Is there a reason that people sway back and forth while praying?
I saw a lot of people pray like this, but I'm too shy to ask them why do they do this.
Assuming the question means why do we shockel/shuckle in davening, I found the following article by Rabbi Yaakov Salomon who quotes Rabbi Shimon Schwab ztz"l. He says that our relationship with HaShem in davenning is motivated by love (swaying forward) and fear (moving away). There are those who are against shockeling in davening, see for example here under "Related customs".
I found another excellent answer at Ohr Somayach Ask the Rabbi. He adds, (1) the soul is like a flame flickering and striving upward, (2) shaking allows you to pray with your whole body, (3) when we stand before Hashem in prayer, we tremble in awe of the King of Kings and (4) it originally enabled many people to use one siddur by swaying in and out to read a set of words.
I do it because this way it is more easy to concentrate on the words of the prayers.
One finds swaying both in the context of prayer and Torah study. Since the reasons may be connected, I will discuss both. To paraphrase On the Mainline:
The first source is critical...The first source is a poem of Shemuel Ha-naggid. In this poem he is criticizing the degeneration of Torah study...As an example of their lack of orderliness he mentions their shokeling:
והנה רב ותלמידים מנידים לראשיהם כערער בערבה
The teacher and students were bobbing their head like a tamarisk in the wilderness."
This then is the first incidental mention of shokeling, at least in Jewish sources. Notice that it only mentions it in connection with studying.
Next is the Kuzari, here it is, in Hartwig Hirschfeld's translation:
We see that R. Yehuda Ha-levi too only discusses it in the context of studying, but doesn't mention praying. He gives two reasons. The first is one which people say, that it is to arouse heat in the body, I guess like a form of exercise. Alternatively, he means to arouse passion, to get into it. Then there is the reason preferred by the author, which is his suspicion that originally it was because people shared books and they moved in and our of the way so they could read and give others a chance to read and ultimately this became the habit and spread.
The Zohar (Parashas Pinchas) gives the following:
We arose and went on our way, the sun becoming stronger and more oppressive. We saw some trees in the wilderness with water underneath, and we sat down in the shade of one of them. I asked him: How is it that of all peoples of the world, only the Jews sway to and fro when they study the Torah, a habit which seems to come natural to them, and they are unable to keep still? He replied: You have reminded me of a very deep idea which very few people know. He pondered for a moment and wept. Then he continued: Alas for mankind who go about like cattle without understanding. This thing alone is sufficient to distinguish the holy souls of Israel from the souls of heathen peoples. The souls of Israel have been hewn from the Holy Lamp, as is written, “The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord” (Prov. xx, 27). Now once this lamp has been kindled from the supernal Torah, the light upon it never ceases for an instant, like the flame of a wick which is never still for an instant. So when an Israelite has said one word of the Torah, a light is kindled and he cannot keep still but sways to and fro like the flame of a wick. But the souls of heathens are like the burning of stubble, which gives no flame, and therefore they keep still like wood burning without a flame.’ Said R. Jose: ‘That is a good explanation; happy am I to have heard this.’ (Soncino translation.)
To quote the OU:
Ba’al ha-turim, Ex. 20:15, on the verse, “the people saw and trembled” comments, “Therefore we sway during Torah learning (limud ha-Torah), since the Torah was given with fear, terror, and shaking (b-aimah, reses, and zeiah).”
Darchei Moshe, commenting on Tur, Hilchos Birchas ha-Shachar 48:1, cites Abudraham, “…the custom of Israel is to shake while they read (b’sha’a shekorin) just like when the Torah was given, it was given with terror…” The phrase b’sha’a shekorin refers to the time the Torah is being read in the synagogue. Rama, Shulchan Aruch ad loc. comments, “…the custom of those that are careful is to sway while the Torah is being read, comparable to the Torah that was given with terror.”
Sefer Chasidim, 57 says, “a person needs (tzarich) to shake his entire body during teffilah since the verse says kol atzmosai tomarnah Hashem mi kamocha.” It should be noted that the word teffilah connotes Shemoneh Esrei.
Shibolei HaLeket, 17 cites Ma’aseh Merkava as follows, “during teffilah a person needs to shake his entire body since the verse says kol atzmosai tomarnah Hashem mi kamocha.”
Shulchan Aruch, Mechaber, 95:3 states as follows, “[during Shemoneh Esrei one should] stand like a slave before his master with fear, awe, and dread (aimah, yirah, pachad).” Mishnah Berurah 7, comments on this, “‘With fear’, and there are some that shake during teffilah based on the verse kol atzmosai tomarnah Hashem mi kamocha.”
