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!

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi based in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, mom, poodle groomer, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at as the Coffee Shop Rabbi.

2 thoughts on “The Dance of Jewish Prayer”

  1. I’ve been in a few different denominations of Judaism in my life (conservative, orthodox, reconstructionist) and I have become thoroughly confused about when to sit and stand, or why. I’ve given up on the bowing and knee bending, even when others around me do it, because it just rubs me the wrong way at this point in my life. But…I wish I understood the reasons for the different choices each denomination, and even individual congregations, make around the choreography of prayer. I think that would make my own choices more meaningful.


  2. I enjoy the dance of prayer I learned as a child in orthodox tradition and as a child I did it more by rote than by understanding. As an adult I still do the dance because it has become so ingrained in my pattern of prayer no matter what Schul, Synagogue or Temple I attend. Sometimes, however, this dance of mine puts me out of sync with others. No matter, it is what I do.


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