Sunday, August 21, 2011

Clasping one's hands together

Shirat Devorah reposts a halacha discussion from Rabbi Eli Mansour. He is a Sephardic rabbi, and so it might more reflect practices of Sefardim -- though plenty of Ashkenazim hold by this as well. Here is the post:
by Rabbi Eli J. Mansour
The Zohar Ha’kadosh, in Vayikra (p. 24), writes that when a harsh judgment is issued against a person, Heaven forbid, his fingers will unwittingly begin moving, and the fingers of his two hands will become interlocked.  As interlocking hands is a sign of harsh judgment, it is improper for a person to intentionally hold his hands in this position.  The Ben Ish Hai (Rav Yosef Haim of Baghdad, 1833-1909), in Parashat Pinhas (18), cites this Halacha in the name of the Arizal (Rav Yishak Luria of Safed, 1534-1572).  This is mentioned in other sources, as well, including the Sefer Ha’hasidim (by Rabbenu Yehuda Ha’hasid, Germany, d. 1217) and the Kaf Ha’haim (Rav Yaakob Haim Sofer, Baghdad-Israel, 1870-1939).  Thus, while it is permissible to place one hand on top of the other, one should not interlock the fingers of the two hands.

The Ben Ish Hai goes even further, writing that one should never place his hands behind his back, and should rather keep them in front of him at all times.  Indeed, there are different kinds of spiritual powers associated with the positioning of one’s hands and fingers, as Rabbenu Bahya discusses at length.

The Sefer Hazechira mentions that those who are accustomed to interlocking their fingers run the risk of experiencing extreme anxiety, Heaven forbid.

There are many warnings of this kind that we hear as children, and many people are unable to distinguish between those that stem from folklore and superstition, and those which have a clear basis in Jewish tradition.  When it comes to interlocking fingers, this is a well-documented warning that originates already from the Zohar and the teachings of the Arizal.

Summary: According to Kabbalistic tradition, one should not merge his hands together such that the fingers of the two hands interlock.  According to some sources, one should also refrain from placing his hands behind his back.

Devorah researched more into this, and so has more, in the comment section. See there.

Rav Elyashiv, clasping his hands together
Now, not everyone worries for this kabbalistically-rooted practice. See the image to the right, of Rav Elyashiv clasping his hands together, with interlocking fingers. (And see here for a discussion about it. At least one person there appears to believe that the image has been PhotoShopped, because it is impossible that Rav Elyashiv would do such a thing!)

Let us start, perhaps, with the contrary gemara. Kabbalistic sources might say this, but Talmudic sources strongly suggest otherwise. The gemara in Shabbat 10a reads as follows:

רבא בר רב הונא רמי פוזמקי ומצלי אמר הכון לקראת וגו' רבא שדי גלימיה ופכר ידיה ומצלי אמר כעבדא קמיה מריה אמר רב אשי חזינא ליה לרב כהנא כי איכא צערא בעלמא שדי גלימיה ופכר ידיה ומצלי אמר כעבדא קמי מריה כי איכא שלמא . לביש ומתכסי ומתעטף ומצלי אמר הכון לקראת אלהיך ישראל
Or, in English:
Raba son of R. Huna put on stockings and prayed, quoting, 'prepare to meet etc.' Raba removed his cloak,6  clasped his hands and prayed, saying, '[I pray] like a slave before his master.' R. Ashi said: I saw R. Kahana, when there was trouble in the world, removing his cloak, clasp his hands, and pray, saying, '[I pray] like a slave before his master.' When there was peace, he would put it on, cover and enfold himself and pray, quoting, 'Prepare to meet thy God, O Israel.'7
Rashi defines פכר ידיה as clasping of hands with fingers intertwined:
פכר ידיה - חובק ידיו באצבעותיו מרצי"ר (טריציי"ר: לשלב (מלה במלה: לקלוע)) בלע"ז כאדם המצטער מאימת רבו:

