Why do Jews Rock when they pray?

Many people have asked why religious Jews sway back and forth while praying. This very old custom is called shuckling in Yiddish and means to rock, shake, or swing. As with many customs, it is easier to describe when and where it was practised, than to answer definitively, why people shuckle while praying and studying the Torah.

 

The habit was noted already by the prophet Mohammed, who is said to have advised his adherents not to sway back and forth during religious services.

 

In the 12th century Spain, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi reported that ten or more men sometimes read from just one book. To do this, they each walked up to the book, bent over the text and then took a step backward again, making room for the next reader.

 

In another source, psalm 35,10, the words “All my bones shall say: ‘HaShem, who is like unto Thee” is interpreted as an appeal to involve one’s whole body in prayer.

 

“Why do some Jews rock back and forth while they pray? Boris”; Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Thomas Valentin Harb

 

Another explanation explains the rhythmic movement as a way to concentrate on praying and learning and ward off distracting thoughts. According to the mystical text Zohar, a person’s soul emanates from divine light. Every time a Jew engages with the Torah, the light of his or her soul ignites, which is why he or she moves like the flame of a candle. This striking image illustrates the desire of many religious Jews to connect directly with God by learning and praying.

 

Some rabbis of the past have permitted their congregants to shuckle only during select prayers. In the 19th century, German Jews were eager to adapt their behaviour to that of majority society, which is why most rejected shuckling. Today, shuckling is generally understood as a physical accompaniment to the rhythm of prayers and as a way to concentrate on them more deeply.

 

Observe Jewish people during Torah study and prayer, and you will see them rocking back and forth. This is known as “shuckling.”

 

Here are two explanations given by Jewish tradition:

 

  1. a) King David writes (Psalms 35:10), “All of my limbs shall proclaim: Who is like You…” When we praise G‑d, we do so with all of our being: the mind, heart, and mouth express the prayer through speech, and the rest of the body does so by moving. Every fibre of our self is involved in connecting to our Creator.

 

  1. b) “The soul of man is a candle of G‑d” (Proverbs 20:27). The candle’s flame constantly sways and flickers as it attempts to tear free of its wick and ascend on high. Our soul is also engaged in a constant effort to escape the corporeality of this mundane world and cleave to its G‑dly source. This is especially true in the course of prayer, those islands in time when we concentrate and focus on our relationship with G‑d. Our body mirrors this effort as it sways back and forth like a flame.

 

While standing and bowing are halachically (according to Jewish law) 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 shuckling. 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.

 

Explain Yeshua

Jews sometimes quote Isaiah, who said the temple is “a house of prayer for all nations” (Is. 56:7). Yet the presence of God is no longer tied to a building. It is found in Jesus Christ. Jesus himself quoted this verse from Isaiah after he entered the temple before his crucifixion (Mark 11:17). The very presence of God walked into the temple, yet those in the temple were blind to the glory of God in the face of Christ Jesus.

 

Faith in Jesus’s sacrificial work brings atonement for sin and a relationship with God. Indeed, in Christ, all nations can approach God in prayer but not as those hoping to please God with prayers and good deeds—rather as forgiven children of God bringing their love and praise to the One who redeemed them. Talk about Jesus and show them how he is the only way to the Father (John 14:6; 1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 9:15).

 

How Jews Pray: A Replacement for Sacrifice

Judaism includes a requirement for adult men to pray for three daily prayers. (Requirements for women vary among sects.) In practice, devout men and women pray throughout the day, using prayers from the Psalms and recitations from prayer books written by Jewish religious leaders called rabbis.

 

Jewish prayer is tied to the concept of sacrifice. For hundreds of years, the people of Old Testament Israel offered animal sacrifices for the atonement of sin according to God’s law set forth in the Torah. But animal sacrifices came to a violent halt after the Romans destroyed the temple in the year AD 70.

 

To replace sacrifices, Jews reached back to a psalm of David, which says, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice” (Ps. 141 ESV). This and similar verses from the Psalms became the instruction manual to earn God’s favour for the Jewish community that couldn’t offer animal sacrifices without a temple. Many modern Jews still believe their daily prayers correspond directly to the ritual temple sacrifices.

 

After the destruction of the temple, the Jewish community relied on local rabbis for spiritual instruction. The rabbinate multiplied, and over time each community followed their local rabbi’s unique set of rules, including an ever-growing list of prayers to recite beyond the obligatory daily order of three. Today, prayers are a critical aspect of a Jew’s portfolio of good deeds that they hope will please God.

 

Jewish tradition is expansive, and the practice of Judaism differs widely from secular to religious, Orthodox to Reform Judaism. But there are some generalities regarding prayer that hold among the majority of Jews.

