Question: Is there any basis for the custom of opening one’s hands wide while reciting the verse “Pote’ach Et Yadecha U’Masbia Le’Chol Chai Ratzon” or is this an incorrect custom? Similarly, should one rise while reciting “Yishtabach Shimcha” during the Shacharit prayer or may one remain seated?
Answer: Regarding opening the palms of one’s hands while reciting the “Pote’ach Et Yadecha” verse (in the “Ashrei” prayer), indeed, it is true that not every custom followed by the general populace, for instance, turning one’s head to the right and then to the left while saying “Yamin U’smol Tifrotzi” in Kabbalat Shabbat, should be observed, for these customs were not instituted by Torah scholars and were only put into practice by the masses until they became commonplace. This is especially true regarding those who customarily jump or make all sorts of other peculiar movements and gestures while praying which is incorrect and against Halacha.
Nevertheless, the custom of opening up the palms of one’s hands while reciting “Pote’ach Et Yadecha” is an ancient Sephardic and Middle Eastern custom quoted by some of the greatest Sephardic luminaries as Hagaon Rabbeinu Chaim Palagi and Hagaon Rabbeinu Yosef Haim, author of the Ben Ish Hai. Similarly, Hagaon Harav Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg zt”l upholds this custom in his Responsa Tzitz Eliezer and writes that it is a symbol of our acceptance of the abundance Hashem showers upon us from Heaven. This is similar to the incident recorded by the Navi where the false prophet, Tzidkiyah ben Kena’ana, showed Yehoshafat iron horns and said, “With these shall you gore Aram.” He had certainly learned this strategy from the true prophets that when one performs any sort of action to depict an idea, the physical action likewise serves to arouse one’s concentration. Thus, this action of spreading one’s hands wide open while reciting this verse will surely remind us to believe that one’s entire livelihood comes only and directly from Hashem. Similarly, we find this idea illustrated in the incident with the war against Amalek where the verse states, “And it was when Moshe would raise his hands, Israel would be victorious.” Our Sages ask, “Do Moshe’s hands win the war or lose the war?” To which they answered, “Rather, when Moshe raised his hands, the Jewish nation would raise their eyes towards Heaven and they would win the war. We thus find that Moshe acted in a similar manner by raising his hand to Heaven while praying which served to arouse the collective concentration of the entire Jewish nation. Hagaon Harav Waldenberg derives from here that the act of opening one’s hands is indeed auspicious for one to earn an honorable livelihood. He proceeds and writes that the primary source of one’s livelihood is indeed one’s concentration while reciting this verse and it is therefore proper to do whatever possible in order to arouse one’s concentration while reciting it.
It is therefore appropriate to uphold this custom of ours of spreading our palms towards Heaven while reciting this verse and this custom was indeed observed by Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l. Indeed, Hagaon Harav Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg zt”l adopted this practice although it was not the custom of his fathers.
Regarding our second question whether or not one must stand while reciting the Yishtabach prayer, this matter is subject to a disagreement among the Rishonim: The Hagahot Maimoni quoted by Maran Ha’Bet Yosef (beginning of Chapter 53) writes that one must remain standing for the entire duration of the Yishtabach prayer. Nevertheless, other Rishonim write that the obligation to stand during Yishtabach applies only to the Chazzan, for it is he who must recite Kaddish upon the Yishtabach text; thus, only he must stand, but the rest of the congregation may remain seated.
Halachically speaking, the Rama rules in accordance with the opinion of the Hagahot Maimoni that all must stand while reciting Yishtabach and this is indeed the custom of Ashkenazi Jews who usually follow the rulings of the Rama. Hagaon Ya’abetz rules likewise in his Siddur Amudei Shamayim. Nevertheless, Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jews rule in accordance with the other Rishonim, Rav Amram Gaon, the Samak, and others and they do not stand while reciting Yishtabach. The Magen Avraham deduces that this is the opinion of Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch as well.
Summary: One must concentrate intently while reciting the “Pote’ach Et Yadecha” verse, for the primary source of one’s livelihood is dependent on the recitation of this verse. Our custom is to open our hands wide while reciting this verse, as one would do when receiving something from one’s friend, as a symbol of our acceptance of Hashem’s abundance and in order to arouse our concentration. Similarly, the custom of the Ashkenazi community is to stand while reciting Yishtabach while the Sephardic custom is that only the Chazzan stands while reciting Yishtabach while the rest of the congregation remains seated.