Anyone who knows even a little about Sephardic customs (and I in no way claim to be an expert in such matters) knows that Kabbalah has had a major influence upon them. Often times, this influence came at the expense of older Sephardic customs and practices.
One such example of this is the different customs surrounding putting one’s head down when saying nefilat apayim or tachanun. The customs concerning putting one’s head down while reciting our supplicatory prayers not only differ between Sephardim and Ashkenazim but also differ amongst the Sephardim. Let us begin by citing the Hacham Shem Tob Gaguine’s Keter Shem Tob:
“The custom (of the Spanish-Portuguese Sephardim) in London and Amsterdam, as well as (amongst the Sephardim) in Israel, Syria, Tograma, and Egypt is to lay ones head down on their left side (during nefilat apayim) at both shacharit and mincha. And amongst the Ashkenazim it is the custom to put one’s head down on their right side during shacharit and on their left side during mincha.” (KST, alef: ayin-alef)
According to the Keter Shem Tob, it seems as though the western and eastern Sephardim have the same custom in regards to laying one’s head down during n’’a. He explains in the lengthy commentary that he gives on this custom that the reason we go down on our left side is because we are bnei chorin and even when we are approaching G-d in supplication, we do it as sons of a king and free men. Hacham Gaguine sites the Geonim as the source for this custom, concluding his commentary by saying, “Therefore it is from these Geonim who have established for us the Sephardim to fall on our left side for n’’a.”
However, according to Hacham Hayyim David ha Levi in his Kitsur Shulchan Arukh Mekhor Hayyim, there is a much different custom amongst the Sephardim when it comes to putting one’s head down:
“When one falls on his face it is the custom to bow to the left side. And there are those who say that one should bow to the right side. And the reason for bowing on the right side during Shacharit, for one who has tefillin on his left, is because of the honor of the tefillin. But at mincha or for one who does not wear tefillin on his left, he should bow to his left. And every person should accustom himself according to the customs of the congregation in the synagogue in which he prays, due to fear of disagreements. However, the Sephardic congregations do not have the custom to fall on their faces at all.” (Kitsur Shulchan Arukh, Mekor Hayyim, pg. 54: gimmel)
It is the last sentence of this statement by H. ha Levi that is most important for our discussion. Although H. ha Levi opens his statement by saying the custom is to put one’s head down on the left side, he concludes by saying the Sephardim don’t put their heads down at all! This is a striking difference from what the Keter Shem Tob tells us is the normative Sephardi minhag. What is the source of this discrepancy? In a daily email I receive from a Moroccan community in Toronto called, Moroccan Daily Halahkha, there was a great explanation given about n’’a that can help us better understand the difference between H. Gauguine and H. ha Levi:
“4. Nefilat Apayim – Putting Down One’s Head
The original minhag in Morocco, as elsewhere, was to lean on one’s left side and actually put one’s face down while saying the prescribed supplications for Nefilat Apayim (according to our custom, Tehilim 25, “Ledavid elekha…”). However, more recently it has become customary among nearly all Sefaradim to simply sit and say the supplications without leaning or putting one’s head down.
Any elder Moroccan ribi can attest that the original minhag in Morocco was to lean on one’s left side and put one’s head down for Nefilat Apayim. This was also customary in Tunisia, Syria and other countries. See Maran haHida (Kesher Gudal 19:463), Ribi Refael Barukh Toledano (Qisur Shulhan ‘Arukh, Laws of Nefilat Apayim) and others. All this is in accordance with the statements of the Talmud and Shulhan ‘Arukh, which state that one puts one’s head down during Tahanun, though this is not required – it was simply the custom of Jews, dating at least from Talmudic times. See also Sidur Bet ‘Obed.
The first source for the custom of not putting one’s head down seems to be the Ben Ish Hai (Year 1, Perashat Ki Tisa §13), who says that the minhag in his city, Baghdad, was not to put one’s head down at all. The reason he gives is that, according to the Zohar, it is dangerous to put one’s head down if one is not at a high enough level of spiritual refinement and is not able to have the proper intentions (kavanot) during Nefilat Apayim. Since the days of the Ben Ish Hai, this custom has become prevalent among Sefaradim and most communities no longer put their heads down during Tahanun.”
So here we have it! According the Zohar, one should not put one’s head down for n’’a. Although, it is interesting to note that it was not until the Ben ish Hai that the custom of not putting one’s head down really started to become prevalent amongst the Sephardim. It is also interesting to note that the Keter Shem Tob makes no mention of the custom of not putting one’s head down.
All of this discussion concerning the differences in custom’s when saying n’’a is really an example of the differences in how we think about our Judaism and Jewish observance. I really want to use this specific example to open up a broader question; what is authentic Mesorah? Not that I’m in any way trying to convince anyone to change their custom, nor am I trying to tell anyone that they have the wrong custom. But there is a very important ideological difference behind the two different customs described above. On the one hand, we have the Qabbalah as explained in the KST that was established by the Geonim. In my very humble opinion and limited understanding, this custom is meant to impress upon the worshipper that even when he or she is approaching G-d in supplication, he or she does it as a completely free person. We, from our own free will, choose to beseech our Master for forgiveness, meditating on the fact that G-d freed us from bondage to accept the yoke of Torah. This is what the Geonic custom impresses upon me. I feel it is both rational and philosophically compatible with our Torah. On the other hand, we have the Kabbalah of the Zohar as described by H. ha Levi and our Moroccan source. This custom makes the practice of putting one’s head down for n’’a something to be avoided because most people will not be on the correct “spiritual level.” By doing this, the Zohar undercuts the important point that the Geonic custom seeks to get across to us, namely; the internalization of the spiritual and philosophical principles of Yetziat Mitzrayim (The Exodus from Egypt) and what that truly means for us as Jews. I don’t believe it’s about already being on the correct spiritual level before one can put their head down for n’’a, rather, I believe it’s about using the custom of putting ones head down for n’’a to repent, contemplate, and ultimately transform us into the kind of ethical, moral, G-d fearing and spiritual human beings that G-d requires us to be. With that, I must say with all due respect, thanks but no thanks to the Kabbalah of the Zohar. I’ll stay with the Qabbalah of the Geonim.
Tomorrow night is erev Yom Kippur. May the Master of the Universe inscribe us in the Book of Life and for a good, prosperous, and sweet new year. May this year be one of increased knowledge and dedication to truth.