Shokeling During Prayer and Study


Swaying back and forth, or side to side, during prayer and study has been a conspicuous feature of Jewish religious practice for at least a millennium. It has been noted by Christians[2] and Moslems,[3] discussed at length by Jewish legal authorities,[4] and has even been discussed in medical literature.[5] It has been called “Jewish yoga” and understood as a form of meditation.[6] The term shokeling, or shukeling is a Yiddish word which means “shaking” and there does not seem to be an equivalent English or Hebrew term[7] to describe this activity.[8] We will therefore, in the course of this paper, use the familiar Yiddish term, shokeling.

What are the origins of shokeling? Is there a difference between shokeling while studying Torah and shokeling while praying? In which geographical locale did it develop and how did it spread? What are the explanations given for this custom? In which communities and times was it accepted and rejected? What are the differences between Sephard and Ashkenaz, if any, in this practice? What does the Halachic literature say about shokeling?

Talmudic Era

There is no explicit mention of shokeling in either the Mishnah or the Talmud; however, there are a number of sources that speak approvingly of moving the body during both study and prayer. It should be noted that Ehrlich[9] sees shokeling as purely an innovation of the Middle Ages and not connected to the various discussions of body movement and posture during prayer in the Talmud. However, as Ivan Marcus[10] maintains it is certainly plausible to see shokeling as an extension of the Talmudic idea of involvement of the body in study as a mnemonic aid. Yitzchak Zimmer also suggests that shokeling may be an outgrowth of the Mishnaic requirements regarding bowing and bending during prayer.[11] Following are a number of Talmudic sources that can serve as early origins of shokeling.

….as it has been taught: ‘And thou shalt make them known to thy children and thy children’s children’, and it is written immediately afterwards, ‘The day on which thou didst stand before the Lord thy G-d in Horeb.’ Just as there it was in dread and fear and trembling and quaking, so in this case too it must be in dread and fear and trembling and quaking.[12]


Rashi in his commentary (ad loc) cites the verse in the context of the revelation story at Mt. Sinai, “And the people saw and they shook…”[13] As we shall see later, this verse is cited by a number of Medieval sources regarding the custom of shokeling while studying in imitation of the “trembling and quaking” of the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai while hearing “the voice of G-d.”

In another reference to movement while studying, the Talmud relates the following story:

Beruria[14] once discovered a student who was learning in an undertone. Rebuking him she exclaimed: ‘Is it not written: “Ordered in all things, and sure”[15]: If it is ‘ordered’ in your two hundred and forty-eight limbs it will be ‘sure’, otherwise it will not be sure?’[16]


Beruria’s point is that when one studies, all “the limbs,” the entire body, should be involved, as opposed to sitting still and reading quietly. This is clearly prescribed as an aide to understanding or memorizing the text.[17]

The next reference discusses prayer, specifically the cAmida, the silent prayer, or “the eighteen benedictions.”


It has been taught: Such was the custom of Rabbi cAkiba; when he prayed with the congregation, he used to cut it short and finish in order not to inconvenience the congregation, but when he prayed by himself, a man would leave him in one corner and find him later in another, on account of his many genuflexions and prostrations.[18]

This implies a vigorous bowing and straightening, to the extent of causing Rabbi cAkiba to actually move across the room. This, despite the fact that Rabbi cAkiba was certainly standing with his feet together, as required by Jewish law during the silent prayer.[19] This is reminiscent of the extreme shokeling of certain contemporary H̟assidic sects.[20]


Post-Talmudic Era

Ignaz Goldziher cites a Moslem H̟adith[21] in which Mohammed warns Moslems not to sway while reciting the Quran or while praying, as this was a Jewish practice.[22] Following is a translation of Goldziher: [23]

As brought down to us by tradition, Muhammed, already, made his faithful followers aware, in a most likely authentic remark, of this habit of the Jews. He says, ‘Don’t be like the Jews, who when reciting the Torah in public, sway back and forth.” [לא תכונוא מתל אליהוד אדא נשרוא אלתוראה נאדוא] The Turkish Kamus[24] of the Nihajet[25] quotes the same tradition, with yet an accompanying comment. Namely, upon having explained the form and meaning of the word tanawwud and the expression nawadan as having been customarily used for the body movement of the Jews, the commentator expounds: ‘The author points herewith to the following tradition; They say in the Nihajet etc. (follows the above-mentioned dictum by Muhammed), that is, they (the Jews) moved their heads and shoulders when reciting the Torah in public; however, when reading the sacrosanct Koran, it is necessary to restrain oneself from the schoolchild-like movement of limbs, and one ought to conduct oneself quietly and motionless.’   It would be interesting to learn if the Arabic original in the referred place of the Kuzari[26] utilizes the word nawadan.

In answer to Goldziher’s question at the end of the quote, Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, author of a recent translation of the Kuzari, points out that when R. Yehuda Halevi in 2:79 presents the question: “Let me ask you — do you know why Jews move when reading Hebrew?” The word for move used in the original Arabic is “تحرك” = “tahrak“. Later in 2:80 the rabbi explains why Jews shokel, and he uses the word “incline” or “bend,” which in the original Arabic  is “ميل” = “mayil.”  Nowhere in that section does R. Yehuda Halevi employ the term used in the Hadith, “tanawwud” = “تنود”, which means “to sway.” Korobkin added, that etymologically the word “tanawwud” which is used in the H̟adith, is related to the Hebrew “nud” or “nidnud” which means a type of movement or swaying and therefore it is very probably that it refers to shokeling, as indeed it has been understand by translators and commentators of the Kuzari. [27]

Despite the difference in the verbs used in the Hadith and in the Kuzari, if Goldziher is correct about the authenticity of this remark by Mohammed, this would constitute the oldest evidence of the practice of shokeling by the Jews and place it firmly in the 7th Century, in the Middle East.

