As a child I remember standing in services looking forward to the chance to bend my knees and bow. It was this exciting change of pace, a time for me to do what the adults were doing. As a teen, I remember seeing how some people bowed and others didn’t and I wondered what was going on — so I went to the rabbi with my question, “What’s all this bowing about?”
Maybe you have wondered the same thing. Perhaps you’ve been standing in prayer and suddenly you notice people are bowing and so, you too bow! But you’ve always wondered, why do I bow here and not there? Sometimes it may even look like people are bowing more than others, so who’s doing it “right”?
This question of “doing it right,” is an interesting one in prayer, especially in Reform Judaism, where we tend to focus much more on how it makes us feel and less on “is this exactly how we were prescribed and commanded to do it.”
As has been codified in our law codes (like the Shulchan Aruch), there are in fact specific moments to bow. One common place of confusion is the thought that we are supposed to bow every time we say Baruch atah Adonai, but our law codes state otherwise.
At the bottom of this article you will find a list of all the times in which we are prescribed to move — bow, bend left/right, take a few steps forward/back. I’ve listed the places, especially related to the prayers you would see at Temple Emanu-El on a Friday night.
But why do we bow in the first place?
We can trace bowing all the way back to our Tanakh. At that time it was likely a full prostration, and by the time it was talked about it in the Talmud, it was generally a waste/knee bow, but still we wonder, why?!
Bowing is a sign of servitude, a sign of humility, like one would historically bow before royalty, so to do we bow before God in acknowledgment of God’s reign. Bowing too often would be like we’re trying too hard, so when the bowing was codified, it was set for certain prayers at certain times. More practically, bowing makes sure that you don’t pass out from locking your knees, it keeps you engaged in the prayer, and it makes you think about what you’re doing!
If you have more questions about prayer choreography, reach out, I’d love to have the conversation!
Typical Places of Movement in a Reform Shabbat Evening Service
- In the final verse when we say, bo’i kallah, bo’i kallah, we bow to our sides as we welcome the Sabbath bride
- Leader bows in first line (Bar’chu et Adonai)
- Community bows in second line (Bar’chu et Adonai)
Amidah on Friday Night:
- Before you begin
- Three steps back and three steps forward (or just three steps forward if there is room) as the prayer begins adonai sefatai tiftach
- Avot V’Imahot
- Bow at first Baruch atah Adonai
- Bow at second Baruch atah Adonai
- Modim (if you choose to recite during silent prayer)
- Long Bow at the beginning through the words Modim anuchnu lach, then rise at she’atah hu
- Bow at end of Modiim – Baruch atah Adonai
- At the end of the Amidah (if you choose to recite during silent prayer)
- At the end of the prayer when you reach Oseh Shalom take three steps back turn to left and say oseh shalom bimromav then bow forward while saying hu as you continue turning right you say ya’aseh shalom aleinu. Begin taking three steps forward while still half bowing and say v’al kol yisrael v’imru amen.
- Bow at korim, u’mishtachavim u’modim
- At the end of the prayer when you reach oseh shalom take three steps back turn to left and say oseh shalom bimromav then bow forward while saying hu as you continue turning right you say ya’aseh shalom aleinu. Begin taking three steps forward while still half bowing and say v’al kol yisrael v’imru amen.