Question: May a chazan take three steps back and begin Chazaras HaShatz where other people are still davening Sh’moneh Esrei directly behind him and to his sides?
Short Answer: Many poskim rule that the chazan should just begin Chazaras HaShatz in this case without taking three steps back. Some, however, disagree and rule that the chazan may take three steps back, while a third group rule that the chazan must wait till they finish.
I. Three Steps Generally
The Rambam (Hilchos T’filah 9:3) writes that the chazan must take three steps back after his silent Sh’moneh Esrei. [See Beis Yosef (Orach Chayim 123:1) for numerous reasons why the tzibur takes three steps back after finishing their silent Sh’moneh Esrei, including to counteract the three steps taken by Nevuchadnetzar honoring Hashem and which merited him the honor to destroy the Beis HaMikdash]. The Beis Yosef (ibid) cites the Ohel Moed who disagrees with the Rambam and rules that the chazan can begin Chazaras HaShatz without taking three steps back.
The sefer Shiras Miriam (Rav Mordechai Peterfreund, siman 18) explains that the Rambam and Ohel Moed disagree whether the three steps back are part and parcel of the silent Sh’moneh Esrei (Rambam) or simply a separate requirement, not existing here, to leave the king by bowing backwards (Ohel Moed). On the other hand, the Igros Moshe (Orach Chayim 4:70:8) appears to understand that they argue whether the silent Sh’moneh Esrei of the chazan is a real Sh’moneh Esrei (Rambam) or simply a Sh’moneh Esrei to help the chazan prepare his Chazaras HaShatz (Ohel Moed).
The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 123:5) follows the opinion of the Rambam. Notably, the Igros Moshe (ibid) rules that a chazan who does not take three steps back after his silent Sh’moneh Esrei has violated an isur, but the Chazaras HaShatz, as well as K’dushah, is valid.
II. The Blocker Generally
The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 102:5) rules that if you finish Sh’moneh Esrei and there is another person still reciting his own Sh’moneh Esrei directly behind you, you should not take three steps back until he finishes so as not to (i) disturb his concentration or (ii) walk in front of the Sh’chinah. See Mishnah B’rurah (Orach Chayim 123:15). This law applies even if the person behind you started his Sh’moneh Esrei after you did. See Shulchan Aruch (ibid).
Importantly, the Mishnah B’rurah (ibid, 18-19) notes that the Elyah Rabbah allows you to take three steps to the side in this situation, assuming no person is davening to your side. The Mishnah B’rurah notes that one can follow this ruling in extenuating circumstances.
III. The Chazan and the Blocker
Presumably, a chazan has the same prohibition to walk in front of a person davening Sh’moneh Esrei, and can take three steps to the side, assuming there is no one davening to his side. This is the ruling of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, cited in the Ishei Yisrael (back of sefer, 188), as well as the Chazon Ish (Dinim V’Hanhagos 4:33).
However, assuming the chazan is surrounded by people still davening Sh’moneh Esrei, may he nevertheless take three steps back in order to start Chazaras HaShatz and not make the tzibur wait?
The Ishei Yisrael (29:16:62) cites the Mishp’tei Tzedek who rules that in this situation the chazan can rely on the Ohel Moed and begin his Chazaras HaShatz without taking three steps back. The Ishei Yisrael also cites others who rule this way, including Rav S. Z. Auerbach zt”l, Rav Nissim Karelitz zt”l, and Rav Sroya Deblitzky zt”l. The Dirshu footnotes to Mishnah B’rurah (ibid, 19) add that this was also the opinion of Rav Y. S. Elyashiv zt”l in order to minimize tircha d’tzibura – making the congregation wait unnecessarily. In this situation, the chazan should make sure that he takes three steps back after Kaddish Tiskabal later in davening.
On the other hand, the Shiras Miriam (ibid) cites the sefer Maasei Ish that notes that the Chazon Ish was very makpid that the chazan take three steps back and would make the chazan wait to start Chazaras HaShatz until he was able to take three steps back if the people surrounding him (both behind and to the sides) were still davening their silent Sh’moneh Esrei. The Shiras Miriam, however, questions this ruling, based on a comment by the Shaarei Z’vulun that at the very least, let another person in the tzibur who has already taken three steps back, begin Chazaras HaShatz from a different part of the room. However, he notes that perhaps we do not want to encourage switching of the chazan at this time, especially if the chazan is a chiyuv.
A third opinion is cited in the Avnei Yashfe (5:15). He rules that the chazan should take three steps back and ignore the fact that there is a person still davening Sh’moneh Esrei still behind him. He supports his ruling on the Eishel Avraham who allows one to take three steps back in front of someone else where the person needs to go to perform a mitzvah, as this trumps the safeik whether the three steps will actually disturb the person behind you. Likewise, the Shiras Miriam cites the Aruch HaShulchan who allows a Rabbi to take three steps back even where the person behind him is still davening, as this will allow the chazan to begin Chazaras HaShatz.
NEXT WEEK’S TOPIC: Should a chazan daven a long private Sh’moneh Esrei or stretch out his davening through extensive singing?