Ivan Marcus also writes that “pious swaying is mentioned in early Arabic sources that warn Muslims not to imitate the Jews who sway when they read the Torah in public.”[28] He does not cite a source for this, but it is very likely that he is referring to the H̟adith above. In videos of Moslem children studying the Quran in Madrasas in Pakistan and Afghanistan, they can be clearly seen shokeling.[29] Evidently, Mohammed’s warning in the H̟adith warning is not heeded by contemporary Moslems.

In Yehuda Ha-Levi’s Kuzari, one of the questions that the pagan Khazar king asks of the Rabbi is why the Jews sway back and forth when praying.[30] (We will address the Rabbi’s response later) Although it is fairly certain that the book is not an actual transcript of a dialogue with the pagan Khazar king, nevertheless, we can assume that it was composed to address questions that were raised by Jews and non-Jews in 12th Century Spain. As Ha-Levi himself begins the book, “I was asked to provide refutations to those philosophers and religionists who dissent from us, including Jewish sectarians who dissent from traditional Judaism”[31] According to a letter of Yehuda Ha-Levi, found in the Cairo Geniza, Ha-Levi was motivated to write the book as a response to a “certain heretic in the Christian territory” who “asked me about several things.”[32] The question that Ha-Levi places in the mouth of the Khazar king is probably a question that was posed to him by non-Jews of his time and therefore reflects the reality of Jewish practice in Spain, where shokeling was a clearly recognizable Jewish activity, and one that was so noticeable that it aroused the curiosity of non-Jewish observers.

Abbas (or Abbot) Johannes de Brach, living in England in the 13th Century wrote marginal glosses to a 13th century Latin manuscript of the Histories of Peter Comestor. In a chapter of the Histories on the giving of the Law, in his glosses to the verse, “And the whole mount quaked terribly,”[33]  Abbot Johannes observes, “Thence it is that the Jews still quake at their prayer, representing the quaking of the mount.”[34] Smalley comments that “there seems to be no Jewish tradition to this effect”[35] but, as we shall see later, this is very similar to a number of sources describing the “quaking” of the Jews at the mountain,[36] although, not the “quaking” of the mountain itself as found in de Brach.[37] Evidently at the time of Abbot Johannes, (who celebrated his first Mass on Sunday, May 8th, 1280[38]) there was a noticeable custom of the Jews in England to shokel. Although Johannes observes that the “Jews still quake at their prayer” it is not clear that he was making a distinction between actual prayer and the reading of the Torah. Smalley notes that Johannes was aware of Maimonides and also knew some Hebrew[39] but it is far from certain that he was knowledgeable enough to be able to distinguish between different aspects of Jewish liturgy. In fact, the source that Johannes attributes to the Jews “quaking” is more applicable to the reading and study of the Torah than it is to prayer, and it may be that “prayer” in the writing of Abbot Johannes refers to any synagogue or ritual activity.

From the above evidence we can determine that shokeling was already practiced by Jews possibly in the 8th Century in the Middle East, and was a widespread and recognizable practice of the Jews in Spain, England and the Middle East by the 12th Century, and certainly by the 13th Century.

In the testimonies extracted from conversos during the Spanish Inquisition, descriptions are given of Jewish prayer practices, including shokeling.[40]

Simh̟a ben Samuel of Vitry, France (died 1105), in the earliest Ashkenazic reference to shokeling[41], discusses the initiation customs of children into the study of Torah in Mah̟zor Vitry:[42]

And why do we accustom the child to sway his body when he studies? Because we have found at the giving of the Torah, ‘the people saw and shook[43]’ and not only did the people shake, but also the mountains and the trees as it says ‘the entire mountain shook exceedingly[44]’ and it further states, ‘Why do you tremble with envy, O many peaked mountain’[45], and regarding the trees it says ‘and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.’ [46] And this is what King David said, ‘Serve G-d with fear, rejoice with trembling.[47]’ And Solomon explained, ‘His lips are like lilies, distilling liquid myrrh[48]’ Do not read ‘like lilies’ but read ‘that learn,’ do not read ‘liquid myrrh’ but read ‘with bitterness passing’[49] that his entire life must be lived in awe and fear before G-d.

One fascinating aspect of the Mah̟zor Vitry’s sourcing of shokeling is the similarity between his proof text of the mountain itself trembling, and that of Abbot Johannes de Brach cited above, regarding the mountain “quaking.” This may indicate an older source that was known to Rabbi Simh̟a and also to the Jews of England who may have communicated it to Abbot Johanne.

The concept of swaying while studying, in imitation of the fear and trembling at Mount Sinai is a theme that is also found in Orh̟ot H̟aim[50] of R. Aaron Ha-Kohen of Lunel, and also in the Kol Bo[51] who cite the same verses as the Mah̟zor Vitry, regarding the child’s initiation rites. After presenting the entire initiation rite the author of the Kol Bo continues,

“And this custom[52] was the custom of the early ones, and of the elders of Israel in Jerusalem. And still today this is the custom in some places.”

Kanarfogel[53] quotes the Šibbolei ha-Leqet, by R. Zedekiah b. Abraham ha-Rofeh Anav,[54] who writes about shokeling and claims that the source is in Ma’aseh Merkavah. However, Kanarfogel notes that Zimmer could not find any reference in extant Hekhalot literature to this practice, other than an allusion in a Midrash Tehillim.

