GOD SQUAD: Kneeling and Prostration Are Elements of Prayer in Many Religions

New Haven Register (New Haven, CT), October 19, 2013 | Go to article overview

GOD SQUAD: Kneeling and Prostration Are Elements of Prayer in Many Religions


Q Why is it Jews don't kneel to pray? I'm Jewish myself, and sometimes I feel the need to pray in this position, but I feel awkward, as I was taught not to do this.

-- L., via email

A The Hebrew Bible has evidence of kneeling in prayer. In Isaiah 45:23, we read:

"By Myself have I sworn, the word is gone forth from My mouth in righteousness, and shall not come back, that unto Me every knee shall bow." Also, we have a reference to King Solomon:

"When Solomon had finished all these prayers and supplications to the Lord, he rose from before the altar of the Lord, where he had been kneeling with his hands spread out toward heaven." (1 Kings 8:54).Perhaps because kneeling was done on stones, and stones were used to make idols, an anti-kneeling sentiment is also evident in the Bible, as we see from Leviticus 26:1: "Nor shall you install a kneeling-stone in your land, to bow down upon it." (See also Psalm 95:6 and II Chronicles 6:13.)Today, kneeling is very rare in Jewish prayer, although bowing from the waist while standing in prayer is one of the most common elements of Jewish prayer.The ancient practice of kneeling in prayer is still honored in orthodox synagogues on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur afternoons. The liturgy recalls the ancient Temple sacrifices and the way the High Priest and the people would prostrate themselves (lie face down on the floor) when the name of God was said, so the congregation kneels on towels or newspapers, or even a bit of sand. This preserves the prohibition of kneeling on stone floors.

The basic reason Jews don't kneel any other time in prayer is because kneeling became associated with Christianity. The proof text is Philippians 2:10-11: "At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

We can also see a kind of anti-standing sentiment in the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 6:5-6: "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. …

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