In the Middle Ages
Judah Halevi, in his Kuzari, 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 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 (Psalms 35:10): ‘All my bones shall say, Lord who is like unto Thee?’–the verse being taken literally to mean that all the bones should be involved in prayer by a swaying motion of the body.
On the other hand the Kabbalist Isaiah Horowitz remarks in his famous compendium of the Jewish religion: ‘One who sways during his prayers causes his powers of concentration to be destroyed while to stand perfectly still without any movement at all assists concentration. As for the verse: “All my bones shall say,” this applies to the recitation of the songs of praise, to the benedictions of the Shema, and to the study of the Torah, but not to prayer.’
‘If any authority has declared that it applies to prayer as well it seems to me that his view should be ignored since experience proves that to stand perfectly still during prayer is an aid to concentration. Just see for yourself! Would a man dare to offer supplication to a king of flesh and blood when his body moves as the trees of the forest in the wind?’
In his note to the passage in the Shulhan Arukh, Abraham Gumbiner, a standard commentator to the work, after quoting authorities who favor swaying during prayer and others who denigrate it, concludes: ‘It is correct to prefer either of these opinions provided that it assists concentration.’
In Hasidism swaying in prayer is generally the norm, some Hasidim making violent side movements of the head as well as moving the body to and fro.
In a book published in Altona as early as 1768, only eight years after the death of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hasidic movement, Rabbi Jacob Emden could write about ‘a new sect of foolish Hasidim which has arisen in Volhynia and Podolia,’ who ‘clap their hands and shake sideways with their head turned backwards and their face and eyes turned upwards.’
To the scandal of the Mitnaggedim and the Maskilim, the followers of the Haskalah, in an early Hasidic text the need to sway in prayer is described in grossly erotic terms: ‘Prayer is copulation with the Shekhinah. Just as there is swaying when copulation begins, so, too, a man must sway at first and then he can remain immobile and attached to the Shekhinah with great attachment.’
‘As a result of his swaying man is able to attain a powerful stage of arousal. For he will ask himself: Why do I sway my body? Presumably it is because the Shekhinah stands over against me. And as a result he will attain to a stage of great enthusiasm.’
This kind of erotic imagery soon fell into disuse among the Hasidim, whatever its original mystical meaning. Obviously in reaction to the Hasidic practice, Hayyim of Volozhyn, disciple of Elijah, Gaon of Vilna, a strong opponent of Hasidism, laconically observed that swaying in prayer has one purpose only, to keep the worshipper alert. Consciously to sway has little point, this author remarks, but if the swaying comes automatically out of powerful longing and purity of heart, it is praiseworthy.
The Hasidim themselves decried swaying in prayer with the aim of making an impression of extraordinary piety or as a mere conditional reflex. A Hasidic saying in this connection gives an interesting turn to the verse (Exodus 20:15): And when the people saw, they swayed, and stood afar off: ‘If a man sways in prayer in order that people might see him (and admire him for his piety) it is a sign that he is afar off, remote from God.’ A variant of this is: ‘A man can pray and sway in his prayers and still be afar off, remote from God.’
An Anecdote from Belz
The writer Jiri Langer, a friend of Kafka who became a Belzer Hasid, describes vividly his first encounter with prayer at the court of Belz on a Friday evening in the second decade of the twentieth century. The old Rabbi of Belz had advanced to the reading-desk in order to lead the Hasidim in the recital of the Psalms to welcome the Sabbath: ‘It is as though an electric spark has suddenly entered those present. The crowd which till now has been completely quiet, almost cowed, suddenly bursts forth in a wild shout. None stays in his place. The tall dark figures run hither and thither round the synagogue, flashing past the lights of the Sabbath candles.’
‘Gesticulating wildly, and throwing their whole bodies about, they shout out the words of the Psalms. They knock into each other unconcernedly, for all their cares have been set aside, everything has ceased to exist for them. They are seized by an indescribable ecstasy… The old man throws himself about as though seized by convulsions. Each shudder of his powerful body, each contraction of his muscles is permeated with the glory of the Most High. Every so often he claps the palms of his hands together symbolically.’
From the Present
This kind of swaying and violent movement can still be observed in many a Hasidic conventicle, though there are also tales of Hasidic masters who remained completely immobile during their prayers, in awe of the Creator.
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 non-Hasidic Jews when praying or when studying the Torah.
See and hear another explanation in this video
The Yemenite’s unique way
A personal connected point that I have observed is that most older Yemenite Jews can also read upside-down. Giving to the lack of enough copies of the Torah and prayer-books, more people had to gather around the table from all sides and sway to and fro reading the portion of the Torah or the prayer book. Many older Jews knew the prayers off-by-heart.
(Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.)
A comment on this post – I was contemplating writing something of my own based on this article but found myself going back to Rabbi Jacobs exact words. So, knowing less than the Rabbi and not being able to ask him (as he passed away 9 years ago), I decided to bring Rabbi Jacobs article ad-verbatim with one or two very minor changes and a short addition at the end. I hope I have not infringed any copy-write and if yes – please let me know and I will delete it or add any relevant credit. Joel.