Rivash, quoted by Mekor Chesed on Sefer Chasidim, ibid. gives a parable that when one is drowning and jumping around in the water, people won’t make fun of him. So too, when one is davening and shaking himself, he is attempting to remove distractions. “When a man is drowning in a river and making many movements to remove himself from the water, surely those that are watching him will not laugh at him and his [strange] movements; so too, when one prays (k’she’mispallel) and makes many [strange] movements, one should not laugh at him.” This source seems to endorse animated shukeling.
R’ Schwab provides his own understanding of shukeling in R’ Schwab on Prayer (page 167):
“There are two ways in which a person can relate to Hakodosh Baruch Hu. One is through ahava (love), in which a person feels very close to Him, and the other is through yirah (awe), in which one is awestruck by His Omnipotence and Omniscience. This may explain the ancient Jewish practice of “shokeling,” swaying forward and backward during teffilah. The forward motion expresses one’s desire to come close to Hakodosh Baruch Hu, but then, upon reflection, one realizes that He is the Ribbono Shel Olam, the Master of the universe, which causes one to reel back in awe. These thoughts are typically evoked during meditation.”
Ba’al Shem Tov, quoted by Mekor Chesed, ibid. states that one may shukel – but not during Shmoneh Esrei. “Teffilah (i.e. Shmoneh Esrei) is like being paired with the Divine Presence…therefore, one must shake himself at the beginning [of prayer]. After this (i.e. during Shmoneh Esrei) one is able to stand without movement. [This is because] he will be connected with the Divine Presence with a great connection.”
Perush Azulai on Sefer Chasidim, ibid. says one should not shukel during Shmoneh Esrei. “Rabbi and Kabbalist Yisroel Saruk and his student Ramah, may their memories be blessed, write that one should not shake his body during the recitation of Shmoneh Esrei since it (Shmoneh Esrei) is like standing before the King.”
The most stringent source against shukeling during Shmoneh Esrei is Shlah (quote found in Nesiv Binah, vol. 1, pg. 96). He emphatically states that not moving will give one more concentration. He proves it by saying that nobody has ever gone to a king to ask for something while shaking – kal v’chomer before Hashem. “Standing without any movement at all [during Shmoneh Esrei] will help one concentrate. The verse that states kol atzmosai tomarnah (and is a source for shukeling) is only in reference to shiros, tishbachos, blessings on Shema, and during Torah learning – but not during Shmoneh Esrei. If somebody should challenge you and say that one should also sway during Shmoneh Esrei, it would appear to me that such a person should be ignored. Ones own experience will prove that standing without any movement at all during Shmoneh Esrei will cause ones heart to concentrate. One should check it out himself: would a person ever ask requests from a human king while his body is swaying like the trees in the forest due to the wind?!”
What is the practical law?
Rabbi Dr. Joseph Breuer zt”l, in an essay entitled “Our Way,” (A Unique Perspective, pg. 384) points out that it was a hallmark of German Jewry – and others – that they did not shukel during teffilah. “The same holds true for our posture during the Teffilah. The Halacha is silent on the preference of a stationary versus a moving position in regard to the intensity of kavonoh during the Teffilah. The sainted Ari Ha-kadosh, and with him many of our Torah Greats, assumed stationary positions during the Teffilah – and they were certainly not German Jews.”
Normative Halacha says as follows: Aruch Hashulchan ibid, and Mishnah Berurah 48:5, come to the same conclusion – one may do whatever is desired. Whatever allows one to concentrate better is the proper thing to do.
Aruch Hashulchan, “During Shemoneh Esrei, some sway and some do not. This is contingent on one’s nature. If one finds that they will concentrate better while shukeling then it is proper for that person to shukel. There are those individuals that will have a clearer ability to concentrate while standing completely still – they should not shukel. It is all proper as long as it is done for the Sake of Heaven.”
Mishnah Berurah, “There are those poskim that argue and say that during teffilah one should not shukel. [They are of the opinion that it is permitted all other times] during pesukei d’zimra, the blessings on Shema, and during Torah Learning, even of the Oral Law, the custom is to shukel. Magen Avraham writes that one may choose either method. It is all according to the individual – if one concentrates better by shukeling, let him shukel, and if not, let him stand [still] – as long as his heart is able to concentrate.
Yalkut Yosef (vol. 1 1:footnote18) holds that those that sway in prayer to bring Kawana have sources to rely on. Obviously, he has some Sevara that it awakens Kawana.