Abraham ben Nathan Ha-Yarh̟i, of Lunel, who lived in the second half of the 12th Century, studied under Rabbi Yitzchak in Dampierre and later settled in Toledo, explicitly mentions the custom of shokeling. Rabbi Abraham in Sefer Ha-Manhig,[55] maintains that a Midrash requires a person to sway while praying in fulfillment of the verse in Psalms,[56] “All my bones will say, ‘Lord, who is like Thee.’” He also testifies that this was the practice of “the rabbis of France and her pious ones וחסידיה.”[57]

Rabbi Yehuda ha-H̟asid, in Sefer H̟asidim, stresses shokeling during prayer. He writes,

“One is required [צריך ] to move his entire body when praying as it says ‘all my bones will say, Lord, who is like Thee.’”[58]

“Following in the footsteps of the Ashkenaz sources,”[59] various Spanish scholars also recommended shokeling. Rabeinu Yaakov Ba’al Ha-Turim on the verse “and the people saw and shook”[60] writes, “therefore we sway while studying Torah.”[61]  David ben Josef Abudraham in Sefer Abudraham,[62] combines both the idea of trembling while studying Torah, with the idea of praising G-d with one’s entire body based on the verse “all my bones…” He concludes, “to show that he and all his bones are all involved together to praise and to exalt G-d.”

Movement of the body during the Qedushah, the “sanctification” section recited communally when the leader repeats the silent prayer, is slightly different than shokeling, but has a similar logic. R. Yosef Karo describes the practice and its source:

All [both Ashkenazim and Sephardim] raise their bodies upwards, and the only difference between them [Ashkenazim and Sephardim] is that these [Sephardim] lower their eyes and these [Ashkenazim] raise their eyes. And this is the language of the Šibbolei Ha-Leqet (Section 20) “And that which people are accustomed to moving their bodies during the Qedushah, I found the reason in the name of Rashi, because it states (Isaiah 6:4) ‘And the posts of the door moved at the voice of he who cried…’ – the very wood and stones moved and shook from the fear of the King, how much more so we who are conscious are obligated to shake because of His fear.”[63]

A Sephardic source, the Kuzari by Yehuda Ha-Levi, complete in 1140, does not cite any verses at all and gives two explanations for shokeling, one “logistical”[64] and one inspirational.

  1. The Kuzari said: Let me ask you – do you know why Jews move back and forth when reading Hebrew?
  2. The Rabbi: People have said that it is done in order to arouse one’s energy. But I disagree, and rather think that it is because of what we are discussing.[65] Because Hebrew allows many people to read it as one, it was possible for ten or more people to gather around a book. This is why so many of our books are large. Because the books used to rest on the ground , each of the ten would have to regularly bend over to read a word and then stand erect afterwards [to allow another to bend over and read] This is how moving back and forth originated. From that point onwards it became an accepted tradition, because people looked at the movements of others and wanted to emulate them (such is human nature).[66]

Ha-Levi does not connect shokeling specifically to either prayer or study, but rather to reading any Hebrew texts. Unlike all other sources, Halevy does not attribute any religious significance to the practice, and is almost dismissive of it. However, this is certainly evidence that shokeling was a recognizable Jewish practice in 11th Century Spain. Rabbi Yaakov Emden agrees with the first reason given by Ha-Levi and says that the second reason is “very far-fetched רחוק מאד.”[67] Zimmer cites a similar dismissal of shokeling and even ridicule (לעג) of the custom by Rabbi Yehuda Alh̟arizi.[68]   In a similar, pragmatic vein, R. Eliyahu Kramer, the Gaon of Vilna, maintains that the “only” purpose of shokeling is to keep people awake. He adds, however, that “if the person starts shokeling automatically as a result of an abundance of desire, and purity of the heart, this is good, but otherwise, the obligation is to put one’s soul and emotions into the spoken words.”[69] And, (if I may complete the sentence), “’into the spoken words’ but not into the shokeling.”

The Zohar[70] offers an original interpretation for shokeling while studying, and could be considered one of the earliest sources of this practice if attributed (as in traditional Jewish sources) to the students of Shimon bar Yoh̟ai, in 3rd Century Palestine. If attributed to Moses De Leon, (as per the dominant academic view) this is yet another source indicating that the practice was alive and well in Spain in the 13th Century. Zohar:[71]

We arose and went on our way, the sun becoming stronger and more oppressive. We saw some trees in the wilderness with water underneath, and we sat down in the shade of one of them. I asked him: How is it that of all peoples of the world, only the Jews sway to and fro when they study the Torah, a habit which seems to come natural to them, and they are unable to keep still? He replied: You have reminded me of a very deep idea which very few people know. He pondered for a moment and wept. Then he continued: Alas for mankind who go about like cattle without understanding. This thing alone is sufficient to distinguish the holy souls of Israel from the souls of heathen peoples. The souls of Israel have been hewn from the Holy Lamp, as is written, “The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord” (Proverbs 20:27). Now once this lamp has been kindled from the supernal Torah, the light upon it never ceases for an instant, like the flame of a wick which is never still for an instant. So when an Israelite has said one word of the Torah, a light is kindled and he cannot keep still but sways to and fro like the flame of a wick. But the souls of heathens are like the burning of stubble, which gives no flame, and therefore they keep still like wood burning without a flame.’ Said R. Jose: ‘That is a good explanation; happy am I to have heard this.’

Rabbi Yaakov Emden[72] in his discussion of shokeling in the introduction to his siddur, cites this passage from the Zohar with approval.

