Physical Movement in Jewish Prayer

Speaking to God through the body.

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Man BowingBowing

In the Bible, Daniel expressed his devotion to God when he "kneeled upon his knees three times a day, and prayed, and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously" (Daniel 6:11).  Liturgical scholar Uri Ehrlich notes that Daniel’s bows would have been full prostrations, with almost his entire body thrust on the ground, as was standard in ancient Israel.

By the rabbinic period, the standard bow became simply bending one's knees and upper body. The Talmud states, "In reciting the Tefillah one should bow down at the appropriate places until all the vertebrae in the spinal column are loosened" (BT Berakhot 28b).

Many of the common bowing moments in prayer concern statements of blessing. Most notably the Barkhu prayer, which begins the morning and evening services, requires a bow, as do the first and last two blessings of the Amidah.

The full prostration on the ground, described in the Book of Daniel, has not been totally lost to Jewish practice. In Ashkenazic communities today, during Aleinu in the Mussaf service on High Holidays, some people bow all the way to the ground.

Swaying (Shucklen)

While standing and bowing are halakhically mandated at various parts of the service, other movements can demonstrate one's passion for worship. In Hasidic and neo-Hasidic communities, ecstatic dancing and clapping can be part of a prayer service. A more common movement of this nature is swaying, often known by the Yiddish term shucklen. The practice has become natural for many Jews who engage in regular prayer.

According to the Kuzari, the 12th century philosophical work by Rabbi Yehudah Halevi, swaying was a practical custom when people frequently prayed out of a single book, and moved up and down to make room for the many others who wanted to use that book. 

The Zohar offers a more spiritual explanation for swaying: "When a Jew utters one word of Torah, the light [in his soul] is kindled…and he sways to and fro like the flame of a candle" (Zohar to Numbers, 218b-219a).  

A potentially simpler reason is provided by the Arukh Ha-Shulhan, written by Rabbi Yehiel Michel Epstein in the 19th century. He asserts that many sway during prayer because it improves their kavannah (spiritual intensity) and helps engage the individual in conversation with God

Other Body Movements

Some physical movements are integrated into Jewish prayer as a way of dramatizing contrition. It is customary to gently hit one’s breast with a closed fist, in a symbolic “I’m sorry”, when reciting certain confessional liturgy: particular on the High Holidays. Similarly, part of the Tahanun prayer is recited with heads bent down, showing embarrassment for having sinned.

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Joshua Rabin

Joshua Rabin is a fourth-year rabbinical and education student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is the current President of the Rabbinical School Students' Organization at JTS.