Loosely translated, the word schuckel means to bend back and forth while davening, and, in some extreme cases, even to sway from side to side. Schuckeling is something many Jews do when they pray. I have no idea why they do it and I’m not sure that everyone who schuckels knows either. They just do it! In spite of being curious about this, it does not seem important enough for me to bother the rabbi. Purim just passed and Pesach is drawing close, and rabbis have more important things to focus on than my curiosity. Instead, I conducted my own personal mini-survey, and I came up with several reasons for why people schuckel.
I asked only yeshiva-educated men, and their answers were varied. One person told me it was because in past years there may have been many more men than there were Siddurim, so several men had to share a single Siddur. As a result, and to be polite, each man would bend close to look at the page and then straighten up and step back to give another a chance to bend close and look at the page. So there was a lot of bending forward. While that was a plausible explanation, I remained unconvinced so I continued with my survey. Another person told me that the power of the written word in the Siddur was so awesome and awe-inspiring that after bending over to look, one had to pull away for a few seconds to recover.
In all, I have heard several explanations for the bending forward that we refer to as schuckeling, but none satisfies me. There were so many explanations that I am not certain that anyone is really sure about the reason for the schuckeling.
It is possible that some people think that schuckeling makes their praying seem more intense. Possibly they may feel that when they bend and then straighten up again it is almost like bowing to the Creator. That might be true, but I don’t buy it because I was never taught that we should continuously bow down when we daven—only at certain times during the davening. Unquestionably, my education has its holes, but there is one thing I am sure of—I know that I was never taught that schuckeling makes davening more meaningful or that Hashem wants us to do it. Most women don’t do it. I never used to do it. Schuckeling is done most often by men.
However, over time things have changed and now I, too, schuckel when I daven. It makes little difference to me that it isn’t something most females do. The reason for my schuckeling has nothing to do with the intensity of my prayers or my devotion. I do it for a practical reason. It provides me with physical comfort. For the past few years I have been suffering with serious back pain. Physical therapy has not provided me with long-term relief, and exercise hasn’t helped much either. I am pain-free only when I sit or when I am prone, but standing in one position poses a major problem. If I must stand, the only relief I get is if I am able to keep moving. Sometimes I shift from one foot to the other, and other times I repeatedly bend forward and then straighten up. In spite of these attempts to relieve myself of pain, my time limit for remaining upright is somewhere between three to five minutes.
The problem does not occur only when I am in shul. It happens everywhere and anywhere. When I am standing on line in a bank waiting for a teller to be free or when I am on a line at the supermarket waiting to get checked out, my back hurts. And when the pain becomes too intense, in order to provide myself with some temporary relief, I simply bend over in an attempt to stretch out my spine. Unless there is a chair nearby for me to sit in, I throw caution to the wind and, regardless of who might be watching, I bend forward. I put any embarrassment aside by telling myself that people will probably think I am looking on the floor for something that I must have dropped, such as money or an earring.
All of this has led me to draw a possible conclusion for why people schuckel. Perhaps there was once a rebbe, or maybe several rebbes, who suffered with back pain and, in order to find relief, they did as I do. The sufferers may have bent over every few seconds to do a spinal stretch. Observing this, members of the congregation may have drawn the conclusion that bending was an important part of the davening and so they, too, began to bend forward and back at regular intervals. Things such as this have a tendency to catch on, so, possibly, before long, everybody was doing it. Whatever the legitimate reason, it has gone on for years, and perhaps even for centuries.
I sometimes wish I had a genuine explanation for schuckeling, but at this point, even if I got the real reason, how would I know it was the right explanation? It is reminiscent of people who go to more than one physician in order to get a second and even a third opinion. I have always pondered this. How does the patient know for certain which opinion is the right one? And that is similar to how I feel as a result of the many different explanations and theories I have heard about why Jews schuckel. I got several opinions but I have no way to know which is actually the correct one. I remain curious about it. That’s the way it is
Hannah Berman lives in Woodmere and gives private small-group lessons in mah-jongg and canasta. She can be reached at Savtahannah@aol.com or 516-295-4435.