Zimmer claims that a line from the Diwan of Shmuel Hanagid, hints at the practice of shokeling during study,

“Behold the Rabbis and students, moving their heads, like junipers in the prairie…”[73]

If, in fact, this does refer to shokeling it would be a very early reference to the practice, dating back to the early 11th Century (Shmuel Hanagid died in 1055).

A similar reference is found in a poem by Yehuda Ha-Levi found in the Cairo Geniza, in which he writes,

“reddish grain stands tall as if in colorful dresses, rippled by a western breeze; it makes you think of people bowing, giving thanks to G-d.”[74]


This poetic description of grain rippling in the wind, swaying back and forth as grain does, certainly evokes an image of shokeling, and conveys a much more sympathetic view of shokeling than presented in his book, The Kuzari.

Manasse ben Israel, (1604-1657) famous for his appeal to Oliver Cromwell to allow the Jews back to England, writes about shokeling in his book, Nishmat H̟aim. First he quotes Yehudah Halevi in the Kuzari, then, the Zohar, after which he offers his own original explanation:

We are also taught that man is likened to a tree, as it is written, “Man is a tree of the field.”[75] Our Sages explained in the first chapter of Taanit[76] and Rabbi Shimon bar Yoh̟ai in the Zohar[77] that the verse is understood as a statement (as opposed to Rashi[78] who explains the sentence as a question)….. The root is the first part of the tree, and similarly, the head, which is the abode of the soul, is the root of man. Just like the earth strongly grasps a tree’s roots, so the heavens strongly attract a man’s head. It is for this reason that man stands upright.

When a person studies Torah and prays, he is bound to this spiritual influence, and his body shakes. When rain falls and waters the earth, a tree’s branches move to grasp the earth, which is their element. Similarly, when God’s holy spirit is revealed in man’s intellect, his entire body receives lifeforce, and he shakes so as to receive this influence.[79]

One of the later explanations for shokeling, with a startlingly erotic dimension, comes from the Hassidic movement and is cited in the name of its founder, R. Israel Baal Shem Tov.

Prayer is intimacy with the Divine Presence (shechinah), and just as at the beginning of intimate relations there is movement, so he must move himself in prayer at the outset, and then afterwards he may stand without movement and cling to the Divine Presence with great closeness. And as a result of his moving himself he can bring himself to great inspiration, for he will say, “Why am I moving? It must be that the Divine Presence stands opposite me, and as a result of this he will achieve great enthusiasm.”[80]

A surprising, therapeutic explanation for shokeling is given by the physician Simon Brainin in his book Orah̟ La-H̟aim,[81] in a discussion about the benefits of exercise, who writes:

In my opinion it for this reason [exercise] that the ancient Sages suggested to those who study Torah day and night, that they should move back and forth while studying. A hint to this may be found in the Talmud (b.Ketub.111a) – don’t stand too much, don’t sit too much, rather a third standing etc. And the later scholars related this to the verse, ‘All my bones etc.’[82]

Classification and Development of Shokeling

Ehrlich[83], classifies movements of the body during prayer into four categories, and includes shokeling in each one of them. The categories are

  1. Ecstatic movements – the Zohar’s understanding of shokeling, as well as the “all my bones declare…” fits into this category.
  2. Means of concentration – Marcus’s view of shokeling as a mnemonic technique could be included here.[84]
  3. Means of elevation and mystical meditation – maybe the Hasidei Ashkenaz had this in mind.
  4. Symbolic expressions – the ideas of imitation of the assembly at Sinai, the trembling at the receiving of Torah, and the representation of all of creation as trembling before G-d, are all part of this category.

Ehrlich also suggests that the various movements of the body during prayer may be attempts to return to the more physical language of communication with G-d that existed in the sacrificial services in the Temple. Merely thinking and speaking is too rarefied and belongs to an “other-worldly” realm; the sacrifices were a connection to G-d in the realm of action and physicality. Shokeling (and indeed all bodily expressions of prayer) is a way to access that more earthy level of dialogue with the Divine.[85]

In Muntner’s, Mishneh Tefilah leMoshe,[86] (a history of prayer attributed to Moses Maimonides), he summarizes five ways in which shokeling developed:

  1. An “outgrowth”[87] of transitions between bowing and kneeling, bending and prostrating
  2. An outgrowth of the activity of “circumagere” a Latin term meaning “moving around” or “rotating.”
  3. A rudimentary form of dance.
  4. An expression of the inability to express all hopes and requests in speech alone.
  5. An attempt at achieving an “intoxicated state” without the use of alcohol (similar to the trancelike state that Sufi Moslems try to achieve through dancing, whirling and chanting).

Halachic Literature

One of the earliest Halachic sources to discuss shokeling is a responsum of Rabbi Menah̟em Azariah de Fano (died 1620), as follows: [88]

It is correct that I agree that it is prohibited to move the body at the time that a person is praying. The idea of “all my bones declare” was only said in praise of G-d, as it continues, “G-d who is like unto You” but in prayer we have derived many major laws from the verses regarding Hannah, and in our opinion this is one of them, as it says “only her lips moved.”[89] “Only” is a limitation, and if it is to forbid making the voice heard, it explicitly states “and her voice was not heard”[90] so it must be excluding movement of the body. Similarly it states regarding the h̟ayot ha-kodesh[91], “when they stood, they let down their wings.”[92] We see that during the standing prayer (the 18 blessings) one must “stop the movement of the wings” and indeed the whole body must not move or shake; and so is appropriate, since prayer emanates from the depths of the heart.

