Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Swaying Revisited

..it seems like someone visited my blog in Arviat (in the Nunavut Provence of Canada). ..I just thought that was cool...though in all likeliness it was just a mistake.. I ended up looking it up, and there are (obviously) almost all Inuit people there. ..but I came to the realization that it's not as remote as I thought when I saw that there are daily flights there (and therefore many visitors), and that many of the people are Internet savvy...oh well, still an accomplishment..

..in more relevant news, as I was watching programming about the growing Taliban influence in Pakistan on the New York Times website (which involved footage of swaying Pakistanis), I was reminded of a conclusion that came to me a long time ago; the act of swaying while praying or reading religious texts seems to have clear roots in the Middle East, I've seen footage of it done from Morocco to Pakistan, so it's definitely not exclusively Jewish. Now, that doesn't de-legitimize it to me, ..it legitimizes it!

To be honest when I was young I used to sway a bit while praying, for the simple reason that it's difficult not to (though I've never been an ideological fan of it ..I've also (obviously) never been an ideological fan of using Yidishisms like "shuckling" by the way, but that's due only to my prejudices against Ashkenazim, and this is about principle..). Then I saw many Sefaradi and even Ashkenazi rabbis who didn't sway and seemed to disapprove of the idea, and I stopped completely...which of course makes me the only guy not moving during most-to-all prayer services I attend...which I then start to see as somewhat unique (I'm reminded of an old man I once saw walking through Borough Park with two people on either side of him, commenting about G-d-knows-what; "but I'm a unique Rebbe!").

The truth is though, the Ashkenazim are right. ..hm. That doesn't sound good, let's reword that; there is a grain of truth in the practice of the Ashkenazim (there we go!); swaying during prayers or readings does have a relaxing and trans-inducing quality; it frees up the natural "fidgetyness" of the body so the mind has more of an ability to relax. It's similar to the well-known Rabbinic dictum that "ידיים עסקניות הן" ("Hands are busy"), in other words they're always looking for something to do weather you like it or not (it's evident to one who notices peoples hands. The truth is I think it's for this reason why both Muslims and Catholics have "prayer beads", but it seems like Jews were never that into it).

My conclusion about swaying though, is and has always been; if one wishes to do it during readings and recitations (i.e. "non-shmone Esre" parts of "davening") there's no harm in it, but, like the Muslims, one is not to sway when standing in prayer. I've discussed this in the past in a comment to our friend Rachel's lovely blog which seems to have been discontinued for the moment.

There are also some other obviously important aspects of the externality of Jewish prayer though, which are oft overlooked and that I've always prided myself in being one of the only people I've seen performing them, such as the folding of the hands on the chest and bowing slowly until ones entire back is bent (both of which are explicit directives in most halakhic codifications, such as Caro's Shulhan Arukh).

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