Swaying in Prayer

The history of body movements in prayer and Torah study.

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Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

The movement of the body during prayer and the study of the Torah is still practiced by many Jews. The earliest references to swaying in Jewish literature are in connection with the study of the Torah.

In the Middle Ages

Judah Halevi, in his Kuzari, gives a rational explanation for the custom of swaying to and fro when studying the Torah. It often happened that ten or more people read from a single volume so that each was obliged to bend down in turn to read a passage and then turn back again. Thus swaying became a habit through constant seeing, observing, and imitating, which is human nature.

The Zohar gives a mystical reason for why Jews sway when they study the Torah. The souls of Israel, says the Zohar, have been hewn from the Holy Lamp, as it is written: The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord (Proverbs 20:27). Now once this lamp has been kindled from the supernal Torah, the light upon it never ceases for an instant, like the flame of a wick which is never still for an instant. So when an Israelite has uttered a single word of the Torah, a light is kindled and he cannot keep still but sways to and fro like the flame of a wick.

Evidently, some time during the late Middle Ages, the custom arose of swaying during prayer as well as during study. Isserles, in his gloss to the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim, 48:1), quotes earlier authorities who advocate swaying during prayer on the basis of the verse (Psalms 35:10): 'All my bones shall say, Lord who is like unto Thee?'--the verse being taken literally to mean that all the

bones should be involved in prayer by a swaying motion of the body.

Standing Still

On the other hand the Kabbalist Isaiah Horowitz remarks in his famous compendium of the Jewish religion: 'One who sways during his prayers causes his powers of concentration to be destroyed while to stand perfectly still without any movement at all assists concentration. As for the verse: "All my bones shall say," this applies to the recitation of the songs of praise, to the benedictions of the Shema, and to the study of the Torah, but not to prayer.'

'If any authority has declared that it applies to prayer as well it seems to me that his view should be ignored since experience proves that to stand perfectly still during prayer is an aid to concentration. Just see for yourself! Would a man dare to offer supplication to a king of flesh and blood when his body moves as the trees of the forest in the wind?'

In his note to the passage in the Shulhan Arukh, Abraham Gumbiner, a standard commentator to the work, after quoting authorities who favor swaying during prayer and others who denigrate it, concludes: 'It is correct to prefer either of these opinions provided that it assists concentration.'

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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.