In another comment on shokeling by R. Menah̟em Azariah de Fano, this time in his Kabbalistic work, Asarah Ma’amarot,[93] he repeats his opposition to shokeling, citing the source from H̟anna’s prayer, but clearly opposes it only during the eighteen blessings of the silent prayer, the cAmida. In his words,

“It only says ‘all my bones declare’ regarding the songs and praises of the Almighty, as it continues ‘G-d who is like unto You’ however no movement in permitted at the time of prayer…”[94]

The distinction that De Fano draws between the cAmida, Silent prayer or Eighteen Benedictions, and other prayers is crucial and often overlooked. We must be careful not to interpret opposition to shokeling during the cAmida as a general opposition to shokeling. R. Menah̟em Azariah DeFano’s sources for opposing shokeling only apply to the cAmida and not to other prayers. Similarly Rabbi Isaiah Halevi Horowitz (Shalah), also usually listed as an opponent of shokeling, is in fact only opposed to shokeling during the silent prayer and not during other parts of the service.

“Movement – One who moves during his prayer causes a disturbance in his concentration (kavana), whereas standing completely still aids one’s concentration. And that which is stated in Psalms (35:10) “All my bones declare etc.” that is during songs, praise, blessings, recitation of Shma, and the study of Torah, but not during prayer. And even though there is one [authority] who advocates this even during prayer, it appears to me that we should not be concerned with his view, because experience has shown that standing completely still during prayer helps concentration. Also, see with your own eyes, would a person ask something of a flesh and blood king, while his body shakes back and forth like a tree in the wind??”[95]

De Fano is quoted by Rabbi Yaakov H̟aim Sofer, in the classic Sephardic work, Kaf Ha-H̟aim,[96] who also cites R. Yisrael Seruk, (a student of R. Isaac Luriah, responsible for transmitting Lurianic Kabbalah to Italy), as being opposed to shokeling. However, there also, the opposition is only during the silent prayer, not for other parts of prayer.

Rabbi Eliyahu Shapiro, in his commentary on the Code of Jewish Law, Elya Rabba cites the responsum of De Fano and the comments of Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, but he quotes the Piskei Tosafot as encouraging shokeling during other parts of prayer and during the study of Torah. In one of the few critiques of styles of shokeling, he writes,

I found written in the Gilayon on the Code of Jewish Law, “I have seen a mistaken movement done by some people, where they rotate their body to the right and left, with their feet stationary, standing upright, but facing alternatively to the right and to the left. The senses testify that this is an arrogant (conceited) way of moving, like a groom coming out of his wedding canopy. The correct movement, in our opinion, is to ‘bow his head like a bulrush’ (Isa 58:5) to the front, which is similar to the movement of the trees of the forest in the wind.” This is also implied by the Maharil in the Laws of Prayer, who says, “One moves his body backwards and forwards.”[97]

Amongst those authorities who encourage shokeling are Rabbi Yitzchak Abuhav, Menorat Ha-Maor,[98] R. H̟izkiya De Silu, in Pri H̟adash,[99] and R. Israel Meir Kagan, in the Mishna Berura.[100]

Rabbi H̟aim Benbeshti, in Knesset Ha-Gedola, supports shokeling, and begins by quoting the Menorat Ha-Maor of R. Yitzchak Abuhav:

“I found in a Midrash that a person should move his body during prayer as it states, ‘all my bones etc.’ and this is the custom of the Hasidim.” Menorat Hamaor, 2:12, and similarly in the Sefer H̟asidim. The recently printed book, Panim H̟adashot, writes in the name of R. Menah̟em Azariah De Fano (112) that it is forbidden to move the body during prayer. I don’t have in my possession the response of the Rabbi (De Fano) to see them in their original context however, it appears that the author did not see the Sefer Hasidim or the Menorat Ha-Maor, for if he had seen their words he would not have forbade something that they, not only permitted, but considered an act of piety. How much more so since the Menorat Ha-Maor quotes a Midrash. Maybe De Fano maintains that the words of the Midrash were only stated regarding other prayers and not regarding the silent prayer. Later, I obtained a copy of R. Menah̟em Azariah’s response and from his words it appears correct to make the distinction that I noted.[101]

Yemenite custom is not to shokel at all[102] and in one of the standard Yemenite prayer books, Tiklel Eitz H̟aim, the ruling is giving that it is prohibited to move at all (other than prescribed bowing) during the silent prayer.[103]

We conclude this survey of Halachic opinions[104] with the words of Rabbi Joseph ben Meir Teomim who states:

“And everything is according to the individual make up of that person, if he focuses well with movement, he should shokel, and if not, he should stand still, as long as his intention is for the sake of Heaven.”[105]


The earliest sources attesting to the existence of the practice of shokeling are from the Middle East in the 7th Century, and Spain, dating back to the 11th and early 12th Centuries. If we accept the tradition that the Zohar originated in 3rd Century Palestine,[106] the origin is even earlier, in Palestine in the 3rd Century. In the middle to late 12th Century and in the 13th Century we see numerous Ashkenazic sources of France and Germany mentioning shokeling approvingly. Our conclusion is that the practice originated in Spain/Sephard and the Middle East, where chanting was common, and where much of the Piyut, poetry and song in Judaism had its origins. From Sepharad shokeling travelled north to France, Germany and England, together with the piyut traditions, Torah commentaries and grammatical material.

The practice was enthusiastically seized upon by the communities of Ashkenaz, as testified to in both Jewish and non-Jewish sources, both in prayer and during the study of Torah. Shokeling was encouraged by the French halachists, the German pietists, H̟asidei Ashkenaz, incorporated into the child’s initiation into study, and later, especially adopted by the adherents of the H̟asidic movement. Although there were some who objected to shokeling during the silent prayer, they nevertheless supported the practice during other prayers and during study. And even in the locales of the opponents, Italy and Germany, shokeling became an iconic feature of Ashkenazic prayer and study.

