An Embodied Shabbat
Davening with Meaningful Gesture and Movement
So I started to gesture with typical Jewish gestures along with the prayers and songs, as a way of “singing” along. Some folks even emulated me. Therefore I was delighted to get the invitation from R. Weinreb to put some of my ideas into practice with an in person congregation.
The result for myself, the rabbi, and particularly for the congregation, was delightful and gratifying. The congregants were happily involved and felt immense joy.
I believe it worked well for several reasons. Chairs were arranged in a circle with an opening towards the bimah, and an open space in the middle. Permission to move was given early on, with an expectation of participation. We have been trained to “sit still” during any kind of service or performance, it was necessary to overcome that. As a few people joined in, more and more did. Gestures and movements were introduced slowly and incrementally, and all were relevant and enhanced or illuminated the liturgy. We moved gradually from seated hand gestures, to seated whole body swaying, to standing movements in place, to finally moving around the sanctuary. For most, none of it was a bridge too far.
Here, to the best of my recollection, is how the service was crafted:
1.GATHERING NIGUN: While R. Alty played softly on the piano, I had participants rub their hands together and shake them up, middle and down with me, to get their hands off their laps. Then as the nigun started up, I suggested and modeled that participants use their hands as if they were conducting the music. This worked splendidly. People gestured very naturally.
2.HINEH MA TOV: We started by swaying to the song, then connected by putting arms on shoulders or linking arms, then rose to our feet to sway while connected.
3.WHEN WE LIGHT THE SHABBOS CANDLES (song): We all participated in the traditional candle lighting gestures- hands circling the virtual flame, or drawing the light to themselves. Then covering the eyes to behold the light. I then verbally invited the congregants to bless one another with the same gestures, like they were also candles, and to look for the holy light in each other.
4.LECHA DODI: Since there are many references to Shabbat as a bride, we began by advancing and retreating as a group as we would to honor the bride at a wedding. When the music changed to a livelier tune, I physically invited congregants to dance in the open space like they would at a wedding, in couples and circles.
5.MI CHAMOCHA/WALKIN’ IN THE LIGHT OF G-D (song): Since Mi Chamocha is related to the parting of the Red Sea and the Hebrews crossing on dry land, I led the congregants in a Honga (hands on shoulders single file chain) around the sanctuary, allowing the line to double back on itself so each congregant could see each other eye to eye.
6.ADONAI S’FATAI (AMIDAH): While standing, I modeled simple shuckling- swaying and/or rocking
7.ADON OLAM (final hymn): R. Alty selected a lively tune, and we ended the service with a livey Freylekhs- free form circle dance.
This is just how it worked in this particular instance. The choice of movement can be adapted to particular liturgies. But I believe the gradual crescendo of action helped make the event comfortable and successful.
The participants found it extremely gratifying. They were so full of warm feelings for me that they would not let me leave the Kiddush afterwards for over an hour. Several told me it was perhaps the most enjoyable, joyous, meaningful service they had ever attended.