“All of my bones should praise Hashem” (Tehillim 35,10). How does one accomplish this? By swaying in a back-and-forth motion during prayer, one recruits every part of his body in an effort to sing Hashem’s praises (Rema 48,1).
The Zohar explains the deeper significance of this body language, which is uniquely Jewish. “A Jew’s soul is like a flickering candle. When his soul is ignited by the Torah he learns, it cannot stay still for even a moment, and this causes one’s body to sway back and forth” (Pinchas 218b).
In one place, the Mishna Berura writes that swaying during Shemoneh Esrei is praiseworthy (95,7), while in another place he notes that standing still is preferable (48,5). This reflects the fact that sometimes a person may need to sway in order to intensify the emotional power of his prayers, while at other times standing still may be essential for maintaining concentration. Every Jew should decide how best to offer his prayers before Hashem when he prays.
Each person’s body language differs, reflecting his individual nature and essence (Eshel Avraham 48,4). For this reason, a person should not try to imitate anyone else’s gestures (Noam Elimelech, parashas Kedoshim). By the same token, a person should avoid unusual or attention-grabbing motions, for this detracts from the main purpose of prayer, which is silent and personal communication with Hashem (Mishna Berura 95,5).
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Daniel Travis and Torah.org