“Getting Down During the High Holidays” – Musings of the Season
The Tradition of Ritual Prostration
A couple of weeks ago my friend Brad sent me a lovely article by Rav Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of United Hebrew Synagogue of the Commonwealth of the United Kingdom titled “Holy days are an annual check to mission drift.” On this note I started the new year.
Jehu son of Omri bowing, on an obelisk from the year 842 BCE
As with most Jewish people, the coming of the High Holidays are profoundly important to me. Thoughts of years past come rushing to the forefront of my mind. There are so many memories to sort through. Each year unique, each memory cherished in their own way.
It is especially so for me, as someone who has returned to observance from secularism; a baal teshuvah. Like many people, it was during the awesomeness of this time of year that I one again found myself and returned home to yiddishkeit (Jewishness). I celebrate this season as my homecoming.
As I began to reminisce I was taken back to a conversation I had over a decade ago with a friend of mine. At the time I was a young secretary working for the Reform movement, who had made friends with a Conservative cantor that also work in the same office. We would often discuss the upcoming liturgy and holidays. One day as we were discussing the uniqueness of the High Holiday liturgy he asked me what I thought was the most profound moment of the services. Without questions I blurted out “the kneeling.” As I related this to him he smirked and we discussed dozens of unique stories we had for ritual prostration.
The story that stuck in my mind at the time was that of me being dragged to High Holiday services at the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles during the mid-1990s by my partner at the time. I myself had mostly been educated in an Conservative background, but already heavily leaned to Orthodox tradition and thought since the services were mostly orthodox in approach it would be nice to do something that kept his interest and still respected my sensibilities. The services were beautiful and hamish. All went well until at one point in the service, seeing what was coming next I got up and walked over to the front and facing wall of the hall that had a picture of a chassidic rebbe on it, took it down off the wall, turned it around, then proceeded to take the position of prostration. The dirty looks for my embarrassed partner ended when I got pats on the back from the rabbis and various celebrities for my actions. My cantor friend laughed and said, “but at least you did it!”
Most of you will only get the punchline of this if you understand the tradition… so here it goes…
Of all the positions I can think of, the position of kneeling is one that is the most uncomfortable for the Jew; but not so much a physical discomfort, but an internal discomfort. Unlike other religions, the position of kneeling is uncommon and unfamiliar in Judaism. And even when present, kneeling is not an end in and of itself. It leads to the rare occurrence of prostration.
Only once during the Rosh haShanah liturgy and four times in the Yom Kippur services do Jews follow the formula as described in the Alenu prayer, “v’anachnu korim u’mishatachavim u’modim / but we bend our knee, bown down, and offer praise.”
The tradition of prostration goes back all the way to the Holy Temple itself, when the Divine Name of Havayah – YHVH, the Name of Hashem – was said in the most Holy of Hollies; as the Name was pronounced the people would fall down on their faces, touch their head completely to the ground and say in response, “Baruch shem kavod malchuto l’olam vaed / blessed is His sovereign Name forever and ever!” (Talmud Bavli Yoma 6b)
After the destruction on the Temple the ritual of prostration was incorporated into the Alenu prayer as early as the third century C.E. Now the Alenu prayer, being so old and well known has had several revisions to it. Not all of them, however, were consensual. Under both Muslim and Christian rule the Alenu prayer was often fiercely attacked as blasphemy because of the lines that preceded the mentioning of kneeling:
“He has not made us |
like the nations of the world |
nor caused us to be like the families |
of the earth |
nor has He assigned us a portion like theirs |
nor a lot like that of all their multitudes |
for they bow to vanity and nothingness” |
וְלֹא שָׂמָנוּ כְּמִשְׁפְּחוֹת
שֶֹׁלּא שָֹם חֶלְקֵנוּ כָּהֶם,
וְגוֹרָלֵנוּ כְּכָל הֲמוֹנָם.
שֶׁהֵם מִשְׁתַּחֲוִים לְהֶבֶל וְלָרִיק
“Alenu” prayer, Nusush haAri z”l
Under persecution the key words of bowing to vanity and nothingness disappeared from the liturgy at several times through out history.
Ironically as these words disappeared in the European liturgy, the tradition of bowing also fell into disuse independently of this liturgical imposition. It has been assumed the reason kneeling fell into disuse was in order to avoid the appearance of following practices of Christians and Muslims.
