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October 7, 2015 | 24th Tishrei 5776
Related Subject(s): Prayer; Keva and Kavanah

  1. Bending the knee and bowing the head are ritual gestures that traditionally occur only three times during the Amidah. With Avot/Imahot, it is done twice. Bend and bow at Baruch and erect oneself before YHVH. The third place is not at the end of Gevurot. People who don't know the actual custom have simply concluded erroneously that if one bows at Baruch in Avot, then one should bow at the end of Gevurot where there is a Baruch. The third place for bowing is at the beginning of Birkat Hoda-ah, the blessing of thanksgiving. One bows on saying "Modim," the first word in Birkat Hoda-ah. The word "Modim" always appears in the Aleinu, "va-anachnu kore-im umishtachavim umodim" - where we also bend the knee and bow.

    I recommend the following book on liturgy for those working on worship committees: Abraham Millgram, "Jewish Worship," Jewish Publication Society, 1971. Millgram, p. 358: "Too much bowing, however, was discouraged. 'If one,' says the Talmud, 'wants to bow down at the end of each benediction and at the beginning of each benediction, he is instructed not to do so' (Berakhot 34a). Too much bowing is ostentatiously pious and savors of hypocrisy."

    There are, of course, divergent opinions in the Talmud, which provides excellent documentary evidence for the saying "two Jews, three opinions." One rabbi quoted his teacher that one could bow down at the appropriate places in the Amidah until all the vertebrae were loosened. Another rabbi said that if one simply bows his [or her] head, he [or her] need do no more. Berakhot 28b. From Millgram, also on p. 358.

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  2. As worship committee chair, I have tried several times in my congregation, with the blessing of my rabbi, to teach worship choreography. It seems that when Reform congregations started to adopt worship movement, a number of moves were born out of ignorance, with one person doing it and everyone following. These include bowing during the Gevurot, bending knees where they're not traditionally bent, and for some, bowing at every Baruch attah. It's not minhag at our congregation to bow during worship (except during the Aleinu), but for many it's a personal choice. The untraditional bowing has lessened over the years, but not disappeared. I don't know any antidote other than continued education. I always stress that people should be free to do what makes worship meaningful to them, as long as it doesn't disturb others. But they should choose out of knowledge, not ignorance.
    650 families

  3. The act of bowing during the Amidah was once explained to me as a metaphor for the behavior one would demonstrate if one were approaching the throne of a great ruler: bowing as one was acknowledged and introduced, introducing one's self in light of his/her ancestors, showing praise and respect, submitting an expression of thanksgiving and/or petition, and then bowing as one completed the audience and left the room. (In fact, I think that metaphor was what we used to explain as a metaphor for prayer when we used the UAHC's Bridge to Prayer text.) The metaphor still works for me.

  4. Another source for worship choreography is Sefer Ahavah from the Mishneh Torah, by Maimonides.

    However, our congregation does not bow at all, perhaps for two reasons: 1) the actions of bowing is either anachronistic or illogical given a rational God model; 2) even if one subscribes to a non rational God model, most in our synagogue do not approach said God model in a totally subservient or Master/servant way, as bowing esp. during the Hodaah would indicate (think of Wayne & Garth in front of Aerosmith--"we're not worthy!").

    But, I personally have no qualms with prayer choreography, following the lead of Mordechai Kaplan and behavioral psychologists, linking physical actions to spiritual ideals and communal identity. Lastly, I think we could all use a bit more awe in our lives.


  5. We started practicing the custom of turning to the door when we do the last verse of L'chah Dodi at our informal 6 p.m. Kabbalat Shabbat Service this year. The first time we did it, I explained the particular tradition. Subsequently, before the prayer is done, I simply remind people that we rise and face the door before the final verse to welcome the Sabbath Queen and then turn to face the front for the final refrain. People seem to like the idea.

    The explanation is below for those interested:

    Come my friend, to meet the Bride! In addition to inaugurating the Sabbath by the singing of psalms, the Safed Cabalists, like the Rabbis of old, personified the Shabbat as a Queen, as a Bride, to be welcomed each week with radiant joy. A number of their hymns on this theme have come down to us; the most popular of them is the L?chah Dodi, by Rabbi Solomon Halevy Alkabetz, composed about the year 1540. His name appears as an acrostic in the Hebrew. The idea of the welcome underlying the poem goes back to Talmudic times. In Safed, white robed men and boys went out in procession up the hills and own the dales chanting psalms, and sang in the Sabbath to the strains of the Song of Songs. To show honor to the Sabbath Queen, we rise and face the door before the last verse, to bid her welcome.

    400+ Households

  6. If your service leader simply speaks up during the song (L?chah Dodi) at the appropriate point and states: "Let us all turn to greet the Sabbath bride", all will know the appropriate time and a bit about the reason why. Those familiar with the custom will turn back at the proper time and I expect most others will follow suit. A bit of teaching regarding the history of the Sabbath as the bride beforehand, if not always...sometimes, would be a lovely educational component. It is a wonderful custom that underlines the importance of Shabbat. Some of these "old" traditions are well worth incorporating in our services.

    650 households

  7. Nov 2006 Digest 180

                We used to stand for the Sh’ma and V'ahavta as it is all part of the Sh’ma, but it did seem to be a lot of standing and sitting which does break the concentration. We have now changed to following the traditional choreography, i.e., sitting following the Bar’chu until the Amidah. However, some members still prefer to stand and do so, sitting for the V'ahavta--something I find rather odd. If they are standing for the Sh’ma, then surely they should stand for all of it. In our [religious] school children are told to either stand or sit, whichever they find most comfortable. The majority remain seated.

  8. Oct 2007 Digest 199

          Initially, the Rabbis directed that orientation (note, BTW, that that  word actually means "directing oneself eastward--toward the orient!") in prayer be toward the sanctuary ("Holy of Holies") on the Temple Mount, the chamber in which God's Presence resided (Mishnah Berakhot 4:5-6; Tosefta Berakhot 3:6, 3:16). Archaeological finds of ancient synagogues in the Land of Israel (mostly from the 5th-6th c., but Masada from the first) mostly have orientation toward Jerusalem, whichever direction that may be. Eastward orientation (in the western diaspora) later became conventional. That's why you have the development of a mizrah or shiviti plaque on a wall to indicate which way is east. Reform sanctuaries built in the late 19th or 20th c. in this country do not always face east.

    Rick Sarason, HUC-JIR, Cincinnati

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