Millions miss a meal or two each day.
Help us change that! Click to donate today!
The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
The various gestures and postures expressive of homage. In religious adorations these gestures and postures were originally innate and natural expressions of religious feeling, but in the course of religious development they became merely external, without conscious regard to what they were supposed to express. From the time that man conceived his god in accordance with the analogies of the physical world around him (see see ANTHROPOMORPHISM), the relationship of man to God expressed itself also in accordance with the characteristics of the two factors—man and God. Thus, with the ancient Hebrews, kissing and stroking the idol was one of the oldest characteristics of worship; so, too, their kinsmen, the Arabs, manifested reverence toward their stone images mainly by these two methods of caress (Wellhausen, "Reste d. Arabischen Heidenthums," p. 109). The Jews, in prophetic times, practised the kissing of Baal (1 Kings, 19:18) and also of the golden calves (Hosea, 13:2). Where the idol was inaccessible, it was considered sufficient to throw a kiss with the hand—a form of adoration widely prevalent among the Greeks and Romans of antiquity (see Job, 31:27). The Latin adoratio and the Greek προσκνυεῖν, which are the terms generally used for adoration, signified, originally, this kiss from the hand. The significance of stroking the idol inancient Israel is shown by the expression ("to implore God's grace"), which, according to Marti ("Geschichte der Jüdischen Religion," p. 34), originally meant "to propitiate the god" by stroking the face of the idol (compare Psalms 45:13; Proverbs 19:6, Heb.). To appear barefooted in the sanctuary was another ancient Semitic mode of adoration, as may be seen from Exodus 3:5 and Joshua 5:15; nd also from the fact that the heathen Arabs performed their sacred pilgrimage barefoot (Wellhausen, c. 110). The underlying idea seems to have been to avoid polluting the deity residing in the shrine by bringing into that shrine the dust of the street.
In Prophetical Times.
With the spiritual development of Jewish worship—in other words, with the triumph of the prophetic idea—the ancient Forms of Adoration could not remain unchanged, and were therefore, like so many other ancient customs, adapted to the newer religious views. Thus, the various gestures and positions of the body at prayer—especially in the preexilic period—betray quite distinctly their origin in the old places of worship. The spreading of the hands at prayer, frequently mentioned in the older portions of Scripture (Isaiah 1:15, Exodus 9:29), is, as the Assyrian bas-relief of Jews before Sennacherib indicates, the gesture of one standing before a superior and spreading his hands in petition toward him (Babelon, "Manual of Oriental Antiquities," p. 103, plate 1). Representing, as this Assyrian picture does, actually the attitude of entreaty toward a human king, there is no doubt that the religious mode of this same gesture was originally identical with it; hence the representations by Stade, Nowack, Benzinger, and most moderns, which depict it as similar to that of the Egyptian priests, with hands extended toward an altar, must be rejected. The adoration proper of the Bible, namely, lying prone with the face touching the ground, is a survival from the older sanctuaries. The Hebrew word for this gesture is ("to prostrate oneself"), usually combined with ("to fall down in surprise"; Joshua 5:14; Job, 1:20); at other times preceded by some form of the root ("to bend the knee"); for the full ("prostration") was preceded by a bending of the knee. The Old Testament mentions the Semitic practise of setting one's foot upon the neck of the conquered foe (Joshua 10:24, Psalms 110:1), a custom also mentioned in the Assyrian inscriptions (Riehm, "Handwörterbuch des Biblischen Alterthums, p. 889, plate). It was a sign of complete subjugation, and was expressed symbolically by the ceremony of proskynesis ("lying down"), as shown, for instance, by the tribute-bearing legates on the Assyrian bas-reliefs, and was commonly practised among the Hebrews toward people of rank, or in the presence of the idol to whom one wished to express complete subjection. That the prophets have no words of reproach for this form of adoration—so inappropriate to the invisible God whom no place could contain—shows only how deeply this religious form of reverence had taken root in the habits of the people. The standing posture at prayer was also not reproved by them, although this was, as the Talmud declares it, "the attitude of the slave before his master" (Shab. 10a).
It is difficult to interpret the posture described in 1 Kings, 18:42, where Elijah at prayer is represented as having "cast himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees" (compare Ta'an. 3:8). This probably refers to the custom prevailing among the Arabs of sitting solemnly, during a portion of the prayer, in an attitude in which the head can easily touch the ground. That this was no unusual posture at prayer may be seen from the fact that it was practised among the Jews about the year 60 of the common era (Ber. 34b). Probably the passage, 2 Samuel 7:18—where it is stated that King David went into the house of the Lord and sat there—is to be similarly explained as referring to a peculiar and solemn mode of sitting.
Exilian and Postexilian Times.
