Why do Orthodox Jews rock when they pray?
Yes, Orthodox Jews rock. We rock so hard.
The swaying to which you refer is called shuckeling, from the Yiddish word shuckelen meaning to shake. While a widespread – though not universal – practice (it’s not the practice of Sefardim, for example), its exact origins and reasons are not known for sure.
Swaying in prayer is alluded to in the Talmud. Tractate Brachos (31a) tells us that Rabbi Akiva would start davening in one corner of the room and finish in the other corner, gradually nudged there over the course of time by the force of his shuckeling. It’s not clear whether Rabbi Akiva was the only one who shuckeled in those days or whether he just happened to do so particularly vigorously; all we know is that he did it.
The Kuzari (Rav Yehuda HaLevi, 12th century) offers two explanations for this practice. First, he says that he has heard that shuckeling is done because it generates “natural heat.” This has been understood to mean either physical warmth or emotional “heat,” i.e., zeal. The Kuzari rejects this hypothesis in favor of the idea that the practice evolved due to the shortage of books (which was commonly the case before the printing press, when all books were handwritten). Ten or more might read from the same book, so they would constantly be bending and turning to read a passage and then to get out of the way. Others copied this practice when they saw it, continuing to do so even when book shortages did not require it.
The Rema (16th century) cites the Avudraham (14th century) that people sway when studying Torah because the people trembled when the Torah was given (see Exodus 20:15); they do so when praying as per Psalms 35:10, “all my bones will proclaim, Hashem, who is like You?” (OC 48:1)
The Zohar on parshas Pinchas uses shuckeling in a metaphor based on Proverbs 20:27, “The soul of man is a candle of God.” A candle’s flame constantly flickers in its attempts to free itself from the wick and ascend. Similarly, our souls struggle to escape the physical world and to return to their Divine source. This is why, during prayer and study, our bodies sway like flickering flames.
The Baal Shem Tov (18th century) gives a surprisingly graphic interpretation: shuckeling resembles the act of marital intimacy and prayer is when we try to connect ourselves (metaphorically) with God’s Presence. (Tzavaas HaRivash)
While most authorities permit or actively encourage shuckeling, there are those who oppose the practice. Shmuel HaNagid (11th century) criticized shuckeling in a poem as degrading to Torah study: “We came angry into the house of God. If only we had taken a wrong turn, for behold the rabbi and the students bobbing their heads like a tamarisk in the wilderness.”
The bottom line seems to be as the Aruch HaShulchan writes (OC 48:3): Some shuckel in prayer because it helps their concentration; others don’t shuckel because they concentrate better when standing still. The important thing is that we act however best enhances our prayer experience.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
Follow Ask Rabbi Jack on YouTube