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Tachanun is the name for the personal, penitential prayers said after the morning and afternoon Amidah on week days. Tachanun is also called nefilat apayim, falling on the face, because that is how it is done — we rest our face on our left arms when we say these prayers. The word itself comes from the verb to plead or beg: the root is chen, grace; in Tachanun we are asking for grace in God’s eyes
On Shabbat, Yomtov and certain other happy days, Tachanun is omitted. This omission can be a source of extra celebration in some communities. In a provocative blog post “Why We Hate Tachanun”, Rabbi Francis Nataf speculates that this is both because for many of us prayer is rarely meaningful (so we are glad for any discounts available) and because the anguished, self-searching tone of Tachanun is out of joint with upbeat can-do American culture.
In his commentary on the siddur, Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks has a particularly beautiful description of what Tachanun at its best can be: “We approach Him directly seeking as it were a private audience. Our voices drop; we whisper our deepest thoughts; we express our feelings... of vulnerability. Tachanun is the chamber music rather than the symphony of the soul.”