Influenced by the Assyrians, among whom the act of kneeling in token of submission was quite general—as shown in the Assyrian delineations of the kneeling envoys from tributary nations—the Jews adopted this form of religious adoration(1 Kings, 8:54; Ezra, 9:6, and other passages). But the passage in 1 Kings. 19:18, referring to kneeling down before Baal, must be understood as applying to prostrate adoration, which was preceded, as already stated, by a bending of the knee. About this time, too, the practise of spreading the hands wide at prayer was modified in consideration of the conception of the heavenly God, toward whom the hands were to be raised in the direction of heaven whither the seat of God had been transferred (1 Kings, 8:22,54; Lamentations 3:41). A practise originating in the period of exile was that of turning the face during prayer toward the Holy Land, as the place favored by God (1 Kings, 8:48; Daniel 6:11 [A. V. 10]).
The scanty literary remains of the last three pre-Christian centuries contain so little concerning the Forms of Adoration that it is probable no essential modifications were made in them. The old hishtaḥawayah Form of Adoration was the favorite one in the Second Temple, and in accordance with the pharisaic love of minutiæ the number of bows in the Temple was exactly fixed. Every visitor to the sanctuary had thirteen to perform, with the hands and feet spread out and the face touching the ground (Mishnah Sheḳ. 6:1,3; Tosef. ib. 2:17). Other optional forms are mentioned, such as (Ber. 34b) bending the knee with the face touching the ground, and kissing the floor of the Temple (Suk. 53a,). When blessing the people in the Temple the priests raised their hands toward heaven; this practise, as we have seen, is the postexilian fashion of spreading the hands. But when the priestly benediction was pronounced in the synagogue, where it very early became an essential portion of the public service (DUKAN), the older fashion of spreading the hands horizontally was employed (Mishnah Soṭah, 7:6). After every sacrifice the priests had to make the full prostration (Mishnah Tamid, 6:1,2). A further form of the is the the sudden and complete prostration with the face to the ground, which took place only once a year, on the Day of Atonement, when the high priest pronounced the Ineffable Name, on hearing which all present threw themselves on the ground (Yer. Yoma, 3:40d. The Mishnah in Bab. Yoma, 66a, is a later insertion; see "Diḳduḳe Soferim" on the passage).
During Shema' and Shemoneh-Esreh.
It is highly probable, in view of the great importance attached by the Pharisees to prayers, and of their love for rule and regulation, that those Forms of Adoration described in the oldest portions of the Mishnah date from the pre-Christian time. About the time of Jesus there was a dispute between the Hillelites and the Shammaites concerning the proper attitude in which to recite the Shema'. The latter, in opposition to the former, who were indifferent as to posture, insisted that this prayer must be said standing in the morning; but that, in the evening, the aforementioned posture of solemn inclination was the appropriate one. This dispute lasted until nearly the end of the first Christian century (Mishnah Ber. 1:3). The chief prayer, the Eighteen Benedictions, was, however, always said standing (Mishnah Ber. 5:1; Gem. 30a). Hence the name "'Amidah" (Standing) for the Eighteen Benedictions. Thus, in the New Testament it is said, "The Pharisee stood and prayed" (Luke, 18:11); and "they love to pray standing" (Matthew 6:5). Prostration also occurred in the daily prayers, but not on festival days (B. M. 59b, where it is mentioned with reference to Eliezer b. Hyrcanus, a younger contemporary of the apostles).
As a result of the adoption by the Christian Church of most of the Jewish Forms of Adoration, it came about that in Palestine, where the opposition between Synagogue and Church grew constantly stronger and more hostile, the old Forms of Adoration came to be looked upon with disfavor. Toward the end of the second century, the Palestinian teachers, relying on Leviticus 26:1, took as meaning to spread oneself, and taught that it was forbidden outside of the Temple to prostrate oneself upon stone pavement, which was the usual flooring of synagogues, churches, and heathen temples (Sifra, Behar, end; Meg. 22b). Thus it came about, some decades later, that when Rab, the founder of rabbinical learning in Babylonia, returned to his home from Palestine, he ostentatiously remained standing in the synagogue when all others threw themselves prostrate on the ground. Since, however, opposition to Christianity was no factor of religious life in Babylonia, as it was in Palestine, and there was, therefore, no necessity for modifying ancient religious customs in obedience to it, the Palestinian prohibition of prostration was modified in Babylonia to the extent that the complete proskynesis, with extended hands and feet,was forbidden outside of the Temple; other Forms of Adoration were permitted (Meg. c.).
Relative to other forms of gesture at prayer, the following may be mentioned: the bowing or bending of the upper part of the body at the beginning and the end of the Eighteen Benedictions—a relic of the old ("bending of the knee"); the raising of the eyes (Yeb. 105b; in Luke, 18:13, it was the poor sinner, the publican, who would not raise his eyes to heaven, indicating that it was the Jewish custom to do so); the placing of the feet close together during the recital of the principal prayer (Ber. 10a); and the placing the hand over the eyes while saying the Shema' (Ber. 13b). Of historical interest is the habit of Rabba (R. Abba b. Joseph) to fold the hands at prayer (Shab. 10a), which rather controverts the usual supposition that this gesture is of Germanic origin (see especially Vierordt, in "Studien und Kritiken," 1853, p. 89). It is by no means impossible that this gesture was borrowed from Semites, particularly as it seems to have been a common custom among the Assyrians, as shown by the Assyrian representations of petitioners folding their hands (Vigouroux, "Dictionnaire de la Bible," 1:235).
