Standing before a King
The Shulchan Aruch writes a halacha in Orach Chaim 96:1 that is based on the gemara in Berachot 23b: One should not hold an item that will disturb one’s praying of the Shemoneh Esrei (the standing, “silent” prayer — the Amida). According to Rashi there are three basic categories for this rule: 1) Things that will cause a monetary loss if they fall; i.e., money that will scatter or bread that will be ruined; 2) Holy items like a Sefer Torah or holy books and the like; 3) Any item that might cause the worshiper harm if it falls, such as a knife.
Rabbeinu Yonah disagrees, explaining that the list of items in the gemara are not meant to limit the prohibition of holding something to the above three categories, but rather constitutes what was commonly held by people. According to him, one should not hold onto any item during the Shemoneh Esrei. The Piskei Teshuvah explains that the reason for this is that it is not proper to speak before a king or noble person with something in one’s hands. And in prayer one stands before the King of kings.
There is a machloket (disagreement) amongst the poskim on this matter. According to some authorities one needs to take care not to hold only the items that fit one of the above three categories (Magen Avraham, Ma’amar Mordechai). Some poskim explain this to be the opinion of the Shulchan Aruch as well. The Taz, Chida and others rule stringently in accordance with Rabbeinu Yonah. The Mishnah Berurah cites both opinions, while the Kaf HaChaim rules to be strict in this matter.
It is interesting to note that whatever the correct understanding of the above gemara is, since one praying Shemoneh Esrei must act as though he is standing before a king, ideally he should not hold anything (except a prayer book) in his hands. An accepted custom is to place one’s hands over his heart (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 95:3; this was also the custom of the Arizal).