Gestures and special posture in prayer are known in Judaism as in other religions from the earliest period. The biblical record refers to bending the knees (1 Kings 8: 54; Isaiah 45: 23); prostration on the face (Exodus 34: 8; Psalms 29: 2); the spreading of the hands heavenwards (1 Kings 8: 23; Isaiah 1: 15); and, possibly, the placing of the face between the knees (1 Kings 18: 42). In the Talmud bowing the head and body is advocated at the beginning and end of the Eighteen Benedictions and this is now the standard practice. Of Rabbi Akiba it is said that he would cut short his prayers in public but when he prayed alone he would bow and prostrate himself so much that he would begin his prayers in one corner and finish them in another corner. The practice of swaying during prayer and the study of the Torah is frequently mentioned. In Hasidism in particular there was a tendency to move the body vigorously during prayer, to the scandal of the staid Rabbinic opponents of the movement. Some of the early Hasidim used to turn somersaults in their prayers rather like their contemporaries, the Shakers in America. Part of the aim of this exercise was for it to symbolize the doctrine of annihilation of selfhood. The self was overturned, as it were, seeking nothing for itself and desiring only the glory of God. In present-day Orthodoxy, except among the Hasidim, there is considerable restraint in the matter of gesture. Reform Judaism looks askance on bodily movement in prayer as indecorous by Western standards, although many young Reform Jews are attracted to the wilder types of enthusiasm favoured by the Hasidim.
Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies — Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500).