Shucklen, Rosenzweig and a Jewish Way of Being

Albert Kohn, JTS Columbia

For as long as I can remember, praying in a synagogue meant praying in a room full of swaying and shaking Jews. Growing up in an Orthodox community, that was the norm. My teachers did it, my friends did it, and—without deciding to—I did it. Yet, the sheer ubiquity of these gesticulations, known primarily in Yiddish as Shucklen, made them invisible to me. It was not until I began my academic study of religion did I realize the peculiarity of the practice.

This practice is far from universal. In his book on Medieval Christianity, John Arnold quotes from a popular lay handbook’s guide to prayer:

When you have come to church, choose a secret and solitary place before a fair altar or image, and there remain and stay without moving hither and thither, nor going to and fro, and hold your head upright and keep your lips ever moving saying orisons and prayers. Moreover, keep your glance continually on your book or on the face of the image, without looking at man or woman . . . keep yourthoughts always on heaven and prayer with your whole heart.[1]

This instruction mandates a foreign form of prayer that can serve as a helpful contrast to normalized Jewish shucklen. According to Goodman, the handbook’s author—real religious devotion occurs when one calms the body and allows for purely mental concentration on God and ritual. Were the Goodman to happen upon a traditional modern synagogue, full of quaking Jews in dialogue with God, one can imagine his shock. The confusion he would likely express, though, is far from surprising as his image of proper prayer makes intuitive sense. If prayer is a time of deep contemplation of the Divine with the pursuit of connection, it seems obvious a place of worship should be a place of silent stillness.

The general prevalence and intuitive nature of quiet and still prayer in religious cultures makes the normality of Jewish Shucklen such an interesting practice. Somehow Jewish thinking developed a sense of reverence for the piety expressed through bodily gesticulations during prayer and study. Instead of revealing a lack of concentration or boredom, the swaying and shaking has come to uniquely demonstrate emotional involvement and personal commitment to whichever religious ritual in which one may be engaged.

Jewish philosophic and Midrashic voices have offered many explanations as to why Shuckling is a reflection of piety.[2] One of the first self-reflective considerations of Shucklen is found in the Kuzari—an influential twelfth century work of philosophy. In it, Judah HaLevi suggests that the gesticulatory movements serve as a window into the history of Jewish learning. He claims that ancient Jews were forced to lean in and out when studying a text so that a multitude of students could all crowd around the single available text.[3] About one hundred and fifty years later, Yacov ben Asher, known as the Ba’al Ha Turim, claimed that the shaking and swaying was a mimic of the Israelites who are said to have “trembled” as they received the Ten Commandments.[4] Both of these texts read Shucklen as an expression of dedication to Torah study–the pinnacle of rabbinic piety.

The mystical voices in Jewish thought also reflect upon shucklen as religiously expressive. The Zoharasserts that Jewish swaying is analogous to a candle’s flame, as expressed in the verse, “The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord.”[5] This image of a candle’s light was later adopted by the Rav Schneur Zalman of Liaydi who reads the gesticulations as indicative of the Jewish soul’s desire to transcend its confinement in the physical body and, like a candle whose flame always strives upwards, ascend from the material world and unite with God.[6] These mystical reflections on Shucklen similarly paint the practice as a window into inner piety; when Jews shake and sway they are manifesting their sanctified connection with divinity.

This understanding of Shucklen as a pious accompaniment of ritual is certainly correct; however, it does not fully reveal the significance of Shucklen in the the historical Jewish experience. In the previously cited Kuzari, Judah Halevi quotes the Kuzar king, a gentile learning about Jewish practice, as asking: “Do you know the reason why Jews move to and fro when reading the Bible?.” Even though this work was written by a Jew, the fact that HaLevi imagines a non-Jew as being curious about the Jewish practice of swaying and shaking during religious ritual reveals that the Shucklen (an obviously anachronistic term when talking about medieval Spain) was a distinctly Jewish cultural practice. That Halevi understands the way in which he engages in religious ritual as separating him from his neighbors is revealed by the fact that the king, representative of the gentile community, inquires into its reasoning.

This vision of swaying and shaking during religious ritual as a culturally distinguishing practice is further attested to by other Islamic and Christian sources. Ivan Marcus cites an early Islamic source which “warns Muslims not to imitate the Jews, who sway when they read the Torah in public.” This demand is cited from the Hadith, a collection of verbal traditions mandated by the Prophet, which reads:

They say in the Nihajet etc. that is, they (the Jews) moved their heads and shoulders when reciting the Torah in public; however, when reading the sacrosanct Koran, it is necessary to restrain oneself from the schoolchild-like movement of limbs, and one ought to conduct oneself quietly and motionless.[7]

Instead of simply instructing Muslims to remain motionless during study, the tradition has the Prophet polemically attaching this impious childish practice with the Jews. This again demonstrates that Shucklen was a recognizably Jewish practice distinguishing different ethnic-religious groups. On a similar note, Beryl Smalley makes note of Medieval Christians who saw Shucklen as a distinctly Jewish practice. He writes:

Abbas (or Abbot) Johannes de Brach, living in England in the 13th Century wrote marginal glosses to a 13th century Latin manuscript of the Histories of Peter Comestor. In a chapter of the Histories on the giving of the Law, in his glosses to the verse, “And the whole mount quaked terribly,” Abbot Johannes observes, “Thence it is that the Jews still quake at their prayer, representing the quaking of the mount.”

