SWAYING THE BODY:
The habit of swaying the body during study and prayer has been peculiar to the Jews from very early times, and it is one still practised by them in the Orient and eastern Europe. In the Zohar, R. Jose asks R. Abba: "Why is it that among all nations the Jews alone have the habit of swaying the body when they study the Law?" R. Abba answers: "It illustrates the excellence of their souls. The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord ' [Prov. xx. 27] refers to them. The light of that candle flickers and wavers in unison with the light of the Torah. The Gentiles have not the light of the Torah, and burn up like straw" (Zohar, Pineḥas, pp. 118b, 119a).
Judah ha-Levi (12th cent.), in his "Cuzari" (ii. 80), assigns two reasons for the habit: (1) it causes animation and activity; (2) the scarcity of books compelled many scholars to use the same volume, and the necessity of alternately leaning forward to read developed a habit of swaying which persisted in later years, when books were more plentiful. The second explanation is rather ingenious; the custom of many scholars studying together from one volume is still in vogue among the Yemen Jews. The first explanation, however, is in harmony with the idea of the verse, "All my bones shall say, Lord, who is like unto thee?" (Ps. xxxv. 10). Jacob ben Asher, the "Ba'al ha-Ṭurim" (14th cent.), in his comment upon the passage "When the people saw it, they removed" ("wa-yanu'u" = "swayed in unison"; Ex. xx. 18), says: "This accounts for the swaying of the body during the study of the Torah, which was received with awe, trembling, and shaking."
Nathan of Lunel (flourished in 1176) quotes from a midrash the custom of swaying at prayer, and adds, "This is the custom of the rabbis and pious laymen in France" ("Ha-Manhig," p. 15b, ed. Goldberg, Berlin, 1855). The custom is mentioned also in Abudarham and in Isserles' notes on Shulḥan 'Aruk (Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 48, 1). R. Jacob Mölin was accustomed at the "'Amidah" prayer "to hold a 'siddur' in the right hand (his left hand, concealed under his mantle, resting against his heart), and to sway his body forward and backward" ("Sefer ha-Maharil," p. 61a, ed. Warsaw, 1874). The author of "Shibbole ha-Leḳeṭ" (p. 10a, ed. Buber) quotes Rashi to explain the custom of raising oneself on tiptoe three times when saying "Holy, holy, holy," at the "Ḳedushshah": it is to symbolize the verse, "And the posts of the door moved [shook] at the voice of him that cried" (Isa. vi. 4); i.e., they shook in awe of
Perhaps the most plausible explanation of the swaying of the body is that of Dr. Simon Brainin. It was intended, he thinks, to afford the body exercise during study and prayer, which took up a large portion of the time of a great number of Jews (Brainin, "Oraḥ la-Ḥayyim," p. 126, Wilna, 1883).
Some authorities are opposed to the swaying of the body, especially at prayer. Samuel ha-Nagid (1027-55), the author of "Mebo ha-Talmud," in one of his poems describes the principal and the students of the yeshibah he visited as "swaying trees in the desert" (quoted in "Ha-Miẓpah"; see bibliography). Menahem Azariah di Fano (1548-1620) forbids any motion of the body at the "'Amidah" ("'Asarah Ma'amarot," article "Em Kol Ḥai," § 33, Amsterdam, 1649; idem, Responsa, No. 113, Venice, 1600). Another opponent of the custom was Isaiah Horowitz (1555-1630), who said that the swaying of the body may be allowed at the singing of hymns, but not at the "'Amidah," for one should bear in mind that such violent motion would not be tolerated in the presence of even a temporal king (comp. Isa. vii. 2; "Shelaḥ," ed. Amsterdam, 1698, p. 250a).
- Lewysohn, Meḳore Minhagim, § 2, Berlin, 1846;
- Senior Sachs, in Zederbaum's Ha-Miẓpah, St. Petersburg, 1886.