Yoma 16 - 22
Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav, “When they stood, they were extremely crowded, but when they bowed down they had a lot of room.”
This was one of the ten miracles that that Hashem did in the era of the First Beit Hamikdash — some of which were in the Beit Hamikdash and some of which were in Jerusalem. The mishna in Pirkei Avot (5:5) lists all ten miracles. The one referenced on our daf is the miracle that “They stood crowded but had ample space in which to prostrate themselves.” Other examples of these miracles are that meat that was kodesh never spoiled and that never did a snake or scorpion cause injury in Jerusalem.
It is axiomatic that Rav would not state a teaching that is already found in a mishna as being his own Torah statement. So, how does what he teaches differ or elucidate what is apparently the same miracle as taught in the words of the mishna? Rashi explains that this miracle, according to Rav’s statement, means that when it was extremely crowded in the Beit Hamikdash, there was nevertheless a miraculous expansion of one’s personal space for prostration in order to say Vidui — a verbal confession to Hashem of one’s sins. The person would miraculously have full use of a surrounding daled amot (four cubits) in which to prostrate and verbally confess, without a concern that the person nearest him would be within earshot and be able to hear this private admission — a factor which could potentially inhibit a person’s confession due to embarrassment of others hearing his verbalizing his transgressions.
The commentaries find Rashi’s explanation intriguing and even problematic. Since Rav’s statement begins, “At the time when the Jewish People went up (to Jerusalem and the Beit Hamikdash) for the Regel (i.e. the Festivals),” it would appear that this would include all of the Festivals — such as Pesach, Shavuot and Succot. However, the only special occasion when there is a mitzvah of Vidui is on Yom Kippur. It is a mitzvah of the day to say Vidui on Yom Kippur, which is today an integral part of our prayer services — in fact numerous times during the day. And at least at one time in our prayers, there is a widespread custom to do a type of prostration in the Synagogue, in a way that is similar to what was done in the Beit Hamikdash. And not only is it not the mitzvah of the other Yamim Tovim to say Vidui; there is even a halachic reason to not say prayers that implore Hashem for forgiveness and for repentance, since these days are days for rejoicing, and dwelling on one’s transgressions may likely sadden the person.
In light of this question, some commentaries in fact say that, according to Rashi, Rav is teaching that the miracle of “crowded while standing but with plenty of spacing when bowing” occurred only on Yom Kippur. And it occurred for the reason given by Rashi: When the multitude of people who gathered in the Beit Hamikdash on Yom Kippur prostrated themselves to say Vidui to confess their sins before Hashem and ask for atonement, they would have sufficient space (social distancing?) to be able to confess privately and without fear that others nearby would hear. (It is almost certainly a “coincidence” that the daled amot each person had as his personal space is the equivalent of about the two-meter-rule we have heard so much about in the past year during the pandemic.)
Another answer is that Rashi is not restricting the understanding of Rav’s statement to Yom Kippur, but rather that this miracle occurred on every Festival on which the entire Jewish People would congregate in the Beit Hamikdash. Despite the general disinclination to confess and ask Hashem for forgiveness on Shabbat and Yom Tov, doing so in the Beit Hamikdash in the place of the Divine Presence is different. The enormity of the spiritual significance of being in this uniquely special place dictated that it was not only acceptable but even correct to do so. What is not okay in a normal synagogue during the year — just as we do not normally say “Slach lanu.. m’chal lanu” on Shabbat and Yom Tov — is understandably desirable and correct on Yom Tov in the Beit HaMikdash.
A third answer is unlike the explanation of Rashi, and is not related to the mitzvah of Vidui. Some explain that the bowing Rav mentions is referring to the bowing that each person would do upon entering the courtyard of the Beit Hamikdash.
Another answer I have heard as a possibility is that the prostration was after entering the courtyard, and it was a spontaneous act of a complete nullification of one’s ego in the presence of the Shechina in the Beit Hamikdash. According to this answer, the prostration was a sign of great humility, but not related to saying Vidui — something not appropriate for Yom Tov. A display of humility before one’s Maker and Sustainer is one of great happiness befitting the simcha of Yom Tov.
On a personal note, I found it very easy to relate to the way Rashi explains the first part of Rav’s statement that “They would stand crowded” — although under very different circumstances. The word for “crowded” in the text is tzafufim, which Rashi says is based on the Hebrew root-word tzaf, which means “to float.” He explains that the multitude of people in the Beit Hamikdash were so crowded that the mere pressure caused them to be lifted from the ground and “floating” in the air, without their feet on the ground. I imagine that the people in the Beit Hamikdash at the time would take this crowded-floating in stride, so to speak, and carry on with their reason for being in that holy place.
Yet I once experienced extreme crowding-floating — along with others present — during a levaya (funeral service and procession) for one of the greatest rabbis of our generation on one of the main streets in Jerusalem in the middle of the day. What started off as a hundreds, grew to thousands, tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands — as befitting the honor due to the Torah greatness of this very great Torah scholar leader. Somehow, I found myself in the middle of it all, and, as the crowd grew, I found myself lifted from the ground, and, in a wavelike manner, landed after a short time more than 10 feet away from my original place. More than once, I was concerned that I and others would be crushed and harmed to a lesser or greater degree. Thank
- Yoma 21a