The Talmud regulated religious ceremonies to such minute details that not much remained for later times to do in this particular; hence we find that the medieval Forms of Adoration are identical with those of the Talmud. In post-Talmudic times, the full prostration (proskynesis) took place only on the Day of Atonement, and then four times, and on New-year's Day once; while the , originally a full prostration, had been modified as early as the time of the Geonim into a mere bowing the head forward upon the arm. Possibly the habit of swaying at prayers, mentioned by Judah ha-Levi in the "Cuzari" (2:79,80), was known in the academies, and transplanted thence into the synagogue; for not alone does Samuel ha-Nagid (eleventh century) speak of the practise of swaying while studying (ed. Harkavy, p. 101), but, as Dukes remarks, Mohammed was acquainted with the habit, and the Talmudic (Shab. 104a) must mean the same, for the Arabic lexicographers (see Fikh al-lugha, Paris edition, § 3, p. 97, 14) explain nawadan (= Hebrew ) as "to shake," applied only to the Jewish mode of shaking the person at prayer or study ("Lit. Blatt. d. Orients," 5:707).
In their endeavors to purify Judaism from all rabbinical statutes, the Karaites rejected all rabbinical Forms of Adoration, and returned to the ancient Biblical usages. According to the Karaites, the indispensable Forms of Adoration at prayer are the following eight: (a) bending of the head, which is their interpretation of this word; (b) bending of the upper part of the body until it touches the knees; (c) kneeling; (d) a violent bowing of the head; (e) complete prostration (proskynesis); (f) raising the hands; (g) standing; (h) raising the eyes to heaven (Elijah Bashiatsi, "Aderet Eliyahu," 104b, Odessa, 1870; compare E. Deinard, "Massa Krim," p. 86).
Christian Forms of Jewish Origin.
The three principal postures of the body at prayer prevalent among Jews in the time of Jesus—standing, kneeling, and prostration—were adopted by the Christians, at times to the minutest details. Among the early Christians the most customary of all the Forms of Adoration was standing, adopted from the Jewish attitude during the "Eighteen Benedictions"—the prayer of prayers. This may be seen from the numerous illustrations of that time in Aringhi's "Roma Subterranea," Rome, 1651-59. Their outspread hands and their faces turned eastward correspond exactly with the Jewish customs already mentioned, namely, with the ancient practise of turning toward Palestine, which for Jews in Europe is eastward, and with the practise prevalent in all synagogues, of placing the ark in the eastern wall. The custom of kneeling, especially in private prayer, was likewise adopted by the earliest Christians (Luke, 22:41; Acts, 7:60; 9:40; 21:5; Ephesians 3:14, etc.) and became general (see "Hermæ Pastor," 1:1; Clemens Romanus, 1:48; Tertullian, "Ad Scapulam,"; Origen, "De Oratione," ). Less prevalent in the early days of Christianity was the prostration to the ground, employed only on special occasions (Socrates, "Historia Ecclesiastica," 3:13,17). How completely the Church ritual of early times was dominated by the Synagogue is shown by the usage prevalent in the Christian Church, and mentioned by Tertullian ("De Corona Militis," ), that on Sunday, and during the whole week of Pentecost, prayer was not to be said kneeling. The synagogal custom (minhag), as old as the first Christian century, omits the prostration on all festivals and semi-festivals (B. M. 59b).
But Islam, even more than Christianity, was influenced by the Jewish Forms of Adoration. At first Mohammed commanded that the faces of the faithful should, during prayer, be turned toward Jerusalem; and he only recalled this ordinance when he found that Jews were not to be captured by any such device. The very complicated postures adopted by Moslems at prayer (see Lane's pictures in "Modern Egyptians," 1:75) are probably borrowed from the Jews of Arabia, who, being far removed from Jewish lore, have preserved many archaic customs. These illustrations show all the Forms of Adoration above described as being existent among Jews, and especially that unusual form of sitting solemnly with the head upon the knees.
- Wellhausen, Reste des Arabischen Heidenthums, pp. 105 et seq.;
- Stade, Gesch. d. Volkes Israel, 1:488,489;
- Nowack, Lehrbuch d. Hebräischen Archaeologie, 2:259-261;
- Benzinger, Arch. pp. 463, 464;
- Riehm, Handwörterbuch des Biblischen Alterthums, 1:484 et seq.;
- Augusti, Handb. d. Christlichen Archaeologie, 2:149 et seq.
These files are public domain.
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Genuflexion'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tje/g/genuflexion.html. 1901.