Sunday 3 January 2021



A 17th-century manuscript of Me'orot Natan by R. Natan Nata Shapira in Italian script. (Bodleian Library) 


Turkish and Syrian Jews have the unusual custom of gesturing with their hands to other members of the congregation just prior to reciting the Amidah.  What are the origins of this little-known custom where the hand and fingers are held upwards, the palm inclined inwards and then moved back and forth three or four times, while making eye contact with fellow congregants in the synagogue?

In this article, based extensively on the research of Rabbi Dr Levi Cooper[1], we will explore the origins of this unusual custom which appear to be at least four centuries old.


The earliest source for this custom of waving before the Amidah seems to be from R. Natan Nata Shapira. He was a major editor of the writings of the Ari Zal and served as Chief Rabbi of Kracow before settling in Palestine where he became the rabbi of the Askenazi community of Jerusalem.

He was an interesting man as besides a Kabbalist, he seems to have been a social activist who criticised the wealthy (of the Diaspora) and championed the poor (of Jerusalem). He wrote about the messianic times when the Jews from the Diaspora will return to Israel and will be disadvantaged because of their love for money. Only the Jews who sacrificed their wealth to live in poverty in the Holy Land will experience a revival of the dead and “fly like eagles…in the sight of the returning exiles”.[2]  He seems to have practised what he preached because he never took a salary while serving as Chief Rabbi.

R. Natan Nata Shapira was largely responsible for the popularity of Lurianic Kabbalah and it is possible that his connection to the masses with his social activism, helped in this enterprise.

Cooper points us to the most reliable manuscript of R. Natan Nata Shapira’s Me’orot Natan which is held at the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford.[3] This is the text that appears to have been the first to reference the custom of waving before the Amidah:

And this is that which appears according to the humble opinion of N[Natan][4]…[she-nir’eh la-‘aniyut da‘at “n”], because of this all the Jews who live in the land of Ishmael have the practice as they stand to pray ‘amidah, they turn their faces to [look] behind them and they make a gesture with the hands to the people standing behind them, that they should go in front of them out of respect.


This seems to me to be saying that, almost as a courtesy, those standing in front are ‘receiving permission’ to pray in front of those behind and do not mean to slight them.

However, R. Natan Nata Shapira - being a mystic - continues that all customs are rooted in matters much deeper than appear to meet the eye, and that really the practice has roots in an older and deeper Kabbalistic custom of the ’early Chassidim’:

But the custom of Israel is considered Torah, for the early pietists [ḥasidim ha-rishonim] had this practice to do thus to the Holy Presence that stands behind the ze‘ir [that is, ze‘ir anpin, literally “small face,” microprosopus, referring to one aspect of God’s revealed presence in the world] to bring it with the ze‘ir face to face. And the custom of their forebears remains in their hands and they know not the reason.


In other words, the deeper reason for this custom, unknown to most of its practitioners, is more theurgical and spiritually mechanical. It concerns the Lurianic concept of Tikkun or remedying the damaged or incomplete aspects of the Godhead by joining the Shechina to Zeir (Anpin).

R. Natan Nata Shapira thus give two reasons for the custom to wave before reciting the Amidah, one simple and the other ‘deep’ and Kabbalistic. Remember, R. Shapira was the Ashkenazi rabbi of Jerusalem and he was explaining a custom of Jews from Muslim lands, so he probably would not have practised this custom himself.


The second to reference this custom is R. Yitzchak Nunes Vias who came from a family of Marranos and was based in Leghorn, Italy. He is known for his work Siach Yitzchak (Leghorn, 1766) with explanations on the Talmudic tractates of Shevu'ot, Yoma, and Chagigah (hence the acrostic Siyach).

His volume on Chagigah[5] also contained an extra section dealing with prayer. It was in this section that R. Yitzchak Nunes Vias mentions the custom to wave before the Amidah.[6]

R. Nunes also refers to the custom of “the Jews who live in the land of Ishmael” and basically repeats the explanation of R. Natan Nata Shapira from Me’orot Natan mentioned earlier and actually refers us to that source.


Just over a decade later the custom is mentioned for the third time; first in the 1782 printed edition of Pri Eitz Chaim in Koretz, and also later under the same title, but published in Dubrowna in 1804. 

