Swaying in Prayer

The history of body movements in prayer and Torah study.

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Hasidic Ecstacy

In Hasidism swaying in prayer is generally the norm, some Hasidim making violent side movements of the head as well as moving the body to and fro.

In a book published in Altona as early as 1768, only eight years after the death of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hasidic movement, Rabbi Jacob Emden could write about 'a new sect of foolish Hasidim which has arisen in Volhynia and Podolia,' who 'clap their hands and shake sideways with their head turned backwards and their face and eyes turned upwards.'

To the scandal of the Mitnaggedim and the Maskilim, the followers of the Haskalah, in an early Hasidic text the need to sway in prayer is described in grossly erotic terms: 'Prayer is copulation with the Shekhinah. Just as there is swaying when copulation begins, so, too, a man must sway at first and then he can remain immobile and attached to the Shekhinah with great attachment.'

'As a result of his swaying man is able to attain a powerful stage of arousal. For he will ask himself: Why do I sway my body? Presumably it is because the Shekhinah stands over against me. And as a result he will attain to a stage of great enthusiasm.'

This kind of erotic imagery soon fell into disuse among the Hasidim, whatever its original mystical meaning. Obviously in reaction to the Hasidic practice, Hayyim of Volozhyn, disciple of Elijah, Gaon of Vilna, a strong opponent of Hasidism, laconically observed that swaying in prayer has one purpose only, to keep the worshipper alert. Consciously to sway has little point, this author remarks, but if the swaying comes automatically out of powerful longing and purity of heart, it is praiseworthy.

The Hasidim themselves decried swaying in prayer with the aim of making an impression of extraordinary piety or as a mere conditional reflex. A Hasidic saying in this connection gives an interesting turn to the verse (Exodus 20:15): And when the people saw, they swayed, and stood afar off: 'If a man sways in prayer in order that people might see him (and admire him for his piety) it is a sign that he is afar off, remote from God.' A variant of this is: 'A man can pray and sway in his prayers and still be afar off, remote from God.'

An Anecdote from Belz

The writer Jiri Langer, a friend of Kafka who became a Belzer Hasid, describes vividly his first encounter with prayer at the court of Belz on a Friday evening in the second decade of the twentieth century. The old Rabbi of Belz had advanced to the reading-desk in order to lead the Hasidim in the recital of the Psalms to welcome the Sabbath: 'It is as though an electric spark has suddenly entered those present. The crowd which till now has been completely quiet, almost cowed, suddenly bursts forth in a wild shout. None stays in his place. The tall dark figures run hither and thither round the synagogue, flashing past the lights of the Sabbath candles.'

'Gesticulating wildly, and throwing their whole bodies about, they shout out the words of the Psalms. They knock into each other unconcernedly, for all their cares have been set aside, everything has ceased to exist for them. They are seized by an indescribable ecstasy... The old man throws himself about as though seized by convulsions. Each shudder of his powerful body, each contraction of his muscles is permeated with the glory of the Most High. Every so often he claps the palms of his hands together symbolically.'

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.