Question of the Month:

“Why do some Jews rock back and forth while they pray?”

Our special exhibition “The Whole Truth… everything you always wanted to know about Jews” is based on 30 questions posed to the Jewish Museum Berlin or its staff over the past few years. In the exhibition, visitors have their own opportunity to ask questions or to leave comments on post-it notes. Some of these questions will be answered here in our blog, such as last month’s query: “how does a kippah stay on?” This month, we respond to Boris, who wants to know “why some Jews rock back and forth while they pray?”

A post-it note with the question of the month (in German) and a drawing of a man moving back and forth

“Why do some Jews rock back and forth while they pray? Boris”
© photo: Thomas Valentin Harb, Jewish Museum Berlin

Dear Boris,
Many people have asked why religious Jews sway back and forth while praying. This very old custom is called shuckling in Yiddish and means to rock, shake, or swing. As with many customs, it is easier to describe when and where it was practiced, than to answer definitively, why people shuckle while praying and studying the Torah.

The habit was noted already by the prophet Mohammed, who is said to have advised his adherents not to sway back and forth during religious services.

In 12th century Spain, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi reported that ten or more men sometimes read from just one book. To do this, they each walked up to the book, bent over the text and then took a step backward again, making room for the next reader.

In another source, psalm 35,10, the words “All my bones shall say: ‘HaShem, who is like unto Thee” are interpreted as an appeal to involve one’s whole body in prayer.

A wall with pink post-it notes

Questions on the wall in the special exhibition “The Whole Truth”
© photo: Thomas Valentin Harb, Jewish Museum Berlin

Another explanation explains rhythmic movement as a way to concentrate on praying and learning, and ward off distracting thoughts. According to the mystical text Zohar, a person’s soul emanates from divine light. Every time a Jew engages with the Torah, the light of his or her soul ignites, which is why he or she moves like the flame of a candle. This striking image illustrates the desire of many religious Jews to connect directly with God by learning and praying.

Some rabbis of the past have permitted their congregants to shuckle only during select prayers. In the 19th century, German Jews were eager to adapt their behavior to that of majority society, which is why most rejected shuckling. Today, shuckling is generally understood as a physical accompaniment to the rhythm of prayers and as a way to concentrate on them more deeply.

Miriam Goldmann, Curator of the Special Exhibition “The Whole Truth”

Comment by Lynette p hogden on 8. February 2014 at 23:26

I like your answer to my question I’m just learning about my Jewish heratage and trying to learn all I can from. Lynette

Comment by Ruben Morales on 2. April 2014 at 17:05

i recently had the same question concerning the rocking and swaying. i have question regrading the source for what you say about the prophet Muhammad. can you please give me a reference to this where he forbid his followers to sway.

Comment by editors on 26. May 2014 at 10:43

Dear Ruben Morales,
Thank you for your post. Our source is Ignaz Goldziher (1850-1921), a Hungarian Orientalist. In his essay “Arabische Aeußerungen über Gebräuche der Juden beim Gebet und Studium” (Arab Statements about Customs of the Jews while Praying and Studying) [in: Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums 4 (1871), pp. 178-183, online available on http://www.europeana.eu/portal/record/09319/EE9DD7560D95199B9D9F7C4B177EEDDE2C6D84D1.html, the author notes that Muhammed advised his adherents not to sway back and forth “like the Jews” when they read the Torah. Goldziher himself cites the Turkish Kâmûs from the Nihâjet that commented on this tradition. In addition, Goldziher mentions that Abd-ur-ruuf ul-Munawî’s biographies of Muhammedan mystics and ascetics praise immobility during religious services. In the biography of khalif Abû Bekr, for example, Abû Bekr advises Umm Merwan to stand still while praying and not to sway back and forth like the Jews.

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