[For more details see BACKGROUND in footnote[7].]


The fourth source for the custom to wave before the Amidah is found in the Kaf haChaim by R. Chaim Palache of Izmir, Turkey. The first edition was published in Salonica in 1859.

R. Palache writes:

Regarding the practice that before standing to pray we[?] make a movement with the hands, this [person] to that [person] and this [person] to that [person].[8]

His reference to “we” indicates that he probably practised this custom himself, making him the first of all the others who had previously mentioned the custom, to actually practice it.

R. Palache refers to the Siach Yitzchak by R. Yitzchak Nunes Vias, which as you will recall, simply cites R. Natan Nata Shapira. But then R. Palache adds something original and somewhat technical. Just before the morning Amidah, there is a reference to the crossing of the Red Sea which was merited because of the unity of the people. So too we must unite before the Amidah in order to accept the yoke of Divinity:

For it is because we say [just before ‘amidah in the morning prayer]: “Together [those who crossed the Reed Sea] all praised and crowned [God]” and a person must show himself in each and every detail as if he went out from Egypt and from the Splitting of the Reed Sea, and our intent is that we too are now – all of us together – coming to accept the yoke of His sovereignty…

And therefore we make a movement with the hands and call one to another, as if to say that we are all coming with one heart to pray before God and to accept His Divinity, may He be blessed.

Of course, this raises the question as to why the custom is observed even before both the Mincha and Ma’ariv Amidah, where there is no mention of the Red Sea. Palache then shows (rather forcedly) how both Mincha and Ma’ariv services also do have references to similar ideas before their Amidah.[9]

Palache then gives another reason for the custom, which relates to the angels who are said to take leave of each other before they pray.  This action is then reflected by the humans as well, taking leave of each other before prayer.


The Syrian custom to wave before the Amidah is first mentioned by Aleppo born R. Avraham Shalom Hai Hamawi. Interestingly R. Hamawi writes about the custom of waving “which is practiced in our land Aleppo and in most places.” He does not, however, specify which are the “most places”.

R. Hamawi mentions the first reason brought by R. Yitzchak Nunes Vias who cited R. Shapira “that they should go in front of them out of respect” but then adds another reason:

Apparently the reason for this custom is to make peace, one with another; like asking forgiveness, one from another, in order that everyone will be with love and kinship, as one person, so that the prayer will be accepted.

This choice of reason is very interesting coming from R. Hamawi who was known to have typically opted for Kabbalistic reasons and esoteric practices including the use of segulot, or amulets.


R. Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, known as the Ben Ish Chai, writes:

And the custom of the Spanish Jews [sefaradim] when they are about to pray the ‘amidah prayer – before the prayer they turn their face back a little way and they make a gesture with their hands to the people standing behind them and at their sides.[10]

The Ben Ish Chai used the term Sefaradim rather loosely and sometimes excluded himself from the expression. From the contexts it appears as if in our case, he excluded himself from the category. This is borne out by the fact that Iraqi Jews are unfamiliar with the custom of waving before the Amidah.

Nevertheless, he also proceeds to offer an explanation for this custom:

And the reason for this is also to mimic the angels. For it is their way to accept the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven one from another, and they give permission one to another, in order to demonstrate the unity and the kinship that exists between them. As if to say: We are all as one. We agree with one thought and with one mind to accept the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven…

And through this the praise of the Holy One blessed be He rises and is elevated when it is done out of unity and love…

 And our great master R[abbi] N[atan] Shapira gave a reason for this custom according to sod [literally: secret, referring to Jewish esoteric tradition], and he praised [the practice]. And according to his reason, even if there is no other person next to him or behind him, he should also do this…[11]

Cooper observes that the Ben Ish Chai did exactly the opposite of what R. Natan Nata Shapira did. Shapira mentioned that the gesture was primarily a very important aspect of Tikkun or rectification for the Godhead but for less learned people it was suffice to explain it as a simple form of etiquette.

The Ben Ish Chai seems to say that the simple explanation of being together is the essential reason for the custom, but a deeper explanation does exist (although he does not tell us where to find the deeper explanation in Shapira’s texts). Yet true to form, he does not completely negate the theurgic aspect of the custom because he says that we do so “even if there is no other person next to him.”


