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The Elements of Jewish Living

Doing The Shuckle - To Sway Or Not To Sway

By Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Haber

We’ve already discussed the bowing and bouncing parts of Prayer. Now let us take a look at the Shuckle.

The Gemara in Berachos 31a asserts that many Halachos of Prayer, and specifically Shemonah Esrei, are learnt from the prayer of Chana in the Mishkan, as depicted in the beginning of Shmuel 1.
Among these are to daven in an undertone, to enunciate the words, that a drunk can’t pray and more.

The Rema Mipano (Eim Kol Chai, 1:33) posits that additional Halachos can be deduced which the Gemara doesn’t include. He therefore deduces from the words רק שפתיה נעות, only her lips were moving,
that the rest of one’s body should be at rest during the Shemonah Esrei prayer.

He reiterates this in his responsa (113) as well. He goes on to say that although there is a concept, found in Tehillim, of כל עצמותי תאמרנה ה’ מי כמוך ‘all of my limbs will declare – Hashem whom is like
You’ that is limited to praise of Hashem, however during the Amidah prayer no movement is to occur, other than the required bowing.

However, the Mateh Moshe (1:118) quotes sources in the Rishonim that one should sway during prayer, and this is the opinion of the Avudraham as well (Siman 44). They understand that the above quoted verse, that one should use all their limbs in prayer, refers specifically to the Shemonah Esrei prayer.

The Rema (OC 48) quotes the Avudraham noted above, that due to the verse of ‘all my limbs will declare’ one should sway during prayer. The Magen Avraham notes that this is not clearly applicable to Shemonah Esrei, and he personally feels that the halachah is that one should not sway. However he concludes that either way is acceptable and it depends on the person. This is quoted by the Mishna Berura, and the Aruch Hashulchan similarly notes that one should do whatever allows him to better concentrate.

It’s interesting to note that the Mishna Berura elsewhere (95:7) quotes only the authorities that one should sway during the Shemonah Esrei. One can argue that this would indicate his opinion was that one should sway.

Although it would seem that almost everybody sways in practice, Rav Avraham Gurwicz writes that his personal observation of his Rebbeim, the Brisker Rav, Rav Shach and the Stiepler Gaon did not sway during Shemonah Esrei. I recall hearing the same of Rav Dessler, Rav Moshe Feinstein and the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

There are certain things the poskim caution to be aware of and not do:

One should not stand straight and move his head side to side as that appears to be haughty. The Rambam says the same of putting ones hands on their hips.

Although in Biblical times they prayed with their hands outstretched to the heavens, this has been adopted by other religions, and therefore the Beer Sheva writes that it should not be done. This is quoted by Rav Akiva Eiger.

One should avoid anything that disturbs those around him, and should avoid making grotesque motions. Rav Gurwicz writes that he is appalled at the faces and gestures people make whilst standing in front of the King of Kings!

There is a Zohar (vol. 3 pg. 218b) that is referenced by the Biur Hagra, that tells us a fascinating fact.

שאילנא ליה מאי האי דכל עמין דעלמא לא עבדין נענועא אלא ישראל בלחודייהו דכד לעאן באורייתא מתנענען הכא והכא בלא למודא דבר נש בעלמא ולא יכלין למיקם בקיומייהו אמר לי אדכרתן מלתא עלאה ובני עלמא לא ידעין ולא משגיחין. יתיב שעתא ובכה. אמר ווי לבני נשא דאזלין כבעירי חקלא בלא סוכלתנו. במלה דא בלחודוי אשתמודען נשמתהון קדישין דישראל בין נשמתהון דעמין עעכו"ם. נשמתהון דישראל אתגזרו מגו בוצינא קדישא דדליק דכתיב נר יי’ נשמת אדם והאי נר בשעתא דאתאחד (נ"א דאתדליק) מגו אורייתא דלעילא לא שכיך נהורא עליה אפילו רגעא. ורזא דא אלקים אל דמי לך כגוונא דא כתיב המזכירים את יי’ אל דמי לכם. לא שכיכו לכון. נהורא דשרגא כיון דאתאחדא גו פתילה ההוא נהורא לא שכיך לעלמין אלא מתנענעא נהורא לכאן ולכאן ולא משתכיך לעלמין. כגוונא דא ישראל דנשמתייהו מגו ההוא נהורא דשרגא כיון דאמר מלה חדא דאורייתא הא נהורא דליק ולא יכלון אינון לאשתככא ומתנענען לכאן ולכאן ולכל סטרין כנהורא דשרגא דהא נר יי’ נשמת אדם כתיב. וכתיב אדם אתם אתם קרויין אדם ולא אומין עכו"ם. נשמתין דעמין עכו"ם מדעיכו דקש בלא נהורא דשרי עלייהו וע"ד משתככין ולא מתנענען דהא לית לון אורייתא ולא דלקין בה ולאו נהורא שרייא בהון אינון קיימין כעצים בגו נורא דדליק בלא נהורא דשריא עלייהו וע"ד משתככין בלא נהורא כלל.

My loose translation:

The question was posed: why is it that Jews sway when they are learning Torah, and non-Jews do not?

The answer was given: there is a fundamental difference between the soul of a non-Jew and the soul of a Jew. The sould of the Jew is carved from the holy fire of God, and therefore once it is alight, the flame, as small as it may get throughout one’s life, is always there. The nature of a flame is to sway, to always move and jump, and so is the soul of a Jew. However the soul of a non-Jew is static, there is no flame, and it doesn’t sway.

Rav Gurwicz points out that this refers specifically to Torah study and not prayer, however the idea is fascinating. Our fires are lit – we just have to act on it!

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