It would not be until the Chassidic movement, which incorporated the Nusach Sephard into the Ashkenazi tradition, that the full Alenu would be restored and the tradition of prostration would also once again be incorporated into the High Holiday services. But naturally this impact was first limited to the realm of Chassidut and not to Eastern Europe at large.
With the incorporation of prostration into the liturgy it was understood that it would follow the general halachic premises (Jewish laws) regarding prayer; when bowing one should only bow facing the eastern wall towards the Aron haKodesh (Ark of the Torah Scrolls), towards the direction of Jerusalem, and one should not bow facing any object. Legal discourse is rich with statements to avoid even the appearance of bowing towards any object or image. So much so that the tradition for many orthodox is not to even bend down to tie ones shoe; if one needs to tie their shoe, one lifts up on something like a stool or such to tie their shoe.
Through persecution there also became and unwillingness to bow. Our unwillingness grew to be a resistance. As Jews our protest to idolatry begins even before the thought of praying to another god, in that we cannot even take the position necessary to show sincerity. It became ingrained into us to bear an unwillingness to bow to another oppressor, because we bow to no man, just G-d. It grew to be a symbol of confidence before our G-d, and pride as individuals.
As liberal Judaism grew, being an outgrowth of the Eastern European tradition, it did not see necessary to take on the tradition of prostration. Only later would it be discussed and rejected as an unnecessary ritual of Temple origins we no longer follow, and secondly some objected to it as a demeaning position. Kneeling and unnecessary bowing thus in American Judaism became a faux pas to always be avoided.
One of the stories my cantor friend related to me was once being at a service at a distinguished Conservative shul in West Los Angeles, he described the chaos that ensued because two Jewish men from Yemen (where ritual prostration is known daily) fell on their faces flat out on the floor when the Torah was taken from the Ark and passed before them. We both laughed in hysteria because we both knew, without stating it, the type of tongue lashing they would receive. It would go something to the tune of, “We don’t do that, we worship with dignity! When Jews worship we stand. Think about it, our most central prayer is the Amidah, which means to stand!” Though the castigating individuals would be right in principal, they would be wrong in that the position of submission is not forbidden, its just rare and allowed only with cautious use.
I guess for this reason it is so awesome an experience for me when it happens. I have found that every years, the single act of bowing, kneeling and laying my head to the ground comes with great emotion. When everyone, small and great, comes and bows before Hashem. It is done with carefulness, purposefully, one bows exaggeratedly long bearing in mind that they are fulfilling a great and rare mitzvah (commandment). For a moment we step back into a Temple era tradition that is both humbling and uplifting at the same time. We bow to recognize two things; G-d as our King on Rosh haShannah, and our need for sincere repentance on Yom Kippur.
It is reminiscent of the age honored tradition in constitutional monarchies of Kissing Hands. It was the tradition that the Prime Minister at the start of their government would come before the sovereign and they would kneel, to be commanded that upon arising they are to go about the task of opening parliament. Though today there is most likely no kneeling, or actual kissing of hands, this ceremonial first meeting still takes place in the United Kingdom. Tony Blair has stated in the past that he found the tradition to be inspiring, in that it reinforces the concept that one is accountable to someone other than themselves.
I think it is wholly appropriate that at the Jewish New Year we are called as our first act after after offering up our worship to G-d, to bow down and acknowledge Hashem as King, and only then do we get up to go about all our other tasks.
For me it has become a moment of pure reverence, and secretly inside my heart a relieving moment in which I get to show my weakness before an all enabling G-d. My strength is shown not in how fiercely to attention I stand, but by my ability to compose my unruly self and show submission to godliness.
It would do us well as Jews to seek to keep this traditional form of submission to G-d. That once a year we refocus ourselves, with the holiday seasons coming again to remind us of where we are at in our year, and pointing us joyfully towards the blessings of a renewed year. And during this most holy season we not only bring ourselves in line with the seasons, in this call of submission to G-d we are collecting ourselves to make sure our hearts are in line, focused on proliferating the greatness of the Name of Hashem our G-d. It would do us all well to bow down, and not arise until we are sure that our hearts are focused “lifnei melech, malachei hamalchim, hakadosh, baruch hu / towards the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.” More than just reminiscing on the past years, lost in memories of where we have been and have far we have come, we should focus on the directions of our hearts.