World of the Sages: Hand motions during prayer

Our body is an important medium of expression. We sit up when we are attentive, slouch if we are bored.

praying 88 (photo credit: )
praying 88
(photo credit: )
Our body is an important medium of expression. We sit up when we are attentive, slouch if we are bored. Raised eyebrows indicate doubt, a scrunched nose shows distaste, a smile conveys joy. Hand gestures are also key in conveying a message, and for some people, tying their hands is akin to cutting out their tongue. To be sure, postures have varied meanings in different cultures, but all societies have norms with regard to the body as a vehicle of articulation. It is therefore to be expected that our sages relate to various aspects of our stance during prayer. The sages comment on the verse "Thus I will bless You all my life; I will lift my hands for Your name" (Psalms 63:5), saying that it refers to different parts of the prayer service (B. Berachot 16b). Since Torah study is referred to as "my life" (Deuteronomy 30:20), the beginning of the verse - "all my life" - indicates Shema: the minimum fulfillment of the obligation to study Torah (B. Menahot 99b). Thus the verse can be read: "I will bless You with that which is my life," namely Torah study (Maharsha, 16th-17th centuries, Poland). Our sages continue: The remainder of the verse - "I will lift my hands for Your name" - refers to Amida. Does this mean our hands should be raised while praying? Various biblical passages seem to indicate that this is indeed the appropriate gesture for prayer (Genesis 14:22; I Kings 8:22, 54; II Chronicles 6:13; Isaiah 1:15; Lamentations 3:41). To explicate one example: As the Jewish people fight Amalek, Moses stands atop a hill with outstretched arms, encouraging his warriors and beseeching God for assistance. The battle continues and as Moses's hands begin to tire, Aaron and Hur each support one arm until the people are victorious (Exodus 17: 8-16; see also Exodus 9:27:33). With the advent of Hassidism, extravagant gestures became widespread in the revived prayer ritual. Here the hands were not held in a beseeching manner, but were part of fierce movements during prayer. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyady (18th-19th century, Byelorussia) is said to have banged his hands on the wall during his fervent prayers, such that he drew blood. Eventually carpets were hung opposite his place of prayer so the hassidic master would not injure himself. This practice was condemned by the opponents of Hassidism. In a work published soon after the rise of the movement, the fiery scholar Rabbi Ya'acov Emden (18th century, Altona) censured the practice of movement during prayers, of which clapping during the service was one manifestation. He decried: "Ask yourself if they would dare do so in the presence of a king of flesh and blood. Why, he would have them thrown down so that their limbs would be shattered and their bones broken." To be sure, these practices were denounced even by hassidic masters when they were done for show and did not reflect true emotions. In a saying attributed to the Baal Shem Tov (18th century, Podolia) on the verse "And when the people saw, they swayed, and stood far off" (Exodus 20:15) we hear a creative reading: "If a person sways in prayer in order that people might see him - and thus be admired for his piety - it is a sign that he is far off, remote from God." Despite advocating bodily movement, the hassidic norm did not strictly follow the biblical paradigms nor the talmudic dictum. Indeed, an eerie silence hovers over the issue of outstretched arms during prayer in much of the post-talmudic literature. One notable exception is Rabbi Abraham, son of Maimonides (13th century, Cairo). Advocating a return to original prayer styles, Rabbi Abraham promotes raising the hands when petitioning God. No such gesture is prescribed when praising or thanking the Almighty. This approach is echoed in later authorities (Rabbi Eliezer Azkari, 16th century, Safed; and others), but does not seem to be the accepted practice. Some halachists suggest that prayer with outstretched arms is the manner of gentile prayer, and therefore should be avoided (Be'er Sheva, 16th-17th centuries, Poland-Italy; and others). Modern scholars have demonstrated that a serious issue is at stake here: Christians saw Moses's outstretched arms as a prefiguration of crucifixion. This explains the reticence of Jewish artists to portray this biblical incident, while their Christian counterparts display no such hesitation in giving expression to this episode (Profs. Zimmer, Sperber). It is therefore understandable that codifiers generally ignore our passage, preferring to rely on an alternate talmudic passage. They rule that the hands should be clasped over the heart, as a servant stands before a master with awe and respect (B. Shabbat 10a; Maimonides; Shulhan Aruch). Other authorities hold that hand positioning is entirely dependent on societal norms; the posture during prayer should reflect how we would stand before a human sovereign (Rabbi Yitzhak Abuhav, 13th-14th centuries, Spain; and others). Thus we see that cultural environs have impacted our prayer norms. Even the suggestion of Rabbi Abraham calling for outstretched arms while making requests of God may have been influenced by his milieu. There is no precedent in Jewish sources for distinguishing singling out requests when it comes to hand gestures. In all likelihood, such a distinction has its roots in Muslim ritual. Various aspects of our prayer service have been influenced by the practices of our gentile neighbors. But should this be our focus as we explore prayer rituals? Jewish commentators and halachists have rarely cited gentile norms as the motivation for prayer models, focusing instead on the contemporary import of the custom. This provides us with a strong paradigm: Much of our practice may not be organic to Jewish tradition. Nevertheless, as we adopt rituals we seek to give them relevant meaning, focusing not on the external impetus, but on the significance that these practices invest in our lives. There is a common thread that runs through the various suggestions over the generations for what to do with the hands during prayer: The goal of focusing the mind, improving concentration and assisting heartfelt communion with the Almighty. Thus one halachist (Rabbi Yehiel Michel Epstein, 19th century, Byelorussia) suggests there is no prescribed gesture for prayer; hands should be positioned such that they facilitate quality prayer. The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.