The Dance of Jewish Prayer

Are you intimidated or confused by the various motions Jews make during prayer?  People sit, people stand, people turn around and bow to the door, some people fiddle with their prayer shawls.  There’s a sort of hokey-pokey thing periodically, too.  What on earth?

Prayer in Jewish tradition is a whole-body experience. It engages all the senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, and yes, even the kinesthetic sense. One way to cope with this is to think of it as dance.  Just as David danced before the Ark (2 Samuel 6:14-23), when Jews pray, we dance before the ark with the Torah in it. Unlike David, we wear all our clothes.

First of all, don’t panic. As long as you are reasonably respectful, no one is going to humiliate you or toss you out on your ear. Many of these gestures are individual devotional practices, and only a few of them are “required.”

A few general principles:

1.  MOST CHOREOGRAPHY IS OPTIONAL: Bow, etc, if it is meaningful to you or if you think it might become meaningful to you. If it is distracting or just “isn’t you,” that is OK. However, give yourself permission to try things out and see how they feel. Some people find that choreography makes them feel more in tune with the minyan, or closer to God in prayer: how will you know if you don’t at least try it out?

2.  EXPECTED CHOREOGRAPHY:  Only a few things are “required,” and those only if you are able.

  • If you are able, stand for the Barechu [call to worship before the Shema].
  • If you are able, stand for the Amidah.
  • In most Reform congregations, stand for the Shema.
  • Show respect to the Torah Scroll:  Stand when it is moving or uncovered, and face towards it.  Stand when the Ark is open.

3.  RESPECT THE BODY:  It is a mitzvah [sacred duty] to care for your body. If choreography is going to damage your back or your knees or whatever, don’t do it. If you see someone refraining from something, assume that they have a good reason and don’t bug them about it.

4.  WHEN IN DOUBT, ASK:  If you are curious about a gesture or practice, it is acceptable, after the service, to ask the person doing it what they are doing and why. If everyone in the congregation is doing it, ask anyone, or ask a service leader. It is never “stupid” or rude to ask politely about a practice so that you can learn.  As Hillel teaches in the Mishnah, the shy will not learn!

5.  ESCHEW OSTENTATION:  Both the ancient rabbis (Berakhot 34a) and Reform tradition frown on showy displays of piety. If something is meaningful to you, that’s OK. But keep in mind that you are doing this for yourself and for prayer, not for a show for anyone else. Also, don’t get so carried away with your gestures that you crash into others around you.

Is there any gesture or movement in services that you have found particularly meaningful or particularly troublesome? I look forward to your comments!

Dancing with the Rabbis

A lot of newcomers to synagogue are intimidated by the choreography of Jewish public worship.  People sit, people stand, people turn around and bow to the door (what?).  There’s a sort of hokey-pokey thing periodically, too.  What on earth?

One way to cope with this is to think of it as dance.  Just as David danced before the Ark (2 Samuel 6:14-23), when Jews pray, we dance before the ark with the Torah in it. Unlike David, we wear all our clothes.

Recently I walked one of my Intro classes through the choreography of the service as it is practiced in most Reform congregations.

First, a few general principles bear repeating:

1.  WHEN IN DOUBT, ASK:  If you are curious about a gesture or practice, ask the person doing it what they are doing and why. If everyone in the congregation is doing it, ask one of the service leaders (after the service!) It is never “stupid” or rude to ask politely about a practice so that you can learn.  As Hillel teaches in the Mishnah, the shy will not learn!

2.  MOST CHOREOGRAPHY IS OPTIONAL: Bow, etc, if it is meaningful to you or if you think it might become meaningful to you. If it is distracting or just “isn’t you,” that is OK. However, give yourself permission to try things out and see how they feel. Some people find that choreography makes them feel more in tune with the minyan, or closer to God in prayer: how will you know if you don’t at least try it out?

3.  EXPECTED CHOREOGRAPHY:  Only a few things are “required,” and those only if you are able.

  • If you are able, stand for the Barechu [call to worship before the Shema].
  • If you are able, stand for the Amidah.
  • In most Reform congregations, stand for the Shema.
  • Show respect to the Torah Scroll:  Stand when it is moving or uncovered, and face towards it.  Stand when the Ark is open.

4.  RESPECT THE BODY:  It is a mitzvah [sacred duty] to care for your body. If choreography is going to damage your back or your knees or whatever, don’t do it. If you see someone refraining from something, assume that they have a good reason and don’t bug them about it.

5.  ESCHEW OSTENTATION:  Both the ancient rabbis (Berakhot 34a) and Reform tradition frown on showy displays of piety. If something is meaningful to you, that’s OK. But keep in mind that you are doing this for yourself and for prayer, not for a show for anyone else.

 For more detail, you can check out this handout I gave the class: Choreography of the Service. Happy dancing!