Physical Movement in Jewish Prayer
Speaking to God through the body.
The idea that body movement can express devotion to God appears in the Book of Psalms: "All my limbs shall say 'Who is like You, O Lord?'” (35:10) In Midrash Tehillim, an 11th century exegetical text, the rabbis interpret “all my limbs” quite literally:
With my head, I bend my head and bow down in prayer...And I also wear phylacteries [tefillin] on my head. With my neck, I fulfill the precept of wrapping oneself in fringes [tzitzit]. With my mouth, I praise You, as it says: "My mouth shall speak the praise of the Lord" (Psalms 145:21)…With my face, I prostrate myself, as it says: "He fell down on his face to the earth" (Genesis 48:12)… With my nose, when I smell spices with it [during the havdalah blessing said] at the outgoing of Shabbat. With my ears, I listen to the singing of the Torah.
In this text, the body is presented as a tool for praising God, mostly in terms of the way ritual objects are used on the body, but also in terms of the body’s own movements. Today, the physical actions listed in this midrash, as well as a number of other body movements, have become an established part of Jewish prayer.
Though many Jewish prayers can be recited while seated, standing is perhaps the most essential physical position of Jewish prayer. When the rabbis of the Talmud refer to prayer, they are almost always referring to the "Amidah," or "Standing Prayer." Like its name suggests, this prayer is recited while standing in silent devotion, as if one were standing before God. It is also customary to take three steps back and three steps forward when beginning the Amidah, as if approaching God, and when ending the Amidah, as if returning to the world of the profane.
In synagogues today, standing is required during some common daily prayers such as Barkhu and Aleinu. One special service, Neilah at the end of Yom Kippur, is traditionally recited entirely standing.
There is some variation in how communities decide when to stand. For example, while many communities have the custom to stand every time the Kaddish is recited, some communities only stand for the Mourners Kaddish, or only when the Torah is moving. Additionally, it is the general practice of Conservative and Orthodox communities not to stand for the Shema. Sitting helps one maintain concentration and the Shema is considered Torah study, which is traditionally done sitting.
In contrast, most Reform communities do stand for the Shema, as to publicly indicate the importance of this prayer to Jewish tradition. However, the variation of different communities regarding whether or not to stand all relates to the same core question, namely how to best convey seriousness and respect during prayer.
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