Standard practice, as described in most prayerbooks and taught in most schools, is that you take three steps forward and put your feet together to recite the Amidah. Generally, you have to take three steps back to make room for the three steps forward. On conclusion of the prayer, you take three steps back while bowing. After a short pause, you return three steps forward and are done.
The three steps back are mentioned in the Gemara (Yoma 53a) as the proper way to take leave of a king. The three steps forward have no similar textual source. They originate with a single school, perhaps a single individual who may have been the first Jew to take three steps forward into prayer.
Shulchan Aruch does not mention the three steps forward and only discusses the three steps back (Orach Chaim 123:1). Only the Rema, in his glosses (Orach Chaim 95:1), states that “some say” you should take three steps forward before the Amidah. This weak endorsement is all we have for what seems to be a very widespread practice. Although dissenters can be found. Piskei Teshuvos (95:2 n. 17) states that Rav Yisrael Ya’akov Kanievsky (the Steipler Gaon) and Rav Chaim Elazar Shapira (the Minchas Elazar) did not take three steps before praying. While the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (18:2) quotes this custom, the Chayei Adam does not. In contrast, the Kaf Ha-Chaim (95:7) quotes kabbalistic sources, including the Ben Ish Chai, that require not only three steps forward before praying but three steps back before the three steps forward.
The earliest source we have for this practice is Rashi. Machzor Vitri (no. 29), by Rashi’s students, offers two reasons for taking three steps forward. One is the prophets Yechezkel’s two mentions of feet regarding angels (one plural implying two and another singular, 2+1=3). The other is the idea in Divrei Ha-Yamim (1:16:29) of taking a sacrifice and going before G-d, as we approach a king in respect. These two derivations are based on the idea of showing respect to G-d during prayer but are slightly different. The first has the three steps as part of *standing* still like an angel. The second has them as *approaching* G-d. The former is about standing before G-d, the latter about approaching Him. There may be a practical difference between these two opinions.
II. Two Approaches
There may be practical implications to these two understandings of this custom. When must the three steps be taken? If the three steps are about standing before G-d, part of keeping your feet together, then they must immediately precede the Amidah. However, if they are about approaching G-d, then perhaps you may take them even earlier.
The Eliyah Rabbah (95:3) points out that the Levush omits this custom. While his reason may have been that he does not consider it necessary, like the Chayei Adam and others mentioned above, the Eliyah Rabbah offers a different explanation. He suggests that the Levush believed that walking to synagogue suffices as taking three steps before prayer. If the reason for the three steps is that it is part of standing before G-d, this explanation is very difficult. However, it is more reasonable if the reason is to approach the King. Walking toward Him before the very beginning of the prayer services may also constitute approaching G-d before prayer.
On the other hand, if taking three steps is part of standing before G-d like an angel, maybe it is only necessary when we speak like an angel. During the Kedushah section of the Amidah repetition, we say the biblical praises of the angels. Shibbolei Ha-Leket (no. 20) quotes in Rashi’s name that we must take three steps before Kedushah. While he presumably had a variant of the text from Rashi, his view makes most sense if we see the three steps as part of standing before G-d. Kedushah is the quintessential moment of standing before G-d like an angel.
III. When to Take the Steps
A question authorities discuss is whether the three steps may be taken after the closing blessing before the Amidah or that constitutes an impermissible break between the end of the blessing and the beginning of the Amidah. Piskei Teshuvos (95:2) quotes Tehillah Le-David (111:1) as saying that the three steps are necessary for the Amidah and therefore do not constitute a break. However, I found that the Siddur Otzar Ha-Tefillos (before “Tzur Yisrael“) writes that the custom is to take the three steps forward before Tzur Yisrael. He then quotes the Eliyah Rabbah who says to take the three steps earlier, at Tehillos le-Kel Elyon. The implication is that the three steps would constitute a break. Similarly, Rav Eliezer Melamed (Peninei Halachah, Tefillah 17:2) writes that one should take the steps before finishing the blessing to avoid a break between the blessing and the Amidah.
If the three steps are part of standing before G-d, then perhaps they do not constitute a break. The steps must be taken immediately before the Amidah and are an element of the prayer stance. However, if they represent approaching G-d, then they are a preparation for prayer and may constitute a break.