Kaddish and the Three Steps Backward
What is the origin and the purpose of the custom of concluding the Kaddish by taking three steps back ward? (From Rabbi Nathan Kaber, Altoona, Pennsylvania)
It is clear that taking three steps backward at the close of the Kaddish while reciting the verse from Job 25 : 2, “He who maketh peace in the high places” (Osay Shalom), is a required practice. The Shulchan Aruch in Orah Hayyim 5 6: 5 says that the reader of the Kaddish before the Borchu must do so. This practice applies to every form of the Kaddish recited by the reader and the form of the Kaddish recited by the orphan. However, the Shulchan Aruch gives no explanation as to why the reader or the orphan must take these three steps backward.
A hint as to the reason is found in the responsa of Israel Isserlein (fourteenth century), “Terumas Ha-deshen” 15. Isserlein discusses the question of the reader taking three steps backward, and during the discussion makes some mention of the similar custom with regard to the close of the Shemoneh Esray, where the worshiper, at the conclusion of the Shemoneh Esray, when he comes to the above verse from Job (Osay Shalom) takes three steps backward. Also, Elijah of Vilna, in his notes to the Shulchan Aruch, com pares the reader’s three steps backward at the close of the Kaddish to the three steps backward taken after the Shemoneh Esray.
Now it is clear that the three steps backward is easily understood as a practice for the formal close of the Shemoneh Esray. The Shemoneh Esray is a standing prayer, during which the worshiper must remain “rooted” in one spot. During the prayer he may (and must) bow at certain times, but must not move from his place. When the Shemoneh Esray is over, he must definitely mark its close by uprooting himself (oker es raglov). Rabbi Alexander in the Talmud (b. Yoma 53b) says that when he “uproots himself,” i.e., moves backward, he makes the greeting of peace, the analogy to a man taking leave from a king, and so forth; that is to say, he steps backward from the Royal Presence and utters the blessing of peace.
Obviously, then, for some reason the stepping backward and the greeting of peace which the Talmud appropriately required for the close of the Shemoneh Esray were transferred by analogy to the conclusion of the Kaddish. Why should this have been done? Baer in his Prayer Book, p. 130, indicates the reason. The true end of the Tefillah for the reader comes after the additional prayers which follow the Shemoneh Esray. Even the Torah reading is deemed to be appended to the Shemoneh Esray. After these appendages are finished, the reader recites the full Kaddish, which is the close of his Shemoneh Esray. In order to make his Shemoneh Esray end with the stepping backward (from the Divine Presence) the custom arose to end that reader’s Kaddish with three steps backward. That this seems to be correct is seen from the fact that the verse from Job, Osay Shalom, is merely a Hebrew parallel to the previous sentence with which the Kaddish already ends, namely, Y’he Sh’lomo Rabba. Why was the Osay Shalom added to the Kaddish when it merely repeats the thought with which the Kaddish already ends? Obviously, the addition of Osay Shalom was to make a complete parallel between the closing of the reader’s Shemoneh Esray, and the closing of the worshiper’s Shemoneh Esray, which already ends that way.
In brief, the answer to the inquiry is that originally the Talmud required the three steps backward and the sentence of peace as an end to the Shemoneh Esray. Then, to give the reader the same sort of impressive ending to his Shemoneh Esray, the sentence Osay Shalom was added to his Kaddish so that he, too, could take three steps backward. From this Kaddish it spread to all other recitations of the Kaddish.