Shockeling: an age-old tradition
Shockeling can help you achieve kavanah, intense concentration with Hashem through the medium of prayer. (photo by Ashernet)
The language of Yiddish is one of the most unique forms of expression. It is in fact untranslatable. Tomes have been written on it. Its vocabulary and expressions are so self-descriptive. Many words have found their way into the English vocabulary. Who can translate the word nu, or shlep, or bittere gelegte or … shockel? It is this last word in which I am interested here.
Shockel: a description of the rhythmic, swaying movement that Jews all over adopt when they are engrossed in prayer. I have been intrigued and bemused over many years of observation of how Jews pray, and this script is a description of the main styles that tend to be adopted. They are often reflective of the personalities of their users. The next time you go to shul, watch the men in prayer, and see if you can identify the styles. Try them out yourself, and maybe you will be able to choose one that really stimulates you into an attitude of devotion and prayer.
The simple shockel
This is a gentle rhythmic bow from the waste with a pelvic lunge as you straighten up – a very simple, easy-to-learn movement. But there are some variations, for instance, the simple shockel with head extension. Here, you proceed with the movements of the simple shockel, but it is done rather slower. The body tends to fall forward until the point at which it appears to overbalance, at which point the head is stretched forward very rapidly while the body straightens up. All in all, an intriguing movement, and very good for the cervical vertebrae, if you don’t put your neck out while practising it.
The friendly simple shockel with lateral movement
Here, instead of bending forward from the waist, you twist alternately to the left and the right, as if you are addressing a large audience. Combined with a head extension and a slight smile on the face, the incumbent gives the impression of being a really friendly fellow. A style that you may well want to emulate. But be careful of straining the vertebrae. It could take weeks to recover.
An entertaining variation of the friendly shockel with lateral movement, you stand with your feet slightly apart, toes pointed outwards – the further the better. (Some folks can do this movement with the toes pointed out about 90 degrees!) The trick is to keep the legs and back quite stiff. You bow from the waist to the left and simultaneously lift the right toe. Repeat to the other side. When accompanied by a glazed look in your eyes, the effect can be highly spiritual.
Walking on the spot
Now, here is an interesting movement. This overcomes the restrictions of keeping the feet together during the Shemoneh Esrei prayer, when you are not allowed to separate the feet. The movement consists of simply bending your knees alternately as you bend forward. A fine variation is to raise the toe of the leg whose knee is bending, simultaneously with the heel of the opposite foot. It’s very good exercise for the muscles of the feet, but needs practise to coordinate properly.
Alternate bowing with ankle twist
When I first saw this, I was very impressed, as it requires tremendous coordination of rhythm. It shouldn’t be done during the Shemoneh Esrei because it requires the feet to be slightly separated, but one wonders…. The technique is simple, but requires a lot of practise. With the feet slightly separated, you bow rhythmically to the left and right alternately, as in the simple shockel with lateral movement. But here is the catch. As you bow to the left, you raise the right ankle slightly, and similarly on the other side. Once you have mastered this movement, you proceed to move the raised foot in a circular, back-and-forth movement, similar to squashing a bug. A beautiful thing to watch, and one certainly worth the effort of learning.
I first saw this style used in a Chassidic community in Israel. The congregant stands sideways with one foot ahead of the other, as if he is prepared for a fencing competition. He then proceeds to lunge forward and back in a rhythmic motion in time with his prayers.
The lunge with second thoughts
The basic lunge is very good for the lungs, if combined with proper breathing, but it reaches perfection in this variation. The operator goes into the lunge movement, but then draws up suddenly as if he has second thoughts, and draws himself back rapidly to an upright position. It imposes a tremendous strain on the back muscles, since they have to go into reverse at the very instant that the body has reached its maximum momentum in a forward direction, so be careful before attempting this shockel. If you work into it slowly, and perfect it, you could be the admired hero of the congregation.
The hula hoop
This is a relaxing movement, most suitable for use during intermediate prayers, while you are building up your spiritual resources for the Shema or Shemoneh Esrei. You stand upright with your feet slightly apart, and exercise a rotational movement as if you are trying to maintain a hula hoop in motion. It is particularly good for the stomach muscles, and will help tighten any slightly (or not so slightly) sagging abdominal area.
The vibrating calf
This movement is usually used by persons who are either in a hurry to get to the end of the service, or who are eagerly anticipating the arrival of Moshiach. It is executed by standing perfectly still, and rapidly vibrating the muscles of the calf from side to side. It may sound simple, but it can look pretty spectacular if done with finesse.
The drunken swagger
This movement is performed with ease if you have had a couple of tots of whisky prior to entering your house of prayer. However, I have seen it done very effectively by folks who are stone-cold sober. You need to stand with feet fairly widely apart, with knees bent, hips thrust forward and shoulders well back. The trick is to give the appearance that you are about to collapse backwards while you sway gently from side to side. A glazed look in the eyes contributes enormously to the effect.
This is more an expression of urgency than style. All congregations have their wanderers. They wander around aimlessly during the service, walking determinedly in one direction, and then stopping as if they have suddenly changed their mind, and then walking back again. Many of them wander around and examine every detail in the shul – the books, the seats, the cracks in the walls. Some even pick up objects and examine them. Some intone loudly as they meander. Others simply appear lost. I remember one wanderer who was actually scary. A rather big, heavily bearded guy who would fix me with a stare from the opposite side of the shul, and then start to walk determinedly in my direction. As he approached, his eyes opened wider and took on an aggressive look. He would come within a distance of about one foot, thrust his face into mine, and then abruptly turn around and wander back again. He would repeat this a few times during the service.
The helicopter movement
This is a rotational motion from the waist up. The upper body rotates in a circular movement, building up momentum, and the hands swing out to the sides, lifting up higher and higher as the rotational speed increases. (Of course, you need to know the prayers by heart for this version of the shockel.) At top speed, the effect is not unlike a helicopter blade rotating and, indeed, sometimes there is a very real fear that the operator will take off vertically. This one takes years of practise.
These descriptions should give you a renewed interest in and enthusiasm for davening. But be warned – it is easy to be distracted from the real purpose of it all, which is to achieve kavanah, intense concentration with Hashem through the medium of prayer. So, please take these descriptions in the spirit in which they were written.
Dr. Stan Shear emigrated in 2004 to Vancouver from South Africa, where he taught information systems at the University of Cape Town until his retirement. He also has officiated as a chazzan for the past 30 years, both in South Africa and Vancouver.