Question: Should you rest your head on your arm for Tachanun in outdoor minyanim?
Short Answer: Unless you can see an aron kodesh (with a sefer Torah in it), you should not fall on your arm during Tachanun in outdoor minyanim.
I. Simulating the Battle Against the Ai
The Rokei’ach, cited by the Beis Yosef (Orach Chayim 131:2), rules that one should not rest his head on his arm for Tachanun if there is no sefer Torah. He cites a proof from the pasuk in Sefer Yehoshua by the battle against the Ai. The pasuk states that Yehoshua fell on his face in front of the Aron of Hashem, implying that you only rest your head when you are in front of the aron, i.e., the sefer Torah.
The Beis Yosef (ibid) writes that if this Rokei’ach is based on the mesorah, then he, of course, accepts this ruling. Otherwise, this ruling has multiple problems. The Beis Yosef, however, does not elaborate further. Notably, neither the Rambam, nor the Shulchan Aruch, follow the ruling of the Rokei’ach, as they do not cite this halachah.
The Rama (Orach Chayim 131:2), however, notes that “some” (i.e., the Rokei’ach) hold that you need an aron with a sefer Torah inside in order to fall on your arm. The Rama concludes that this is the minhag. The Mishnah B’rurah (11) explains that an aron with a sefer Torah is lav davka and really the key factor is being in the presence of a sefer Torah.
Indeed, the Magen Avraham, as codified in the Mishnah B’rurah (11), adds that even a person davening by himself must fall on his arm if he has a sefer Torah in front of him. This is learned from the story of Rabbi Elazar who recited Tachanun while falling on his arm and while praying in his home, likely with a sefer Torah in front of him. See Bava M’tzia 59b.
Importantly, it appears from the poskim that one who is not in the presence of a sefer Torah, not only is he not obligated to fall on his arm, but he is forbidden to fall on his arm, as doing so endangers the davener, because there is no sefer Torah to protect against the special powers of Tachanun. See Divrei Yaakov (Iyunim B’Shem, p. 645).
II. Exceptions and Additional Reasons To Fall
Despite the seemingly clear ruling of the Mishnah B’rurah that one does not fall on his arm if there is no sefer Torah, there are multiple exceptions to this rule, including one offered by the Mishnah B’rurah himself.
The Mishnah B’rurah (11) cites a machlokes whether one should fall on his arm for Tachanun when there is no sefer Torah but he is in the presence of other s’farim. According to the Elyah Rabbah and Derech HaChayim, he still does not fall, but according to the Olas Tamid and Shiurei K’neses HaG’dolah, he would fall. While the Mishnah B’rurah sounds like he agrees with the former opinion, and he would not fall in such a situation, other poskim disagree. Indeed, the Steipler (Orchos Rabbeinu 2:67) used to fall on his arm even without a sefer Torah, as long as there were s’farim in the room. The Chut HaShani (cited in Dirshu, 131, n. 17) adds that the s’farim have to be permanent, i.e., not just a sefer or two that you brought into the room. [As an aside, the sefer Siach T’filah, p. 206, writes that “people say in the beis midrash” that this leniency to fall only applies where you are davening in a room with s’farim written on a klaf. The Siach T’filah, however, rejects this idea, as he has never seen any poskim cite such an opinion].
Another situation where you fall despite having no sefer Torah is in Yerushalayim. Ishei Yisrael (25:10) cites many Acharonim, including Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l and Rav Yechiel Michel Tukachinsky, who rule that the k’dushah of Yerushalayim enables one to fall in all cases. See Ishei Yisrael (ibid) whether this is limited to the Old City or all of Yerushalayim.
Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe Orach Chayim 5:20:5) gives a third situation where you fall despite having no sefer Torah. Children in their classroom may fall during their davening to teach them the proper way to say Tachanun.
Finally, Rav Hershel Schachter shlita, in Nefesh HaRav (134b), writes that Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik zt”l would fall on his arm even where there was no sefer Torah or s’farim, because the falling of Tachanun is analogous to the bowing in Sh’moneh Esrei, which is performed regardless of whether the davener is in the presence of a sefer Torah.
However, other than this chidush of Rav Soloveitchik, it appears that the minhag is NOT to fall unless you are in the presence of a sefer Torah. Thus, one davening in outdoor minyanim that have no sefer Torah outside during Tachanun would not fall on his arm during Tachanun.
III. Sefer Torah in the House
But what about where the outdoor minyan takes place in the parking lot of a shul (which has a sefer Torah inside) or outside of a house that has a sefer Torah (inside the house)? Should the participants of such a minyan fall on their arms for Tachanun?
The Rama (Orach Chayim 131:2) likewise addresses this issue. The Rama, as interpreted by the Mishnah B’rurah (13), writes that one who is davening in a courtyard of a shul may fall on his arm during Tachanun if he can see the aron from his place of davening. However, the Shaar HaTziyon (12) clarifies that one who is standing and davening in a completely separate room of a shul, even if he can see the aron, does not fall on his arm.
On the other hand, the Az Nidb’ru (5:26) rules that as long as the door separating the davener from the aron is not locked, the davener may fall on his arm even if the door is closed. The Piskei T’shuvos (131) explains that the Az Nidb’ru likely did not see the Daas Torah who explicitly says that a closed door, even if not locked, prevents the davener from falling on his arm.
Thus, unless the people davening in the outdoor minyan can see the aron from where they are standing, they should not fall on their arms for Tachanun.
Next Week’s Topic: Is there a mitzvah to perform bikur cholim on a patient stricken with coronavirus?