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Swaying


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The movement of the body during prayer and the study of the Torah, still practised by many Jews (see GESTURES). The earliest references to swaying in Jewish literature are in connection with the study of the Torah. Judah Halevi, in his Kuzari (ii. 79–80), 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 (iii. 218b–219a) 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: ‘All my bones shall say, Lord who is like unto Thee?’ (Psalms 35: 10), the verse being taken literally to mean that all the bones should be involved in prayer by a swaying motion of the body.

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

Reform Judaism generally frowns on swaying in prayer as falling short of Western standards of decorum and this attitude is often shared by the Orthodox in Western lands. But at least a gentle swaying is often the norm among many Jews when praying or when studying the Torah.

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.


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