All my bones shall say, “Eternal, who is like You?”

By Rabbi Malcolm Matitiani

Every culture and religion has its own posture and gestures for prayer. Thus Christians kneel with their hands pressed together, Muslims lie prostrate and Buddhists sit cross-legged with their hands pressed together. The habit of swaying rhythmically to and fro or side to side is the Jewish expression of prayer. Whether sitting or standing, the Jewish worshipper accompanies their prayers with the physical act of shokeling, a movement that seems to come naturally.

The twelfth century poet and philosopher, Yehudah Ha-Levi, provided a practical explanation for the practice of shokeling in his famous work, the Kuzari. Before the invention of the printing press in 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg, scholars relied on handwritten manuscripts to study Torah and siddurim were also produced in this labour-intensive manner. The expense of these texts resulted in one book being shared by ten or more students or worshippers.  Some leaned forward to get a glimpse of the text while others leaned back, resulting in the eventual development of the rhythmic movement associated with Jews at prayer.

According to the Talmud (Berachot 31a) when Rabbi Akiba recited the Tefillah on his own he would prostrate and genuflect so much that he would start praying in one corner of the room and finish in another. His shokeling was so intense that it would lengthen his praying time. Thus out of deference to his fellow worshipers he refrained from this activity when praying with a minyan.

The 14th century Spanish rabbi, David ben Josef ben David Abudraham, in his commentary on the liturgy entitled Hibbur Perush ha-Berakot ve-ha-Tefillot explains the origin of shokeling as the literal fulfilment of Psalm 35:10: Kol atzmotai tomarna Adonai mi chamocha? “All my bones shall say, ‘Eternal, who is like You?’”. Like the Psalmist the pious Jew prays with their entire being, both physical and spiritual. Following the example of Rabbi Akiba, Hasidim utilise dance as a means of worshipping the Creator, a practice which was mandated by Yehudah heHasid in his ethical work Sefer Hasidim.

The Zohar (Soncino Zohar, Bemidbar, Section 3, Page 219a) compares the Jewish soul to a lamp that is kindled by words of Torah so that its flame burns continuously. The perpetual motion of this flickering flame is physically manifest in the continuous swaying to and fro during the recitation of prayers and the study of Torah.

The kabbalistic metaphor likening the Jewish soul steeped in Torah to a kindled lamp is based on Proverbs 20:27: “The life breath of humankind is the lamp of the Eternal” and expresses the idea of true worship. While I am not suggesting that everyone must shokel when praying, the act of worshipping God with one’s entire being – whether by literally swaying to an internal rhythm or on a purely intellectual level – is admirable. Such uninhibited immersion in the moment allows the worshipper to rise beyond the mundane world to a plane of holiness and wholeness, leaving him or her with a sense of deveikut, “closeness” to God. This state of being is more conducive to the sacred task of tikkun olam – repairing the world through our actions and our words. 

The second verse of the Shema could be understood as an injunction to worship God with all one’s being: Ve-ahavta et Adonai be-khol levavecha u-ve-khol naf-shecha u-ve-khol me-odecha, “You shall love the Eternal your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might”. By expanding his or her intellectual and spiritual reverence for God into the physical world, the observant Jew worships God through physical acts of Tzedaka for the betterment of humanity and the earth. The warmth of the metaphorical flame symbolised by bodies swaying to and fro during prayer is thus actualised in the concrete world.

As we enter the third month of the New Year may we too extend our inner worship of the Almighty into the outer physical world of our daily life by opening our hearts and extending our hands to those in need. 

Temple Israel

• Published in the October 2023 issue – Click here to start reading.

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