What, then, of the Zohar? Well, where Zohar contradicts the gemara, we should follow the gemara. But in fact, the Zohar does not prohibit clasping together the hands. The Zohar, on Vayikra (24a), reads as follows:

411. When Judgment is made complete and rests on man, it is concluded and the fingers are placed five against five, right within the left, as an indication that everybody agreed on that Judgment. Then his hands are straightened; TO WIT, THE FINGERS ARE INTERLACED, which shows that it was done without the man's intention and without his meaning to do so. It is therefore written, "Your right hand, Hashem, is glorious in power: Your right hand Hashem, has dashed the enemy in pieces" (Shemot 15:6), WHICH MEANS that left was included within the right and Judgment is complete. Then everything is resolved. Therefore, when the Holy One, blessed be He, wishes that everything be set, it is written, "Hashem has sworn by His right hand, and by the arm of His strength. Surely I will no more give your corn to be food for your enemies..." (Yeshayah 62:8).

That is, clasping the fingers of each hand together does not cause the bad judgement. Rather, when there is bad judgement, the hands will subconsciously clasp together in this manner. This is the difference between saying that one blinks one's eyes when someone throws sand in it, versus saying that blinking one's eyes causes people to throw sand in it. There is, then, no contradiction between the Zohar and the gemara.

Next, in chronological order, is the Sefer HaChassidim, by Rabbenu Yehuda Ha’hasid, Germany, d. 1217. This is that it is improper to place one's hands in this position. There are a number of such novelties in the sefer haChassidim and in the Tzavaah of Rabbi Yehuda HaChassid. They are not obligatory, but pious individuals may adopt them.

But this is not the only instance in which something in the sefer ha-Chassidim contradicts an explicit gemara and practice of the Tannaim and Amoraim. The Noda be-Yehuda notes such contradictions. For instance:
  1. The sefer Chassidim says one should not marry one's niece. The gemara, meanwhile, recommends it.
  2. The sefer Chassidim says one should not marry someone with the same name as his parent. The Noda Be-Yehuda gives examples of Amoraim who did precisely this. (For example, Rami had a father-in-law named Rami.)
  3. This, then, is the third such instance -- clasping the hands.
And he has various teirutzim, such as that it was only intended for direct descendants of Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Chassid. In general, though, not to follow these various innovations in the sefer Chassidim, which are motivated by kabbalah.

The Kaf HaChaim and the Ben Ish Chai obviously hold differently, and they are allowed to. But that does not mean that it is binding on everyone. This is a dispute as to the boundaries of halacha and kabbalah. Even if the Arizal maintains this. We don't follow, or have to follow, every kabbalistic hanhaga of the Arizal. (Well, I suppose one can debate who "we" are. Chassidim might incorporate more kabbalistic practices than Misnagdim.)

Devorah, in the comment section, also cited from this Revach post, about the Aruch HaShulchan:
The Aruch HaShulchan brings L'Halacha (OC 91:7) that in times of Za'am or raging tzorus, one should daven with his hands clasped together and his fingers interlocking. However says the Aruch HaShulchan in times of peace you should not do so because it causes Din Shamayim to be brought down on you.
I would surmise, before looking at it inside, that this distinction comes directly from the gemara in Shabbos listed above, with the two different practices, in times of tza'ara vs. in times of shalama, of Rav Kahana. In the former, he would remove his cloak and clasp his hands together. In the latter, he would enwrap himself in the tallis. Note that Rava did not make any such distinction. My guess is that someone was bothered by the contradiction of the kabbalistic practice and the explicit gemara to the contrary, and seized upon Rav Kahana's differing practice as a way of harmonizing the two sources. (Looking further, it seems that this is what the Taz says.) Note that the gemara is not, on the level of a simple reading, distinguishing between clasping and not clasping as bringing down judgement to the world. Rather, it has to do with removing one's cloak or enfolding oneself in it. In times of trouble, he would strip himself of the cloak, to make himself more like a servant, and assume the pose of a beseeching servant. In times of peace, there was no need for it, so he wrapped himself in his cloak, for better focus. And the pose was presumably not needed, rather than being a bad and counter-productive idea.

