I recently read an article that made the following point: Many Orthodox men wear spectacles. It was once assumed that it was strain brought on by the long hours of study in the yeshiva, or Torah schools, that affected the eyesight of so many religious men. However, a study in Israel suggested that much of the blame lay with shockelling - the fervent rocking backward and forward motion that students make as they read the texts, and which causes an incessant change of focus in the eyes leading to myopia. My question is, if this is so, is it worth losing sight over? Is there a religious need for the davening shaking or is it just to stay alert?
With due respect to the study you cite, I have trouble seeing its argument. Many people world-wide wear glasses or need corrective vision despite the fact that they never “shukled” in their life. In fact, I imagine the need for glasses is much more prevalent in societies where reading is central to the culture.
Conversely, many religious men do not “shukle” at all when praying, or pray with their eyes closed, or hold their book in their hands as they sway such that it stays at a constant distance from their eyes, and still they need glasses.
So I must say, I am not swayed by the study’s conclusion but rather lean toward the more Orthodox explanation mentioned in the article. But perhaps I can focus on the second part of your question instead: Is there a need to sway, and if so, why?
There is Scriptural basis for the practice of swaying during Torah learning and prayer, and the practice is discussed in the Jewish legal texts. One general view is that this “shukling” is encouraged (for reasons I’ll discuss below) during both study and prayer. The other general view is that while this is true regarding Torah study and for parts of the prayer service, regarding the silent, standing prayer most closely associated with communing before G-d, one should be still. The later commentators posit that in all cases, it’s a personal decision and one may do what’s most conducive to attaining and maintaining intention in prayer.
There are several reasons given for the practice of “shukling”:
1. King David wrote, “All of my limbs shall proclaim: Who is like You...” (Psalms 35:10). When we praise G-d, we do so with all of our being: the mind, heart, and mouth express the prayer through speech, and the rest of the body does so by moving. Every facet of our self is involved in connecting to our Creator.
2. Solomon taught, “The soul of man is a candle of G-d” (Proverbs 20:27). The candle’s flame constantly sways and flickers as it attempts to ascend on high. Our soul also constantly seeks to rise above the physical world and cleave to its Source. This is especially true during the experience of prayer as we concentrate and focus on our relationship with G-d. Our body, swaying back and forth like a flame, reflects this flickering of the soul.
3. Many verses discuss the need to serve G-d with reverence, fear, trembling and awe. Accordingly, this “shukling” is an external expression of what should be our inner feeling of humility and awe before G-d in general, and in particular, while serving him in worship and prayer. Perhaps paradoxically, it is this idea which is the basis for the opinion that during the silent, standing prayer mentioned above, that one should be perfectly still, as one would appear before a king for whom he has reverence and awe.
4. Our experience in prayer is likened to the way in which the angels minister before G-d. It is for this reason that during the pinnacle of prayer, we stand with our feet together, resembling the way the angels are described as serving G-d with singular purpose. Similarly, the angles are described as “rushing forth” and “turning back” (ratzo v’shov), as they surge with desire to cleave to G-d, then recoil with the realization of their limitation. So too our “shukling” forward and back conveys this dichotomy of reaching for the ideal but returning to the real.
Interestingly, converts to Judaism who prayed in the context of other religions before converting, and to a lesser extent newly-religious Jews, relate an inexplicable inclination to sway during prayer, which they never felt before becoming practicing Jews. While one might attribute this to spiritual acculturation, many of them assert that this motion naturally flows from of a soul interacting with its Creator as a tuning fork resonating in response to a pure tone, or a harp string vibrating at the touch of the musician, or a reed swaying in a caressing breeze.