Why do many people sway back and forth while praying? I’ve seen others who do not and this seems more respectful to me. Is either way the correct way or the better way?
Both are correct and acceptable. The deciding factor is which way helps a person to have better concentration on the prayer.
Swaying during prayer (and Torah study) – is often called “shuckling” – and is a widespread and legitimate custom. Several reasons are offered for this custom:
- The soul is akin to a flame. Just as a flame always flickers and strives upward, so too the soul is never still, constantly moving and striving to reach upward towards God.
- Swaying allows one to pray with the whole body, as King David said, “Let all my bones exclaim ‘God, who is like You!’ ” (Psalm 35:10)
- When we stand before God in prayer, we tremble in awe of the King of Kings.
- The book of the Kuzari (Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi) gives a historical explanation for “shuckling.” He explains that it originated during a period when there was a book shortage and several people needed to study from the same book at the same time. To allow as many people as possible to study from one book they would sway alternately back and forth. When one person swayed back after reading a section, the nearby person would sway forward to take his turn to read from the book.
But one need not sway in this way. It is certainly a valid way to pray while standing completely still, just as a soldier stands at attention in front of the king.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the foremost halachic authorities of recent times, was known to stand stock still during the silent prayer. He explained that while living in Russia he was once arrested for teaching Torah. One form of torture he experienced during his imprisonment was being forced to stand completely still facing a wall. The threat was that if he were to move he would be shot. It was on one of these occasions that Rabbi Feinstein was struck with the realization that if he could stand with such intense concentration for the sake of his captors, then he should afford at least the same respect when standing in front of God.
Deciding whether to sway or to stand still depends on which way helps one to concentrate better. In any case, a person shouldn’t move his body or contort his face in any way that will make him look bizarre and abnormal.