Monday, November 17, 2014

Jewish Prostration in Prayer

"Exalt YHVH, our Powerful Authority, and prostrate toward His Holy Mountain, for Holy is YHVH our  Powerful Authority."  (Psalm 99:9)

Last June (2014) a young Jewish boy broke from a tour group on the Temple Mount and prostrated himself in the direction of the Al Aqsa Mosque, which is believed by many to be the former location of the Jewish Temple (I disagree with this location but that's another blog post). The child was later approached by the Israeli police and an attempted arrest was made since the child broke the rules of the Temple Authority which state that a Jew is prohibited from praying or making any gestures of prayer on the Temple Mount. However, a violation of these rules is not technically illegal and the boy's mother who is also an attorney was able to successfully contest the attempted arrest of her son.
There is a lot that can be said about this scenario and the rules of prohibited conduct on the Temple Mount. However, I am more interested in looking at the boy's gesture of prayer rather than the politics surrounding it. The boy prostrated in prayer and while Jews typically prostrate during the Yom Kippur service each year this boys action directly hearkens back to a time when Jews prostrated daily during prayers.

Prostration in prayer is a common practice amongst Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists and Orthodox, Roman & Coptic Christians, Bahai, Sikhism and Jainism. At one time it was the normal expression of Jewish prayer and is described in the Hebrew Bible and codified in the Talmud as a mandated expression of prayer (Megillah 22b). The Rambam describes prostration in the laws of prayer in his Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Tefillah 5:13). Modern Jews who continue to prostrate routinely in prayer are the Yemenite Jews, Talmide HaRambam and Karaite Jews.
Though prostration was the normal mode of prayer in Judaism from ancient times and Jewish Law (Halacha) requires it (particularly during Tachanun) it was abandoned during the middle ages. Bowing on the knees and prostration during Tachanun may have been done away with due to a reference in the Rambam which states that if a man is as great as Yehoshua ben Nun then they should not prostrate. The Rambam doesn't explain this statement but the later Aruch HaShulchan explains that for in so doing he may lead klal Israel astray if by chance his prayers are not immediately answered. In other words, someone who thinks they are as great as the prophet Yehoshua (Joshua) is exempt because if during their prostration their prayers aren't answered then people will lose faith in God. Of course, this exemption relates only to great Chakhamim (Sages) and there are no Sages as great as Yehoshua ben Nun in our day. It would seem that the minhag of not prostrating developed as a result of some Rabbis who thought very highly of themselves and didn't prostrate. Resultantly the laity, upon observing the Rabbis lack of prostration, ceased prostrating themselves perceiving that this was the correct mode of prayer.
It is also probable that prostration in prayer was forbidden to Jews during Islamic rule just as the 16th century Sultan Murad III forbade Jews to continue their custom of wearing the turban. There is likely several reasons that altogether removed the custom of bowing and prostration from Judaism.
Today in modern society there is a move and zeal towards all things authentic. Many Jews are re-embracing the custom of bowing and prostration during prayer albeit in their personal prayer at home. Few Jews are practicing it publicly in the synagogues as any custom outside of community norm is looked down upon and routinely ridiculed. Jews today can begin implementing the authentic custom of bowing by doing so during the Amidah in every instance where one is to normally bow as this is the custom that was instituted by the great Sanhedrin. Instead of simply bowing at the waist one should descend to sit upon the knees and then bow over so that the face is close to the floor. At the end of the Amidah one should bow over in like manner and then rise maintaining a bow, take three steps backwards and then rotate to the left and right
during the recitation of the oseh shalom.

After the Amidah one then prostrates completely upon the ground with the nose touching the floor and the arms and legs stretched out in either direction. This is the point when one should pray according to one's personal heart desires and should not recite the liturgy. This concludes the obligatory postures of prayer according to the Halacha. There are other places in prayer that one may bow as well that are not considered obligatory. An example of this is during the recital of the blessings of the Shema.

Bowing and prostration in prayer is a phenomenal experience of humbling oneself and suppressing the ego. It can be a spiritual enlivening experience for one's prayer life and Torah walk. There are a few things to keep in mind when performing prayer in this manner. The Halacha is clear that one should not prostrate upon stone flooring (tile floors and synthetic surfaces are excluded) and the ground should be clean. A prayer rug should be used when one is in an area where the ground is not clean or is of stone construction. Further, when one is in their home praying in this manner it is appropriate to remove one's shoes, which hearkens to the removal of Moses' shoes when he engaged the Transcendent One on holy ground. Some still maintain the custom of washing the hands and feet before prayer since a person is considered in a state of Tamei (impurity) and the washing places one in a state of tahor (purity) in a ritual sense.