We begin the year with a post that reflects what we have learned from our survey: You are interested in the personal conversations we have as we develop our responses to the sacred texts. This conversation began when Tziporah emailed Yasmina to ask about attending Friday prayers at the mosque. Grace joined in, agreeing that the email exchanges formed the backbone of a blog post. While we continue to add new texts on Wednesdays, we invite you to join our conversation by commenting below or responding to the survey.
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“Whatever beings there are in the heavens and the earth prostrate themselves to God, with good will or in spite of themselves; so do their shadows in the morning and evenings.”
When I visit the mosque, I always feel a little awkward during the prostrations because this is not a typical posture of Jewish prayer. Jews used to prostrate—known in the literature as “falling on one’s face”—as a sign of devotion and humility. Most notably, when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, he used to prostrate and ask forgiveness on behalf of the people. Nowadays, some Jews perform full prostrations on the High Holidays in remembrance of this custom, but usually only the leader of the congregation prostrates. As I understand the evolution of liturgical practice, we gave up prostration after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (70 C.E.), because the Holy of Holies no longer existed and the rabbis who re-envisioned Judaism pretty much put the Temple functionaries out of work. We still bow at the knee and waist in key sections of the liturgy, but these bows are carefully choreographed NOT to be full prostration or kneeling. The rules against bowing reflect the tendency of the rabbis to forbid “worshiping like our neighbors,” and likely arose as these postures became common in Christian and Muslim prayer.
I understand your feelings about prostration because it is unusual to you—and I am not saying that you should do it—but I wanted to offer some insight as to its meaning in Islam. Muslims are taught that prostration is the position in which they are closest to God because of the humility it represents; it is the physical expression of the submission of the heart. What we say in this position is "Praise be to My Lord, Most-High," three times at minimum. Then we may prolong our prostration to include supplications to God for good health, guidance, etc. The Quran mentions that many prophets prostrated before God. Even the magicians that challenged Moses [Peace and Blessings be upon him] finally relented and bowed low: “So the magicians were thrown down to prostration; they said, ‘We believe in the Lord of Aaron and Moses.’” (Ta Ha 20:70) In fact, the Quran says that all creatures prostrate to God (see above). I included the verses because I knew you would ask me for them! Checking references is a great habit to cultivate, especially in our days when so many things are taken out of context.
I am inspired by your conversation and happy to add some information about physical expressions of prayer in various Christian practices. Prayer postures vary among Christians of different denominations. However, full prostration is not customary in Christianity except when a monk or nun takes Solemn Vows to lead a monastic life. Catholics traditionally show reverence at the church altar by bowing or genuflecting, and stand or kneel for prayer. Protestant Christians are typically more restrained, sitting quietly and reverentially with bowed heads. Pentecostal Christians often raise their arms and hands, sometimes swaying their bodies to welcome God’s Holy Spirit. All of these postures convey the supplicant’s humility and adoration towards God. Some Christians, during and following prayer, make the sign of the Cross over the upper torso, sometimes also signing the Cross three times in miniature on forehead, lips, and heart: “God in my thinking, in my speaking, in my being.” Because prayer is both corporate and personal, the movements during prayer—like the words of prayer itself—can be highly prescribed or completely spontaneous.