Cooper makes the point that the fact that Ashkenazim are unfamiliar with this custom is not surprising - but that non-Ashkenazim are also unaware of it, is most unusual. Especially since the custom was recorded in the Ben Ish Chai which is very popular amongst those Sefaradic communities. Why is this the case?

R. OVADIA YOSEF (1921-2013):

R. Ovadia Yosef served as chief Sefaradic rabbi of Israel from 1973 to 1983. Regarding the custom of waving before the Amidah, he wrote:

And it is appropriate to be careful, for if people do so [that is, gesture] before the ‘amidah prayer of the afternoon prayer and of the evening prayer, they should pay attention when they respond amen, yehei shemeih rabba [“Amen, may His great name,” a phrase from the responsive qaddish prayer recited before the ‘amidah in the afternoon and evening] to focus well, that they should not be preoccupied with these movements, and [then] when they respond amen, yehei shemeih rabba their heart is not with them.[12]

R. Ovadia Yosef subtly discourages this practice and warns that the waving may serve as a distraction to worshipers particularly during Mincha and Maariv where there is a Kaddish before the Amidah (Shacharit has no intervening Kaddish at that juncture). By waving, R. Ovadia Yosef says, they may not be able to concentrate on the Kaddish.

In all the previous sources we have seen until now, the wave was explained as a part of the preparation for the Amidah in one form or another, whether socially or mystically. However, R. Ovadia Yosef considers it a hindrance to it. This despite the fact that the gesture is a silent one and that it would not apply to Shacharit.

Perhaps R. Ovadia Yosef’s words need to be viewed within the context of his wider attitude to the Sefaradic community in general. R. Ovadia Yosef set about masterminding what Cooper calls a “mainstreaming project” with his “legal and political activism” in order to create a new unity between the Sefaradim particularly from North Africa and Arab countries, sometimes at the expense of their individual traditions.

Part of his strategy was to promote his eight-volume Halichot Olam which was a detailed response to the one-volume Ben Ish Chai of the Baghdadi rabbi, Yosef Chaim. In it he dealt on a point by point basis (maintaining a ratio of 8 to 1) with each corresponding section of the Ben Ish Chai.

R. Ovadia Yosef’s Halichot Olam was a continuation of a series of controversial public talks he gave as a youth but was only published sixty years later when he was recognised and accepted as a major rabbinic leader.

After expressing his disapproval of the custom of waving, R. Ovadiah Yosef continues rather tellingly:

And the one who warns and the one who is careful, may their peace increase like a river.

This way, others are invited to join in with the program and help eradicate, together with many other similar examples, this 400-year-old custom.

Cooper adds:

Thus the colorful mosaic of Jewish practice was whitewashed.

Interestingly, R. Ovadia Yosef told of a dream where, according to him, the Ben Ish Chai appeared to him and endorsed his work and encouraged him to create this cultural melting-pot.[13]


Cooper explains that while R. Ovadiah Yosef’s legacy is still unfolding:

[i]t is possible that in coming years we will see a reassertion of distinct communal identity as a backlash to Ovadia Yosef’s aggressive mainstreaming policies.

Perhaps this is why we find that in 2006, a private printing venture produced a siddur, or prayer book, based on the rulings of the Kaf haChaim by the Turkish rabbi, Chaim Palache. It was to cater for Sefaradic and particularly Turkish Jews and it included the custom to wave before the Amidah (although only during the Shacharit service).

To date, however, the siddur has not been reprinted…


But the Turkish Jews still wave in Istanbul - both on the European side and the Anatolian side of the city.



Besides my new awareness of the fascinating development of a custom most have never heard of, I am most intrigued by the expediency of the simple custom itself.

We all know that we do not talk or gesticulate during certain parts of the service, particularly between the Shema and Shmone Esrei and even more particularly just before the Amidah. I must say, personally, that it never seemed to sit right watching people walk into shul and not greet or be greeted.

Yet, here, at the strictest point of the application of that rule - just before the Amidah - we see an old (possibly kabbalistic) custom of dafke turning around and, as the Kaf haChaim says, “we make a movement with the hands and call one to another, as if to say that we are all coming with one heart to pray before God”; and acknowledging all those within our immediate vicinity; and making eye contact, just before moving into the Amidah.