Today most Sephardim do not shokel, and it does not seem to be a part of the general Sephardic tradition.[107] At some point in history therefore, the practice either was abandoned by the Sephardim, or declined in popularity. I believe that a probable explanation for this is the fact that Moslems had begun to imitate the practice, as evidenced by Islamic sources cited above, exhorting Moslems not to imitate the Jews. This is analogous to the abandonment of prayer with hands raised, as a reaction to Christianity.[108] Similarly, the Sifri states:

“The monument was beloved by G-d in the days of the Patriarchs, but when it was adopted by the idolaters, G-d hated the monument and prohibited its use.”[109]

So too, this authentic and ancient Jewish practice, when adopted by the Moslems, became anathema to the Jews of the Moslem lands. Perhaps the manner of reading and studying the Quran, tajwid or taghbir, through rhythmic chanting, was conducive to shokeling, which is why it can still be observed in madrassas today. Amongst Christians in Europe, study of Scripture did not involve rhythmic chanting and hence shokeling was not imitated by the Christians. This reality dissuaded the Jews of the Moslem lands from swaying, but allowed the Jews of Europe to continue their custom, to worship G-d and study His Torah with their souls flickering back and forth on a wick like a “candle in the wind.”




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“Afghanistan.madrassa.” CNN. June 2011.

Baal Shem Tov, Israel. Tzavaʼat Harivash: The Testament of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov. Translated by Jacob Immanuel. Schochet. Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 5758.

Beinart, Haim. Conversos on Trial by the Inquisition. Tel Aviv: Am Oved Publ., 1965.

Benbeshti, Chaim. Knesset Ha-Gedolah. Livorno, 1791.

Ben Israel, Manasse. Nishmat H̟aim, Jerusalem: Yerid Hasefarim, 1995.

Brainin, Simon. Orah̟ Le-H̟aim. Vilna: Widow and Brothers Rom, 1883.

De Fano, Menah̟em Azariah. Sefer ʻAśarah Maʼamarot. Yerushalayim: Bet Oved, 1988.

De Fano, Menah̟em Azariah. Responsa Menah̟em Azariah. Venice, 1609.

Ehrlich, Uri. The Non-Verbal Language of Prayer: A New Approach to Jewish Liturgy. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1998.

Eisenberger, Gershon. Otzer Hayedios/Asefas Gershon. Brooklyn: 1997.

Emden, Yaakov. Siddur Beit Yaakov. Jerusalem: Pe’er, 1973.

Epstein, Isidore, trans. The Babylonian Talmud … London: Soncino Press, 1961.

Goldziher, Ignaz. “Arabische Aeußerungen über Gebräuche Der Juden Beim Gebet Und Studium.” Geschichte Und Wissenschaft Des Judentums 20, no. 4 (1871): 178-83.

Ha-Cohen, Aaron. Orh̟ot H̟aim. Edited by Moshe Schlesinger. Berlin, 1899.


Ha-H̟asid, Yehuda. Sefer H̟asidim. Edited by Reuven Margaliyot. Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 1956.

Ha-Levi, Judah. The Kuzari: In Defense of the Despised Faith. Translated by N. Daniel Korobkin. Jerusalem: Feldheim, 2010.

Ha-Rofeh Anav, Zedekiah Ben Abraham. Šibbolei Ha-Leqet. Edited by S. K. Mirsky.                   New York, 1966.

Horowitz, Yeshaya Halevi. Šnei Luchot Ha-Brit. Jozephov, 1873.

Kanarfogel, Ephraim. Peering through the Lattices: Mystical, Magical, and Pietistic Dimensions in the Tosafist Period. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000.

Kamenetz, Rodger. The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994.

Sefer Kol Bo Halachot. Furth, 1781.

Kramer, Eliyahu. Siddur Ha-GR”A. Tel Aviv: Yaakov Landau, 1967.

Marcus, Ivan G. Rituals of Childhood: Jewish Acculturation in Medieval Europe. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.

Muntner, Zissman. Mishneh Tefilah Le-Moshe. Jerusalem: Genizah, 1943.

Nathan, Abraham Ben. Sefer Ha-Manhig. Edited by Yiẓḥak Raphael. Jerusalem: Mosad Ha-Rav Ḳooḳ, 1978.

Scheindlin, Raymond P. The Song of the Distant Dove: Judah Halevi’s Pilgrimage. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Segal, Eliezer. “Shokeling.” The Jewish Star (Calgary), December 1989.

Shapira, Eliyahu. Elya Rabbah. Jerusalem: Hamesorah, 1982.

Smalley, Beryl. The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages. Notre Dame, In.: Notre Dame University Press, 1964.

Sofer, Yaakov Chaim. Kaf Ha-H̟aim. Jerusalem: Moshe Sofer, 1969.

Sperling, Harry, Maurice Simon, and Paul P. Levertoff, trans. The Zohar. London: Soncino Press, 1931.

Tiklel Eitz H̟aim. Jerusalem: Y. Chasid, 1961. [Otzar Hachochmah]

Vitry, Śimḥah Of. Mah̟zor Vitry. Edited by Simon Hurwitz. Jerusalem: Alef, 1963.

“Why Do Jews Sway When They Pray.” On The Main Line. June 2011.

