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Parshas Yisro (5772)

Whole Lotta Shuckelin' Goin' On

Shuckeling, from the Yiddish word meaning "to shake", is the ritual swaying that many Jews do during prayer or Torah study, usually forward and back but also from side to side.

There are various reasons offered by our sages as to why we Jews love to shuckel so much. Here are a few of them:

In this week’s Torah portion we read how the Jewish people stood at Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments. The Torah tells us that after achieving such a high level of prophecy and hearing G-d’s awesome voice, “the people saw and trembled and stood from afar …” (Exodus 20:15).

The 13th century Spanish sage, Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, writes in his commentary on the Torah (commonly known as Ba’al HaTurim), that this verse serves as an early source for the Jewish custom of shuckeling during the study of Torah, just as the Jews trembled and shook when they first received the Torah at Mount Sinai.

This custom is even quoted by the Ram”a (1520-1572), the authoritative source of Jewish law for Ashkenazi Jews, in the Code of Jewish Law Orach Chaim Section 48.

Another source for shuckeling during Torah study can be found in the Sefer HaZohar, the foundational book of Kabbalah (Jewish mystical thought) written by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the 2nd century. In the section on Parshas Pinchas, he is asked by his students why it is only the Jews who sway back and forth when learning Torah.

Rabbi Shimon replies that just as the flame of a lit candle jumps and sways back and forth and can’t remain still, so, too, is the soul of a Jew compared to a candle, as the verse states: “A man’s soul is the lamp of G-d” (Proverbs 20:27). And when he hears or speaks words of Torah, his soul is immediately ignited, causing him to sway to and fro. No other people, says Rabbi Shimon, possesses such a mystical connection to the divine Torah.

The 12th-century Jewish philosopher and poet Rabbi Yehuda Halevi offers another fascinating explanation for how the tradition of shuckeling began. In his classic work of Jewish philosophy, The Kuzari (2:80), he writes that originally, there were not enough Hebrew books to go around from which to study Torah, and ten or more individuals would have to share a single text. All were eager to learn from the book, so each would have to bend down towards the book in order to have his turn at reading, then stand back to let others have a peek. This resulted in a continual bending and sitting up. Over time, the habit to bend and sway back and forth while studying Torah continued, although the original reason no longer applied.

As for swaying while praying, the Poskim (Halachic authorities) quote the Abudraham who writes that one should shuckel during the prayers as it is written in Psalms (35:10) “All my limbs will say, ‘G-d, who is like You? …’” Prayers should be recited with emotional intensity and fervor to the point that one’s entire body is moved and he can’t help but sway back and forth in ecstasy.

[I should point out, however, that there were some Kabbalists such as Ram”a MiPano who frowned on those who shuckel during the Shemoneh Esrei prayer, as this prayer should be recited while perfectly still without any movement at all, as befitting one who is standing in front of the King of all Kings.]

Now this shuckeling business certainly doesn’t do much for the decorum of the synagogue, which would probably appear a lot more “normal” (especially to newcomers) if people wouldn’t be swaying back and forth so much while they pray.

In fact, one of the early 19th-century German reformers, Eliezer Liebermann of Dessau, already noticed this when he contrasted the typical Jewish service with that of the non-Jew: "Why should we not draw a lesson from the people among whom we live? Look at the Gentiles and see how they stand in awe and reverence and with good manners in their house of prayer. No one utters a word, no one moves a limb..."

Fact is, though, that shuckeling has been part of our Jewish tradition for centuries and millennia – and it is not going away any time soon.

I find it interesting that the label that many use these days to refer to so-called “ultra-Orthodox” Jews is chareidi (or haredi) – a Hebrew word meaning “to shake and tremble” that is likely taken from Isaiah 66:5 and Ezra 10:3 where it refers to those “that tremble at the commandment of our G-d".

I personally believe that the label chareidi is quite appropriate and that one should wear it with pride. You see, when one is passionate about his Judaism, then when he stands in front of G-d in prayer or when he studies the beauty and wisdom of G-d’s Torah, he can’t help but tremble and schuckel with excitement and awe.

My blessing to all the Jewish people is that we should be learn to appreciate the special connection and closeness that we have with G-d through prayer and Torah study – and then all our limbs will say: “G-d, who is like You?”

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