 

Jewish prayer is tied to the concept of sacrifice. For hundreds of years, the people of the Old Testament Israel offered animal sacrifices for the atonement of sin according to God’s law set forth in the Torah. But animal sacrifices came to a violent halt after the Romans destroyed the temple in the year AD 70.

 

To replace sacrifices, Jews reached back to a psalm of David, which says, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice” (Ps. 141 ESV). This and similar verses from the Psalms became the instruction manual to earn God’s favour for the Jewish community that couldn’t offer animal sacrifices without a temple. Many modern Jews still believe their daily prayers correspond directly to the ritual temple sacrifices.

 

Shucklen is not explicitly mentioned in the Talmud.2 Interestingly enough, it is first mentioned in a number of Islamic sources. Mohammed is supposed to have said: “Be not like the Jews who whenever they read the Torah publicly move to and fro”. His contemporary, the poet Labid (d. 660), writes of a person who gropes for an object, moving his hand to and fro “like a praying Jew”. 

 

Jewish sources also mention shuckle in the context of Torah study and prayer. Rabbi Samuel Hanaggid of Granada (d. 1056) is the first to mention swaying during Torah study in one of his poems:

 

And we came angry into the House of God and would that we had taken a wrong turn, for behold the rabbi, and the students were swaying their heads like a tamarisk in the wilderness.

 

Various reasons have been given for this practice throughout the ages.

 

Rabbi Judah Halevi of Spain (d. 1141) gives two explanations in his book, The Kuzari, an imaginary

 

Dialogue between the king of the Khazars and a rabbi. The king asks why Jews move to and fro when they read the Bible. The rabbi replies:

 

It is said that it is done in order to arouse natural heat [i.e., to warm up]. My personal belief [is as follows:]… As it often happened that many people read at the same time, it was possible that ten or more read from one volume. Each of them was obliged to bend down in his turn in order to read a passage and to turn back again. This resulted in a continual bending and sitting up, the book lying on the ground. This was one reason. Then it became a habit through constant seeing, observing and imitating, which is in man’s nature.

 

Rabbi Simhah of Vitry (France, d. 1105) gives a third explanation. He says that young children are taught to sway when they study the Torah, “for this we find at the giving of the Torah ‘And the people saw, and they trembled’ (Exodus 20:15)”.

 

Lastly, the Zohar, which was written in thirteenth-century Spain, asks: Why is it that all the peoples of the world do not sway, but Jews alone do so when they study Torah? The souls of Israel are derived from the Holy Lamp [of God] …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.

 

The Posture and Practice of Jewish Prayer

One common prayer behaviour among both men and women is a repeated and subtle bow during prayer. They hold Scripture or prayer books and rock their upper bodies forward and back in a rhythmic sway as they recite the prayers.

 

Men traditionally wear a fringed prayer shawl called a tallit during the ritual morning prayer. The prayer shawl originates from God’s commandment to Moses that the Israelites wear garments with fringes to remind them to be holy to God (Num. 15:37–41).

 

Religious women, meanwhile, keep their heads covered—not just for prayer, but always. Many Orthodox Jewish women heed this law by wearing wigs. Secular women might pray with only a loose headscarf or even no covering at all. Nearly all forms of Judaism hold that women must pray silently when in the presence of men.

 

Tefillin, also called phylacteries, are small leather boxes and leather straps that Orthodox men wear on their foreheads and forearms during the morning prayer. The boxes contain Scriptures from Exodus and Deuteronomy (Ex. 13:1–16; Deut. 6:4–9; 11:13–21). These verses direct the Israelites to bind God’s words as signs on their hands and foreheads.

 

Pray with and for Jews

Ultimately, no one will believe unless the Spirit of God gives understanding. Pray God will give the Jewish people eyes of faith to see Jesus the Messiah. Pray those who seek God’s favour with prayers and good deeds will understand the power of the gospel.

 

And take every opportunity to pray with your Jewish friends in Jesus’s name. Show them through your own prayer life what a relationship with God looks like. In Christ alone, God is satisfied, atonement is accomplished, and prayer is accepted.

 

In conclusion, Jews have shuckled during prayer and study for at least 1,400 years. While the original reason is not known, most Jews seem to feel that it helps one concentrate during prayer and study. On the other hand, there is certainly no obligation to shuckle. The best rule of thumb is probably that stated by R. Yehiel Michal Epstein (d. 1908):

 

And during the Amidah, there are some who sway and some who don’t, and it depends on the person’s nature. If by swaying, his Kavanah improves, then he should sway; and a person whose Kavanah is clearer when he stands perfectly still should not sway – and [either option] should be done for the sake of heaven

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