Yaaqov, Asher Ben, and Yaakov Koppel Reinitz. Baal Haturim Chumash: The Torah with the Baal HaTurim’s Classic Commentary Translated, Annotated, and Elucidated. Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, 2000.

Zimmer, Eric Yitzchak. Olam Keminhago Noheg. Jerusalem: Mercaz Zalman Shazar, 1996.

Zimmer, Eric Yitzchak. “Tikunei Haguf Beshaat Hatefillah.” Sidra 5 (1988): 89-130.


[1] Song by Elton John, lyrics by Bernie Taupin, from the album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

[2] Beryl Smalley The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages. (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1964)  (Thanks to Professor Eliezer Segal for this reference)

[3] Goldziher, Ignaz. “Arabische Aeußerungen über Gebräuche der Juden beim Gebet und Studium.” Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums 20 (1871): 178-183. (Thanks to Professor Eliezer Segal for this reference)

[4] For a survey of some of these sources, see Zimmer, Yitzchak. Olam Keminhago Noheg. Mercaz Zalman Shazar. 1996. pp. 343-368 (Thanks to Professor Kanarfogel for this reference)

[5] Davener’s Dermatosis describes the peculiar hyperpigmentation on the back of those yeshivah boys who shukel while davening (praying) and learning gemora. Naimer, S.A., Trattner, A., Avinoach, I., and D. Vardy, 2000, Davener’s Dermatosis: a variant of friction hypermelanosis, J. American Acad. Dermatol., 42:442-445. Cited by Dr. H. Babich, K’lal Yisrael in the Medical Literature: Purim-type Studies. From www.yutorahonline/lectures/lecture.cfm/727069

[6] Roger Kamenitz,. The Jew in the Lotus: A poet’s rediscovery of Judaism in Buddhist India. (San Francisco: HarperOne. 2007), 22

[7] The Hebrew expression נענוע הגוף בתפילה “movement of the body during prayer” is, I believe, inadequate to describe this activity.

[8] Prof. Eliezer Segal, Department of Religious Studies, University of Calgary, Article The Jewish Star. Calgary, Alberta, December 1-21 1989. 4,15

[9] Uri Ehrlich ‘כל עצמֹתי תאמרנה’: השפה הלא מילולית של התפילה,. (Jerusalem: Magnes Press. 1998), 204 (Thanks to Professor Segal for this reference)

[10] Ivan G. Marcus, Rituals of Childhood: Jewish Acculturation in Medieval Europe. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996), 72.

[11] Yitzchak (Eric) Zimmer, Tikunei Haguf Beshaat Hatefillah. Sidra No. 5 (1988): 116.

[12] b.Ber.22a (Soncino Translation)

[13] Exod 20:15

[14] Wife of Rabbi Meir

[15] 2 Sam 23:5

[16] b.cErub.53b – 54a (Soncino Translation)

[17] Marcus, Rituals of Childhood. 72

[18] b.Ber.31a (Soncino Translation)

[19] b.Ber.10b (Soncino Translation)

[20] For example, the Breslov H̟assidim, and the Toldos Aharon sect (Meah Shearim)

[21] Oral tradition

[22] Ignaz Goldziher, “Arab remarks about customs of the Jews during prayer and study.” Journal of History and Jewish Studies, 20 No. 4 (1871): 181. Reference kindly provided by Eliezer Segal. Cited by Zimmer, 118, footnote 155.

[23] Translation from German, courtesy of Clara Hanauer, Gottesman Library, Yeshiva University

[24] Turkish “large dictionary”

[25] Turkish “final.” I think the phrase means a “large, complete dictionary”

[26] See below

[27] Personal communication from R. Daniel Korobkin (1/1/2013)

[28] Marcus, 73


[30] Kuzari, Ma’amar 2, Paragraphs 79- 80

[31] Judah Ha-Levi, The Kuzari: In Defense of the Despised Faith, trans. N. Daniel Korobkin. (Jerusalem: Feldheim, 2010) 47

[32] Raymond P. Scheindlin, The Song of the Distant Dove, Judah Halevi’s Pilgrimage. (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2008) 108. (Letter originally published in Gil and Fleischer, Yehuda Halevi, 324-26 (doc. 19) translation of Goitien, A Mediterranean Society, 5:465. See footnote 16, p. 268 in Scheindlin)

[33] Exod 19:18

[34] Smalley, The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages. 340-341. Reference kindly provided by Professor Eliezer Segal, University of Calgary, Alberta.

[35] Smalley, 341

[36] b.Ber.22a.

[37] Smalley, 341, footnote 1.

[38] Smalley, 340

[39] Smalley, 340

[40] Haim Beinart, Conversos on Trial by the Inquisition. (Tel Aviv: Am Oved. 1965), 203, 204, 301

[41] Cited by Zimmer, 119; Marcus, 73: Kanarfogel, 54, footnote 59

[42] Mah̟zor Vitry. Edited by Simon Hurwitz. (Jerusalem: Alef, 1963), Section 508, Vol II, 679-680

[43] Exod 20:15

[44] Exod 19:18

[45] Ps 68:17

[46] Isa 55:12

[47] Ps 3:11

[48] Song 5:13

[49] Based on b.Šabb.30b

[50] Orh̟ot H̟aim, pt. 2, e. Moshe Schlesinger (Berlin, 1899) sec. 3, 24-25. Cited by Kanarfogel, , Peering Through the Lattices, 54, footnote 59

[51] Kol Bo, (Furth 1781), Section 74, 43a. Cited by Zimmer, 119 and Kanarfogel 54

[52] I presume he is referring to the initiation rite and all that it involves, including shokeling.

