Shokeling When I Pray: Is it Good for My Soul?Musing about the Shokel Shuffle - an Esoteric Piece of Jewish Trivia By Jay Schecter
Walk into virtually any synagogue service at any time of the year and you are bound to see one, if not many, worshipers shokeling. What, you might ask, is shokeling? Or is it shokling? Either way, it derives from the Yiddish word “to shake” and means just that: the swaying back and forth and/or side to side while one is praying. While it certainly is easier on my legs and feet to shift my weight constantly (especially on Yom Kippur), I knew there had to be more to it. So, as an incorrigible and constant shokler myself, I was determined to find out its origins and meaning.
When I asked about shockeling when I was younger, an older shokeler explained to me that Yehudi Halevi, an philosopher and poet, wrote in his work The Kuzari (2:80) that shokeling originated in a time when there were not enough study books for everyone, so each person would take turns bending forward to read a portion, standing back up to allow others to read a portion as well. My teachers at yeshiva offered another explanation, stating that a soul seeks greater closeness to the Almighty while praying and thus sways forward, while the body wants to remain grounded and thus forces the shokeler to sway back. Other suggested explanations include the notion that shokeling re-enacts the Jews’ trembling when given the Torah at Mount Sinai (see Exodus 20:15) (www.torchweb.org/torah:ParshasYisro5772), and that shokeling “is the ultimate act of protest against being relegated to religious passivity,” affording Jews the opportunity to “mov[e] their bodies to a private rhythm as they commune with their Creator . . . ” (E. Segal, University of Calgary, in The Jewish Star, December 1989).
Of course, as Segal pointed out, there are those who believe that, notwithstanding the multitude of explanations and rationales, it is an affront to religious service and synagogue decorum to have worshippers shokeling as they pray. Fortunately, based on anecdotal data that I have collected over the years, the “Ban the Shokel” movement never gained any traction.
So, with all of this back and forth – and, no, I do not mean shokeling, or maybe I do – about the issue, what is a Jew to do? We have always been a practical people with a broad and inclusive nature, allowing for differing opinions and approaches. So, I believe that, given that what is in our heart and soul is paramount, shokel if it encourages a greater kavanah (Hebrew for concentration or intent; see Judaism 101, www.jewfaq.org) in prayer, or even if it is just easier on your feet and body.
Either way, it should be good for your soul.
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