The Swaying Candle
If you’ve watched Jews during Torah study and prayer, chances are that you saw some of them rocking back and forth. This swaying, or shuckling, as it is known, is so widespread that the classic Jewish work on philosophy, the Kuzari (also known as “In Defense of the Despised Faith”), written by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi in 1140 CE, discussed this phenomenon.1
In truth, there are multiple reasons for shuckling, and not all reasons apply to both learning and prayer. Additionally, there are times when it actually may be inappropriate to shuckle.
In Jewish Law
In the words of Rabbi Moshe Isserlis in his gloss to the Code of Jewish Law:2
People who are punctilious in their observance customarily sway when they read the Torah, recalling the Giving of the Torah that was accompanied by trembling, as it is written, “The people saw and shuddered.”3
Similarly when it comes to prayer he writes:
This is also customary when praying, as implied by the verse, “All my bones [entire being] shall say, O L-rd, who is like You?”4
In other words, when we praise G‑d during prayer, we do so with our whole selves: the mind, heart and mouth express the prayer through speech, and the rest of the body does so by moving. Every fiber of our being is involved in connecting to our Creator.
Petrified Before the King
Others, however, claim that when standing in prayer before the King of Kings, one should stand still, just as one would do before a mortal monarch, not daring to move.
Accordingly, many are of the opinion5 that only in the lead-up to the Amidah,6 during the Pesukei DeZimrah (“Verses of Praise”), is it proper to sway back and forth. However, during the actual Amidah, when standing as if before a king, it is improper to sway back and forth.7 (Some still sway very slightly at the conclusion of each blessing, in the spirit of the verse “Before My name, he trembled.”8)
So what are we to do? The rabbis suggested that each individual follow his custom, doing whatever will help him or her achieve maximum concentration.9
The Candle of G‑d
The Zohar10 quotes Proverbs, “The soul of man is a candle of G‑d.”11 The Torah is a flame, and when Jews learn Torah, the “candle of G‑d” (the soul) is lit on fire. Just as a flame doesn’t stand still, so too the Jewish soul, when lit, constantly moves about.12
And just as the flame constantly sways and flickers as it attempts to tear free of its wick and ascend on high, so too our soul is engaged in a constant effort to escape the corporeality of this mundane world and cleave to its G‑dly source.13
In addition to the reasons outlined above, throughout the ages many have offered other explanations for this swaying:
- The Kuzari explains that in the days of old, when manuscripts were rare and hard to come by, ten or more scholars would often read from one volume. Each person would bend down during his turn to read a passage, and would then retreat to make room for the next person. This resulted in a continual bending and sitting up, and this habit continued even after more manuscripts became available. (This is also the reason why our books are so large.)14
- Since Torah scholars would spend all day in one spot learning and praying, they would sway back and forth in order to get at least some minimal exercise at the same time.15
- To the uninitiated, the constant movement during prayer can seem strange. The Baal Shem Tov explain: Just as when a person is drowning, no one would scoff at him if he were floundering about to save himself, so too, one should not scoff when observing a person making movements while praying, for he is trying to concentrate and stave off foreign thoughts.16
- Swaying during prayer and learning, in fulfillment of the verse “All my bones shall say, O L‑rd, who is like You . . . ,”17 is beneficial for the body or “bones” after the person passes away. The verse speaks in the future tense, referring to a time when the bones shall rise up and sing G‑d’s praise.18
May this happen in this physical world with the coming of the Moshiach and the resurrection of the dead!
By Rabbi Y