If you’ve ever watched a traditional prayer minyan (quorum), or even just the prayers of a traditional Jew, you might wonder what all the motion and body movement is about. Forward-back, forward-back – the movement is almost like swaying (and indeed, some people do sway from side to side). This rocking-like action is known by the Yiddish term shukling, which literally means shaking.

An original source for shukling is not clear, but Rabbi Moses Isserles (a.k.a. the Rema 1520–1572) connects it to the verse in Psalms that states, “All my limbs will declare ‘God, who is like You?’” (Psalms 35:10).

Shukling is not just for prayer. It is also common for someone immersed in the study of Torah to shukle. According to Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (a.k.a. Ba’al HaTurim, 1269-1340), this swaying is connected to the trembling of the Children of Israel when they received the Torah at Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:14). Interestingly, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (1075-1141) wrote in The Kuzari: “Have you not seen a hundred people reading in the Torah as if one man stopped reading in one moment and continued in the next” (2:80), which some have understood as implying that the forward-back motion of shukling developed from people taking turns looking in the holy books (before printing presses made books easy to replicate).

While shukling is a common practice, the most important objective during prayer is to have kavanah (proper focus). Therefore, if the act of shukling is distracting, it is preferable to pray while standing still or moving in a way that better helps a person concentrate. While shukling, it is discouraged, however, to make large or strange motions that might distract others or, more specifically, from swinging the head from side to side in a way that might look arrogant.

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