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Why do Jews sway while praying?

Why do Jews sway while praying?

The Swaying Candle

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Here are two explanations given by Jewish tradition:

a) King David writes (Psalms 35:10), "All of my limbs shall proclaim: Who is like You..." When we praise G‑d, we do so with all of our being: the mind, heart, and mouth express the prayer through speech, and the rest of the body does so by moving. Every fiber of our self is involved in connecting to our Creator.

b) "The soul of man is a candle of G‑d" (Proverbs 20:27). The candle's flame constantly sways and flickers as it attempts to tear free of its wick and ascend on high. Our soul is also engaged in a constant effort to escape the corporeality of this mundane world and cleave to its G‑dly source. This is especially true in the course of prayer, those islands in time when we concentrate and focus on our relationship with G‑d. Our body mirrors this effort as it sways back and forth like a flame.

Rabbi Menachem Posner serves as staff editor for Chabad.org.
Image: Detail from a painting by Sarah Kranz. Ms. Kranz has been illustrating magazines, webzines and books (including five children’s books) since graduating from the Istituto Europeo di Design, Milan, in 1996. Her clients have included The New York Times and Money Marketing Magazine of London.
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Discussion (20)
February 13, 2014
Swaying?
I like to think of it as...flowing through space and time.
Amichai Schneller
Cloudy town.
November 28, 2013
Swaying
In my experience, I have begun swaying naturally and found this page while searching the internet for an explanation about why prayer causes swaying. I feel it relates to an energetic/physical benefit that is given to the prayer.

Maybe the prayer is like a signal being transmitted, and swaying helps it transmit. It's kind of an ugly motion though, on its own. Though, it kind of feels like a rock band guitar player if I get really into it.

I want to understand the science of why I'm urged to do this when I think strongly about what I want for myself/others.

Love!
Mika
Planet Earth
September 16, 2013
I am not Jewish, yet I found myself swaying back and forth when praying in a standing position within seconds of reciting my prayers. It is the natural thing to do. The body simply cannot remain upright too long. A certain restlessness sets in and if one wishes to be comfortable and able to concentrate in the praying process, rocking back and forth is the only thing to do. It helps the body stay in balance and relieves back pressure.
I strongly believe that this is at the root of this ritual. Simply comfort. Everything else (metaphor of the candle flame, inducing trance-like experiences, etc...) is embellishment.
Natacha Mann
March 25, 2013
Thank You!!!
Thank You So very Much Rav Posner! This realy helps me alot. :)
Tzadok
Llandon Ross
May 20, 2011
swaying

The Neshama (soul) is compared to a flame, always in the upward direction.
Kaballah explains that swaying signifies the soul yearning for closeness to G-d, just like a flame rising upward.
SS
Montreal, Qc, Quebec, Canada
April 24, 2011
My take...
My experience is somewhat similar to Alexandra. I'm ger...never felt the need to sway when I was being raised Christian, but the first time I really truly hooked into group davening on shabbat I was so filled with light and energy that I couldn't stand still. And it just sort of comes naturally so that half the time I don't even notice I'm doing it. If I catch myself at it, I try to tone it down a little bit, especially as I go to a very reserved shul and I don't want the other folks to feel uncomfortable. My take on it: complete and total willingness to follow the divine will and forego all selfish desires (think Abraham/Isaac level of selflessness) + intimate prayer + minyan = overwhelmingly awesome experience.
Anonymous
Blacksburg, VA
April 21, 2011
I would leave out the King David reference.
The reason is that he also said OTHER things we totally not only disregard, but disobey. He said to praise Him with the harp and tambourines, etc., and we don't do that at all. We rationalize our tradition of not following King David's wish that we praise and pray to G-d with joy, music, dance by saying we are in mourning because the temple was destroyed. So, the second part of the answer above is valid. The first part is negated by the example I cited.
Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell
Riverside, Ca, USA
October 28, 2008
re: anonymous from Atlanta?
Do you feel free to ignore all of rema's rulings, because you have issues with a couple of them?
Luzy
6791684
October 28, 2008
Swaying is natural
I grew up in Soviet Union with no religion. When I started to light candles and pray in my late thirties nobody taught me to sway. I found that I swayed naturally with the flow of prayer. There is something in the energy of Jewish prayer that makes you sway whether you daven aloud of pray silently. Maybe thousand years ago or more someone has made conscious choice, or maybe it comes from the Source and Recipient of all prayer. You let go of and immerse in the flow of prayer, and it sways you.
Alexandra
New York, NY
August 16, 2008
Clarity
What Joel says, does indeed, have some merit. First, the shakers were founded in Manchester, England- so to the person claiming it was an American group- check your history. The second point worth noting is that not all "sephardim" sway; some have been influenced by Ashkenazic practices, others choose to sway. I urge a check on the translation of haredi, which, does in fact, translate to shaker. Eliezer Liebermann in Dessau 1818, contrasts the typical Jewish service with that of the non-Jew: "Why should we not draw a lesson from the people among whom we live? Look at the Gentiles and see how they stand in awe and reverence and with good manners in their house of prayer. No one utters a word, no one moves a limb..." I understand that the rama says that it is acceptable; however, the rama also permitted Moravian Jews to drink non-kosher wine. And, while we are quoting the Rama, lets remember that it was the Rama who said it was necessary to lay tefillin during Chol Hamoed.
Anonymous
Atlanta, GA
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