before Amidah. See the MB there on the link in my question. –  Yahu Aug 12 '10 at 18:36
    
mekubal, I would still appreciate those Kabbalistic sources, but the Ben Ish Chai source already deserves the check! –  Yahu Aug 12 '10 at 21:11
    
Thank you mekubal for the other sources! –  Yahu Aug 15 '10 at 4:52

The Aruch haShulchan 95:3 prefers 3 steps back because "every matter of kedusha requires preparation" (3 steps forward being part of the kedusha).

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Okay, but in what way is that preparation? –  Yahu Aug 16 '10 at 17:24
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I assume it's similar preparation to standing and focusing- not rushing into the davar shebekedusha. The Aruch haShulchan doesn't say whether preparation is the reason for stepping back, or it's practical for stepping forward, but turns out to be beneficial. –  YDK Aug 16 '10 at 20:27
    
i would have thought the three steps forward were the preparation for tefillah –  Double AA Oct 9 '11 at 5:03
    
@Double AA, That is hagasha (approach) to tefilla and included in the overall kedusha. –  YDK Oct 11 '11 at 4:07

Siddur HaRaShaSh page 111, says that it is reference to drawing shefa down from Atzilut into the lower three worlds. I will copy the language here(note I have added quotation marks around the words we say): אח"כ לפי שהיית שושבין לזווג יעקב ורחל חתן וכלה ועתה שהוא זמן זיווגם וירידת הטיפה אין דרך ארץ לעמוד שם. לכן יתרחק ויפסע לאחוריו ג' פסיעות. כנגד עובי ג' עולמות בי''ע המלבישים לאצי' ויהיו פסיעות בינוניות עקב בצד גודל ממש ולא יותר ויעקור רגליו השמאלית תחילה אחורנית כנגד הבריאה ואח''כ הימינית נגד היצירה ואח''כ השמאלית עד העשייה. אח''כ יפנה לשמאלו ויכרע ויאמר "עושה שלום במרומיו" ויזקיף ויפנה לימינו ויכרע ויאמר "הוא ברחמיו יעשה שלום עלינו" ויזקוף ויכרע לפניו ויאמר "ועל כל עמו ישראל" ויזקוף ויעמוד במקום שכלו פסיעותיו עד כדי הילוד ד' אמות ויאמר "ואמרו אמן"

He essentially copies R' Haim Vital from Sha'ar Hakavvanot 38b, end of D'rush 6 on the Amidah. The Shemen Sasson in his commentary on Sha'ar HaKavvanot brings other sources see page 50b Ot 33. The following piece from Pri Eitz Haim(end of Chapter 5 on Tephila) is what he says is the essential to understanding the above:

ואמנם שאר העולמות, הם נעשין כדמות כנפים להם, והם בבחי' אג"ן הסהר, כחצי גורן עגולה, ופניה למעלה לכסות ולהעלים הזיווג העליון מן החיצונים, כזה - () כנזכר במ"א בכ"י של הזוהר דפרשת בראשית הנקרא סתרי אותיות, המתחיל פתח ר"ש מי ימלל גבורות ה' וכו'. ואחר שנעשה הזיווג העליון ההוא שבאצילות, אנו צריכין לתת שפע לכל העולמות של בי"ע, וע"כ אנו חוזרין פעם אחרת לכלול בריאה באצילות, ואז מקבל הבריאה שפע ממנו בהיותו שם כלול למעלה, וזה נעשה מן אשרי עד תפלה לדוד. ואח"כ אנו כוללין היצירה עם הבריאה פעם אחרת, ואז מקבלת שפע היצירה מן הבריאה, וזה נעשה מן תפלה לדוד עד קוה אל ה' וכו', אין קדוש כה' וכו'. ואח"כ אנו כוללין פעם אחרת עשייה עם יצירה, ואז מקבלת שפע עשייה היצירה, וזה נעשה מן קוה אל ה' עד עלינו. ואחר כך בעלינו יורדין כל העולמות למטה, כל א' וא' במקומו. וטעם הדבר, כי בימי החול אין בנו כח רק ליחדם לפי שעה בעת התפלה, ואח"כ חוזרין כל העולמות במקומם. וע"כ לסבה זו אין אנו עושים תיקון רק להעלותן כנ"ל, כי העליה נעשית על ידי תפלתינו. אך אחר שקבלו השפע, אין אנו צריכין להורידן, כי מעצמם הם יורדין בעלינו לשבח, ושם במקומו יתבאר כוונת עלינו לשבח מה עניינו:

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You misunderstood my question. It was regarding the three steps back that people take before taking the three steps forward to start the Amidah. –  Yahu Aug 10 '10 at 20:05

Just so that you don't think the only reasons are kabbalistic, see the Mishnah Berura in Siman 123 who (quoting the Magen Avraham) gives the reason that since Nebuchadnetzer ran 3 steps for the honor of Hakadosh Baruch Hu (and his reward was to be allowed to destroy the Beit HaMikdash), we take 3 steps back and pray to rebuild the Beit HaMikdash.

He also cites the Beit Yosef as giving numerous reasons, but I don't have a Beit Yosef handy to look up those reasons.

The Be'er HaGolah on the side cites this source from Yoma 33, and the Rif, Rosh and Mordechai who quote it:

R. Alexandri said in the name of R. Joshuah b. Levi: Who prays, should make three steps backwards, and then say, "Oseh Shalom,"

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You misunderstood my question. It was regarding the three steps back that people take before taking the three steps forward to start the Amidah. –  Yahu Aug 10 '10 at 19:57

The Kaf HaHayyim OC 95:7 cites the Eliya Rabbah who concludes from the fact that the Levush omits this halacha that taking 3 steps back before the Amidah is unnecessary. The Kaf HaHayyim concludes, however, based on other sources (that have been discussed in other answers here) that you should do it.

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See here that it was the Rokeach who instituted the custom of going back 3 steps before Shmone Esrei to awaken the Kavana and to prepare oneself for the Amidah.

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Simple: To make room for the steps forward. Then it was adopted as normative custom, and soon reasons were given to justify it. Memetic tradition at work.

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Do you have a source for this assertion? –  msh210 Aug 10 '11 at 15:09
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BarNavi Interesting theory and assertion about the nature of mimetic tradition. It sounds like it is based on two assumptions: 1. The tradition was not established; rather it was a behavior which became tradition. 2. Such a tradition really has no true traditional basis to it so there is a revisionist justification of it. There are problems with both of these assumptions. The first assumption is assuming that we were once a people who blindly followed whatever we saw and did not question new behaviors and customs. All historical (and Biblical) evidence is to the contrary of such an assumption. –  Yahu Aug 12 '11 at 0:46
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The problem with the second assumption is that it assumes that the customs and norms of the Torah observant Jewish community do not stem from an immensely holy and deep national subconscious level. There are examples of the existence of such a subconscious stream in the observant community in the Talmud: e.g. Pok Hazi (Go out and see what Jews are doing) etc. This is ample justification for scholars to assign meaning to previously not understood customs. –  Yahu Aug 12 '11 at 0:47
    
Unless, of course, you mean that your definition of memetic tradition was already at work in Talmudic times. If that be the case you have disqualified all Rabbinic tradition in one fell swoop. –  Yahu Aug 12 '11 at 0:47
    
@Yahu - interesting thoughts. –  Adam Mosheh Jul 5 '12 at 12:26

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