[1] Levi Cooper, Esotericism, Accessibility, and Mainstreamization: Pre-Prayer Gesturing and the Evolution of Jewish Practice

[2] R. Natan Nata Shapira, Tuv haAretz, fol. 37a.

[3] Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Opp. 115 [Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts, National Library of Israel, F18444], page 145b.

[4] Parenthesis mine, translation Cooper.

[5] The volume on Shavuot does not seem to have been published.

[6] This section on prayer was taken from another work of his, the Beit Yitzcḥak, which he worte as a commentary on R Yosef Karo’s Shulchan Aruch. This Beit Yitzcḥak was never published and its manuscript is also not extant.




The Ari Zal did not commit his teachings to writing (even though they are known as Kitvei haAri). The main conduit through which his teachings reach us is through R. Chaim Vital. But R. Cham Vital was also coy in his distribution of the teachings.


R Vital hid one central work of his entitled Sefer Eitz Chaim in his home with orders that it not leave his house even after his death. The work could only be studied by certain visitors to his Damascus home.


Then, after his passing in 1620, R. Meir Poppers (1624-1662) used titles that R. Chaim Vital had coined, including Eitz Chaim, and used R. Chaim Vital’s manuscripts to produce a what Cooper refers to as a “product that was truly a new work.”


Like R. Natan Nata Shapira had done in Italy, R. Meir Poppers also became an editor of the Ari Zal’s teachings, but in Poland - making it very difficult to know the pure form of the original Lurianic teachings.  According to Cooper, however, R. Popper’s editions were to become the most circulated version of the Ari Zal’s teachings.


To complicate matters even further, a printed edition of sections from R. Shapira’s Me’orot Natan also entitled Pri Eitz Chaim, appeared in Koretz in 1782 (the very title that R. Poppers had taken from R. Vital!)


It was in this interesting edition from Koretz, that our custom to wave before the Amidah is mentioned for the third time. But the attribution to R. Natan Nata Shapira, the first to mention the custom and as recorded in the Bodleian manuscript, is simply not there. The custom is thus mentioned in the 1782 Koretz edition of Pri Eitz Chaim out of any context and not attributed to anyone.


Fascinatingly, other editions of the same book - Pri Eitz Chaim - printed also in Koretz just three years later in 1785, make no mention of the custom!


Another edition of Pri Eitz Chaim was later published in Dubrowna in 1804, and it did mention the custom.


Cooper describes this edition as being a blend of two very different editors, Shapira and Poppers:


The Dubrowna edition is a montage of Popper’s Peri ‘ets ḥayim and Shapira’s Me’orot natan that had been published under the title Peri ‘ets ḥayim.


Perhaps to the untrained eye and to the unsuspecting reader of the 1782 Koretz edition and the 1804 Dubrowna edition, it might have been thought that the custom originated directly from the Ari Zal.


[8]Chaim Palache, Kaf haCḥaim (Salonika: n.p., 1859), 99a–b, sec. 15:1.

[9] In Ma’ariv there is a reference to the splitting of the sea, although not immediately before the Amidah. In Mincha, the Ashrei reads: And all creatures shall bless … And we will bless God …” (Ps 145:21, 115:18), emphasizing the notion of unity before prayer. No mention is made of Musaf, though, where the custom also prevails.

[10] Yosef Hayim, Ben Ish Chai (Jerusalem: Salaman, 1898), first year, Beshalach, sec. 2.  The work is designed to cover a two-year weekly study program essentially a weekly program of study that spans two years and covers much of practical Jewish law. Each section relates, sometimes vaguely to the weekly Parsha and offers Kabbalistic insights. It then proceeds to discuss matters of Halacha.

[11] Ben Ish Chai, first year, Beshalach, sec. 2

[12] Ovadia Yosef, Halichot Olam (Jerusalem: Machon Maor Yisrael, 1998–2003), 1:129.

[13] Ovadia Yosef, Taharat haBayit (Jerusalem: n.p., 1988–2006), 2:14–15.

No comments:

Post a Comment