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I have noticed that many, many very religious people look around the shul prior to starting Shemona Esrei and then, when they take three steps back, they again look around the shul whilst saying the final Yehi Ratzon after Oseh Sholom. Is there a source or reason for this?

In my observations, people don't just look briefly directly behind them or to the side (as I would expect if they were just trying to avoid a collision or walking into someone else's davening space) but rather are looking around after they have stepped back and are saying the Yehi Rotzon. They are doing the same prior to Shemono Esrei: they are looking around the entire shul, not just briefly immediately behind them.

I ask the question because I see this done by almost everyone, mainly learned people.

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@yydl Maybe they're playing the "whose Shmone Esrei was (longest|shortest)" game. –  Double AA May 28 '13 at 0:20
    
People don't know how to Daven properly so she shake and bake while Davening. One sees some one else do it n repeats him. –  MoriDoweedhYaa3qob May 28 '13 at 1:11
    
Sorry for not phrasing the question precisely. People don't just look briefly directly behind them or to the side but rather are looking around after they have stepped back and are saying the Yehi Rotzon. They are doing the same prior to Shemono Esrei, they are looking around the entire shul not just briefly immediately behind them. I ask the question because I see this done by almost everyone, mainly learned people. –  user2817 May 28 '13 at 13:51
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It may just be that many who appear to be very learned, and are therefore very experienced in Jewish ritual life (including, and especially, prayer), have unfortunately succumbed to boredom and distraction during Tefillah. A friend, who became religious as an adult, once sarcastically told me how excited he was when he realized he'd crossed the threshold from Davening with inspiration and fervor to reciting the entire Shemoneh 'Esreh without concentrating on a single word, "just like an FFB!" –  Seth J May 28 '13 at 14:23
    
I may try to be Melamed Zchus and suggest that people look around so that they don't become so engrossed in themselves during prayer. They look at others to remember that they are part of the minyan/klal and when they pray and after they pray they want to include and bring themselves back together with others. –  user2817 May 28 '13 at 20:59

3 Answers 3

It is inappropriate to pass in front of someone whilst they are still in prayer as doing so may distract them. Accordingly many look around beforehand in order to see if they can position themselves such that no one will be behind them when they themselves finish and afterwards to check to make sure that they will not take their three steps back in the direct field of view of someone still praying behind them. There are various opinions about the distance one ought be concerned about, whether one ought be considered with peripheral vision, etc. Here's a list of sources on the topic.

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The Mishna Brurah 95:4 cites the Bach who says one should look up and through the sky windows before smoneh esrei, maybe they are fulfilling this mandate of the Bach.

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Thank you for the list of sources. Although it doesn't quite address my question it is nevertheless very interesting. –  user2817 May 30 '13 at 13:05

I assume they are making sure there is a minyan starting Shemoneh Esrei together, and similarly checking if there is a minyan to start chazaras hashatz. That's what I am looking for when I do it.

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