[53] Kanarfogel, p. 55, see footnote 60

[54] Šibbolei ha-Leqet, ed. S. K. Mirsky (New York 1966), 183 (sec.17).

[55] Sefer ha-Manhig, Rafael Edition, Vol. 1, p. 85 cited by Kanarforgel, p. 54

[56] Ps 35:9-10

[57] See Kanarfogel, footnote 59

[58] Yehuda ha-H̟asid, Sefer H̟asidim, (Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 1956), Section 57, 117.

[59] Zimmer’s phrase, 119.

[60] Exod 20:15

[61] Baal Haturim, (Reinitz Edition, Jerusalem: Feldheim Publishers, 1995) 207. Cited by Zimmer and Kanarfogel.

[62] Abudraham Hashalem, 43. Cited by Zimmer

[63] Yosef Karo, Beit Yosef, OH 125:2

[64] Kanarfogel’s term, Kanarfogel, 54, footnote 59

[65] The unique features of the Hebrew language

[66] Yehuda ha-Levi, Sefer ha-Kuzari, 2:79-80. Korobkin translation 243-244

[67] Rabbi Yaakov Emden, Siddur Beit Yaakov, (Peer, Jerusalem: 1973), Sulam Beit-El, section 4, 12

[68] Zimmer, p. 118, footnote 157

[69] Eliyahu Kramer, Siddur ha-GRA: Ishei Yisrael, (Ed. Yaakov Landau, Tel Aviv: 1967). In Orh̟ot H̟aim, paragraph 29, 571.

[70] Cited by Zimmer and Kanarfogel

[71] Zohar, Num, Section 3, Page 219a. (Soncino Translation)

[72] Siddur Beit Yaakov, ibid.

[73] Zimmer, 118. Diwan of Shmuel Hanagid, (Jerusalem: Dov Yarden Edition, 1965), Siman 83, 229

[74] Scheindlin, 125

[75] Deut 20:19

[76] b.Tacan 7a

[77] Zohar, Bamidbar 3:202b

[78] Deut ad loc.

[79] Manasse ben Israel, Nishmat H̟aim (Jerusalem: Yerid Hasefarim, 1995) 184-185.

[80] Sefer Tzava’at Rav Yisrael Ba’al Shem Tov, Hanhagot Yesharot, No. 68. For further sources that cite the Baal Shem Tov, see Sefer Hasidim, Ed. Reuven Margaliyot, (Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 1956), Section 57, 117. Footnote 3.

[81] This reference obtained from the blog, “On The Main Line” –

The blog cites Eisenstein’s, Otzar Yisrael, Vol. 7 p. 87, as the source for Brainin’s discussion.

[82] Simon Brainin, Orah̟ La-H̟aim (Vilna: The Widow and Brothers Rom, 1883) 126.

[83] Ehrlich, 213

[84] Marcus, 72-73

[85] Ehrlich, 215

[86] Zissman Muntner, Mishneh Tefilah leMoshe, (Jerusalem: Genizah, 1943), 40.

[87] Muntner’s term

[88] R. Menah̟em Azariah de Fano, Responsa, (Venice: 1609), Number 113. Cited in Zimmer, 121.

[89] 1 Sam 1:12

[90] Ibid.

[91] “holy animals” – a type of winged, angelic being.

[92] Ezek 1:24

[93] Menah̟em Azariah De Fano, Sefer Asarah Ma’amarot, (Jerusalem: Beit Oved, 1987) 378-379.

[94] Ibid., 379

[95] Yeshaya Halevi Horowitz, Shnei Luh̟ot Habrit, (Jozephov: 1873), Masechet Tamid, Ner Mitzvah (9) Vol. II, 33.

[96] Yaakov H̟aim Sofer, Kaf Ha-H̟aim, (Jerusalem: Moshe Sofer, 1969) OH 48:7.

[97] Eliyahu Shapira, Elya Rabba, (Jerusalem: Hamesorah. 1982), OH 48:2.

[98] Yitzchak Abuhav, Menorat Ha-Maor, (Vilna: The Widow and Brothers Rom, 1884), 3:3:12.

[99] OH 95

[100] OH 95:7

[101] Chaim Benbeshti, Knesset Hagedolah, (Livorno: 1791) OH 95.

[102] Personal communication from Rabbi Eliezer Damari (1/9/2013)

[103] Tiklel Eitz H̟aim. (Jerusalem: Y. Chasid, 1962), 1:92. [Otzar Hachochmah] (Thanks to R. Damari for this source)

[104] For an exhaustive survey of Halachic literature on shokeling see Gershon Eisenberger, Otzer Hayedios/Asefas Gershon. (Brooklyn: 1997), 423-429

[105] Joseph ben Meir Teomim, Pri Megadim. OH 48, Eshel Avraham Paragraph 4.

[106] Although according to the dominant academic view, as mentioned above, the Zohar originates in 13th Century Spain and not 3rd Century Palestine.

[107] This information is based on interviews with four Sephardic scholars. Rabbi Avi Mammon (Rochester, NY) of Bukharin/Moroccan origin; Rabbi Aaron H̟amoui (Boston), of Egyptian origin, whose grandfather was H̟azan of the largest synagogue in Egypt, and does not recall any shokeling; Rabbi Daniel Raccah (Chicago), a student of Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef and an expert in Sephardic liturgy; Rabbi Eliezer Damari – A Yemenite Rabbi (Moshav Tarom) and head of Yoreh Deah program at Machon Harry Fischel, Jerusalem.

[108] Zimmer p.97

[109] Sifre, Deut 146. Cited by Rashi and Nah̟manides on Deut 16:22[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

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