Berakhot 12

How to bow.

Traditional Jewish prayer is marked by a distinct choreography of bowing, which is nearly always tied to the famous first three words of Jewish blessings: Baruch ata Adonai. The traditional bow has three steps: the worshipper bends their knees on the word baruch (literally “blessed,” but related to the Hebrew word “knee”), doubles over on the word ata (“you”), and straightens back up on Adonai (God’s name). Done habitually, it is a smooth, fluid movement — with very ancient roots:

Rabba bar Hinnana Sava said in the name of Rav: One bows when saying baruch [“blessed”] and stands upright when saying Adonai [God’s name].

It is Rav, the third century sage who moved the center of Jewish learning from Israel to Babylonia by establishing a famous academy at Sura, who gives us the bowing choreography that we still use today. He did much more, though. Together with his friend Shmuel, his interlocutor on many matters and head of the nearby academy at Nehardea, Rav paved the way for the Babylonian Talmud (the one we are all studying together). Rav and Shmuel’s lively debates are found all over the Talmud — indeed, they form the core of the Talmud — and just like Hillel and Shammai whom we discussed yesterday, they are a legendary pair.

On today’s page, Shmuel does not argue with Rav, but explains his colleague’s reasoning:

Shmuel said: What is Rav’s reason for saying that one should stand upright at the mention of God’s name? As it is written: The Lord straightens the bent. (Psalms 146:8)

In our daily prayer choreography, Shmuel explains, we enact what the psalmist wrote by literally straightening up at the word Adonai.

Just because Rav and Shmuel are in agreement here, however, doesn’t mean the Gemara will let the matter stand:

Objection: And he was afraid before My name. (Malachi 2:5)

The verse from Malachi says that people are to be humbled before God’s name. Therefore it makes more sense, argues the Gemara, to remain bowed when invoking God.

But the Gemara finds a solution to its own dilemma:

Is it written “at My name”? No, “before My name” is written.

The verse from Malachi says that people are to be humbled before God’s name. Reading hyper-literally, the Gemara takes this to mean that worshippers are to bow only before God’s name, and straighten up when they arrive at the word Adonai — just as Rav described.

We’ll leave you with one little bonus musing on bowing, also from today’s daf:

When Rav Sheshet bowed he bowed all at once, like a cane. When he stood upright, he uncoiled like a snake.

Both movements — bowing down with alacrity and straightening up slowly — were Rav Sheshet’s way of showing awe before God.


Read all of Berakhot 12 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 15, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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