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 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, 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.

Comment by kamus Jerman on 29. September 2014 at 08:33

I’m impressed, I should say. Pretty rarely do I come across a blog that is informative and entertaining. Your blog is significant; I’m seriously happy that I stumbled across this in my search for one thing relating to this issue.

Comment by Paula on 12. April 2015 at 04:16

It does not only happen in the Jewish Faith, but also in other faiths. When I pray and call upon the Almighty in all His manifestations, my whole being is engulfed in peace and my body sways automatically back and forth from devotion with tears rolling down my cheeks. Praying and singing hymns is a way for our body and mind to get in tune with our soul to reach out to divinity. It is stated in the Holy Bible that “my kingdom is within you”. And as the author mentioned above, our soul ignites to sway like a candle when we are on the path to that kingdom.

Comment by Rachel Fisher on 31. January 2017 at 18:57

Thank you. I often find myself rocking back and forth while I’m spending time reading (and prayerfully meditating) on the scripture. When (on tv) I saw some men who seemed to be Orthodox Jews doing the same thing, I wondered what meaning it had. I find that the description you gave of this habit helping to focus the mind so that one may more easily come closer to God best fits me. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and insight. May the Peace of God be with you.

Comment by Virginia Andeson on 8. April 2017 at 16:11

I wondered about shuckling myself. And I also had a an idea regarding the same. I was thinking about how I myself, as well as other people I have seen, who are grieving over a lost loved one, will rock back and forth in intense pain, just as shuckling Jews do. So maybe it also has to do with something that is absolutely built into us regarding our intense feelings and our intense emotions. I think we cannot help ourselves,


Comment by ROBERT on 21. August 2017 at 22:53

As a Christian, I will often find myself involuntarily nodding ‘yes’ to myself as I read the Bible.
I think out of respect the Jews nod yes with their whole bodies.
God is great.

Comment by Piet Gibson on 11. January 2018 at 16:59

Having observed Jews rocking back and forth at prayer before the Wailing Wall on the Temple Mount I found quite comprehensive answers establishing the custom. For my own part as a Christian I have noticed an imitative action in some Protestant Churches I attend. Namely congregations who sway when singing the hymns and those who do not. Personally as a ‘swayer’ by custom, I find ‘swayers’ more relaxed and free in their time at worship.
Perhaps those who appear to be more uptight were brought up in a stricter discipline and more respectful for them in stillness.
I would encourage any who find being relaxed in worship to remember King David dancing before The Lord in the exuberance of delight in the Lord God who had always been there for him in good times and bad. 2 Samuel 6:14 KJV.

Comment by Janice Gibb on 6. July 2018 at 06:00

In catching myself involuntarily moving back and forth. Somehow it pleased me and felt as if God was smiling at me. Actually it felt as if, from way back, I had som Jewish blood.

Comment by R White on 31. January 2019 at 09:57

the nodding donkey thing is actually an occult link to ancient sexual ritual orgies practiced by worshippers of Baal as the Jews were so often.

Comment by John Jenkins lll on 30. April 2021 at 22:14

Thank you for your very informative answers.I was raised a Seventh-Day Adventist and attended church in Strasburg,VA.. I have been to other churches over the years, including the Brethren faith .We all have our own questions when we involve ourselves in religion.However, GOD has ALL THE ANSWERS !! THANK YOU !

Comment by ALAN on 12. March 2023 at 07:53

Where in the Torah or the Bible does it say to shuckle

Comment by Missy Trussell on 31. May 2023 at 18:47

I have found that rocking has a calming effect for me also. Thank you everyone who commented.

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