Thousands of miles away from Judah HaLevi and the Islamic tradition, this Christian cleric also saw Shucklen as something distinctly Jewish. For De Brach gesticulations during prayer are so distinctly Jewish that he eisegetically interprets the Siniaitic experience as the origin of the practice. All of these witnesses attest to Shucklen being much more than a mere sign of piety for medieval Jewry; it was instead a distinguishing feature of their Jewish identity that indicated socio-cultural differences between neighbors.

Looked at from this perspective, Shucklen may appear as a Jewish cultural marker, similar to the speaking of Hebrew or wearing of a Kippah. If understood as such though, we should expect to see the champions of cultural Judaism swaying and shaking as they partake in their bagels and cream cheese.

Yet, a restrictively cultural understanding of shucklen neglects to account for the traditionally religious status of its performance. The fact that shucklen manifests itself in moments of religious observance, when Jews are fulfilling their divine obligations, means that gesticulating during prayer is not just another cultural practice. Yet, its intuitive —rather than dictated—nature means that it cannot simply be incorporated into the long list of Halakhic observances. In order to really understand the significance and place of Shucklen, I believe it must be regarded not as a cultural or religious Jewish practice, but rather as an instinctively Jewish accompaniment to religious practice. Instead of being something which Jews do, it is a way in which Jews do things.

Franz Rosenzweig, an influential German Jewish philosopher in the early years of the 20th century, contributes to this distinction. In defense of his work, The Star of Redemption, which critics claimed did not constitute a Jewish work, Rosenzweig said “The Jewish way is not my object, but my method.” In saying this, Rosenzweig is expressing to his reader that a work is not made Jewish by its discussion of traditional Jewish topics such as Ta’amei HaMitzvot (reasons for the commandments) and the elucidation of scripture. A Jewish character is rather constituted by one’s method, the way in which one works and thinks. Rosenzweig’s Judaism did not manifest itself through explicitly Jewish content like rabbinic texts or religious imperatives, but rather through his approach and methods to the world.

Judaism is not primarily mandated actions and proscribed beliefs, according to Rosenzweig, rather a way of being and thinking. Judaism is not an object upon which to base our lives, but rather a method for how to live our lives.

Perhaps Rosenzweig would not agree, but Shucklen can be understood through the framework of “Jewish Method.” It is a way by which Jews have and continue to distinguish themselves from neighboring faiths and cultures. Yet, this distinction manifests itself not in uniquely Jewish Mitzvot, but in practices in which Christians, Muslims, and most of the world partook—namely, religious prayer and study. Gesticulations were, and continues to be, an integral part of the Jewish manner in which Jews practice faith. Even though they were not doing anything uniquely Jewish when praying and studying, Jews had engrained within themselves a Jewish method of being so entrenched and natural that it manifests itself instinctively.

To finish, I will go back to Rosenzweig:

What we mean by Judaism, the Jewishness of the Jewish human being, is nothing that can be grasped in “religious literature” or even in “religious life”; nor can it be entered as one’s “creed” in the civil registry of births, marriages and deaths. The point is simply that it is no entity, no subject among other subjects, no one sphere of life among other spheres of life; it is not what the century of emancipation with its cultural mania wanted to reduce it to. It is something inside the individual that makes him a Jew, something infinitesimally small yet evident in every gesture and every word—especially in the most spontaneous of them. . . . It is only lived—and perhaps not even that. One is it.[8]

Though this is a journal filled with Jewish thoughts and references to Jewish texts, we should heed Rosenzweig’s words and remember that Judaism is not simply a canon of works and practices. The Jewish tradition inculcates a mode of thought. It promotes a way of thinking gleaned from history and texts that manifests itself most purely in actions as simple and natural as swaying back and forth in worship.

[1] (Arnold, p. 185)

[2] Though there are a number of examples from the Talmud and possibly even the Bible which serve as examples of shucklen as a pious activity, I am more interested here in how Jews have self-reflectively understood the practice ubiquitously throughout the communities in which they were raised.

[3] Kuzari 2:79-80

[4] וירא העם וינועו. על כן מתנענעים בשעת לימוד התורה לפי שהתורה ניתנה באימה ברתת ובזיע

[5] Proverbs 20:27

[6] Likkutei Amarim Tanya, Chapter 19

[7] Rituals of Childhood: Jewish Acculturation in Medieval Europe – Ivan Marcus – Page 73

[8] (Rosenzweig, pp. 215-216) Emphasis my own.