In prayer it is better to have a heart without words than words without a heart.-John Bunyan
Jewish prayer is filled with a variety of different body positions and movements that to the uninitiated may seem confusing. We sit, we stand, we bow, we take steps forward, backwards, we lean on our arm, we stand with our legs together, and thanks to Chassidic influence many also “shuckle” (a back-and-forth shaking movement).
In the confrontation at the start of Korach’s rebellion against the leadership of Moses, Moses and Aaron are described as “falling on their faces.” Rabbeinu Bechaye on Number 16:22 (Korach) claims that this is the source of our own leaning on our arms during a particularly contrite portion of the daily prayer.
He explains that when Moses and Aaron fell on their faces, it demonstrates three things:
- It demonstrates fear and awe of the Almighty;
- It demonstrates anguish and submission;
- It demonstrates the “imprisonment” of one’s faculties and annulment of one’s senses.
He further delves into how each of these aspects is demonstrated:
By covering our face with our arm, we show humility and shame in front of God. It also shows anguish and submission, prerequisites for repentance. God, seeing our anguish is more likely to accept our prayers. And by covering our eyes and closing our mouth, we show our blindness and our inability to accomplish anything for ourselves without God’s approval.
He observes that the nations of the world have the custom of putting their hands together in prayer from this very same concept of demonstrating that their hands are bound and that they are submitting themselves to the one to whom they are praying, though they themselves no longer realize the biblical origin of their custom.
The Jewish custom of keeping our legs together and unmoving during the silent prayer is a stronger demonstration of this principle, as the movements of the legs are greater than those of the hands to reach ones’ goals and to distance oneself from harm.
However, while many of the positions and movements during prayer are filled with symbolism and significance, without meaningful intent, it is little more than light calisthenics.
May we understand, mean and feel our prayers, no matter how much or little we move.
To the residents of Netiv Ha’avot who were forcefully evicted from their homes. May they be resettled quickly, with greater strength and numbers.