September 13, 2007
From every nation, people stream into Jerusalem. They huddle together to offer their prayers at the Western Wall. The large stones of the Wall are not part of the magnificent temple that Herod the Great built in the first century. Rather, they are part of the retaining wall of the Temple Mount. They are a visible relic of a former glory.
Here rose the Temple, high above the present level of the ground. Here God chose to have His glory dwell. After the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its temple in 70 A.D., Jews have continued to come to where the Temple once stood. Here they shed their tears. Before these silent stones, they pour out their prayers to God.
Each day at the Western Wall, the same moving image impresses the modern pilgrim. Men, young and old, covered in their prayer shawls, swaying back and forth. The pious moving their lips as they send their heartfelt petitions heavenward. Women, separated from men, ululating, rolling their tongues in long, wavering, high-pitched sounds resembling the howl of a wolf, expressing joy at the bar-mitzvah of a young boy at the Wall.
The picture of the Jew swaying in prayer has been repeated over the centuries. This ritual moving forward and back and from side to side is called
shuckling (shokeling). It comes from the Yiddish word meaning "to shake." Already by the Middle Ages, the Jews of Arabia were already notorious for their
. In fact, there is an ancient poem in Arabic that uses the image to describe the swaying of a camel.
Why this practice? The answers range from the practical to the mystical. Some say that moving back and forth helps concentration when standing for a long time. Others respond with a more spiritual meaning. The 13
th century Rabbi Jacob ben Asher links the custom to the biblical verse that says: "And all the people that were in the camp trembled" (Exodus 19:16). When God revealed Himself on Sinai, the mountain and the people quaked in fear and reverence before Him. So, too, the Jews at prayer. As the pious pray and sway, the words of the Psalmist become flesh and blood: “All my bones exclaim who is like you, Lord…” (Psalm 35:10).
Whatever the origin for the practice, shuckling clearly expresses the truth that prayer is offered not just with the spirit, but with the body. We bring to God all that we are. We worship Him not just with thoughts, but with our tongue in song and speech, with bowing and kneeling, sitting and standing. In liturgy, the body is important. The body expresses faith.
One evening I stopped to visit my mom. My niece and her two sons were having dinner with Granny. The older boy, Arber, was eight years old; his brother Alex, two. We were thrilled to hear the excitement in Arber’s voice as he told us of his day in school. Then we noticed that Alex, sitting in his high chair, had taken his cup and his dish and, with a smile from ear to ear, was concluding his version of the Eucharistic Prayer.
This was not the first time his highchair became his altar, nor the last time he was to celebrate Mass for us. I have no doubt that his prayers went right from our kitchen to God’s ears. Besides, there was a lesson that he was teaching us. From birth, he has gone to church. He has watched sometimes quietly, but always attentively, the actions of the priest and the people. Even before he could utter the prayers we say, he was already imitating the bodily gestures of the Liturgy. He wanted to let us know he was one of us.
The bodily gestures that the Liturgy asks us to make together have meaning. They unite us with the people with whom we are worshipping at a particular moment. They make us one in a visible unity with other parish communities throughout the Church of Paterson.
This is the first of two articles that will treat the meaning of bodily gestures at liturgy.