Looking now at the Aruch Hashulchan, I see that he mentions that Rava made no such distinction. Still, he does state what is stated above:

סימן צא סעיף ז

וכתבו רבותינו בעלי השולחן ערוך בסעיף ו:

דרך החכמים ותלמידיהם שלא יתפללו אלא כשהם עטופים. ובעת הזעם יש לחבק הידים בשעת התפילה כעבדא קמי מאריה. ובעת שלום יש להתקשט בבגדים נאים להתפלל.
עד כאן לשונו, וכבר כתבנו מזה. ו"חיבוק ידים" הוא שחובק אצבעות ידיו זה בשל זה, כאדם ששובר אצבעותיו כשמצטער. ויש מהחכמים שהיו עושים כן גם בעת שלום (רבא בשבת י א). ומכל מקום יש ליזהר שלא לחבוק אצבעותיו בעת שלום, כי בזה מוריד דין על עצמו. אלא יניח ידיו זו על זו כפותין (הגר"ז).
ואין טבעי בני אדם שוים בזה. ויש שקשה עליהם להתפלל באופן זה, אלא מניחים הידים על הסטענדע"ר או על הדף הדבוק בכותל. ואין כלל קבוע בזה, וכל אחד יעשה כפי מה שמוטב לו להתפלל באופן זה. ולא יתפלל בבתי ידים (האנטשו"ך).

There are other halachic sources I haven't mentioned. This is one instance in which kabbalah has made significant inroads into halacha, especially in terms of hand position during davening.

Personally, I would not consider it problematic to be clasping my hands together as a comfortable hand position or nervous habit. Even during prayer, clasping them together in this matter does not seem problematic to me, for the reasons I described above. Still, I would avoid certain types of hand clasping in prayer, due to its adoption within Christian prayer.

Note: I wrote this up last week. Today, just before publishing, I noticed Daat Torah posted about it. He has video of REav Elyashiv.


Devorah said...

[quote] Still, I would avoid certain types of hand clasping in prayer, due to its adoption within Christian prayer. [unquote]

Why do we stop doing things just because Christians start doing them?

if Christians decided to wear kippot, should Jewish men cease wearing them?

Anonymous said...

They already have - the pope where's a red one ...;-)

joshwaxman said...


to some extent, we do. the question is where to draw the line. for instance, regarding the custom on Shavuot, "The Vilna Gaon cancelled the tradition of decorating with plants because it too closely resembles the Christian decorations for their holidays."

I daven in a chassidic shteibel, which *does* decorate the shul with greenery. But this is one example of a bunch one can come up with.

Since it is not a *common* Jewish practice to clasp hands in prayer like this, and it closely resembles common Christian worship, this leads to a psychological correlation to Christian prayer, and I would feel uncomfortable doing this. I don't know that one would forbid it as a matter of halacha.

Devorah said...

As soon as I wrote that I thought of the Pope and his red kippah :)
Funny how he wears one but his followers don't.

Every shul I've ever been in has greenery on Shavuot, so I guess none of them pay attention to the Vilna Gaon's ruling.

I wonder if Glenn Beck will be wearing a kippah when he presents himself at the Temple Mount ...

joshwaxman said...

I think I've seen shuls that don't, but anyway it is just proof of concept. A Biblical example of this is how matzeivos became forbidden, even though the Avos made them.

Cardinals also wear (red) yarmulkes. But then, it is not necessarily part of the prayer.

Can Gog wear a kippa? :)

Anonymous said...

Not all Sepharadim follow the Zohar (or the Arizal) on halaha. One example is the Spanish and Portuguese kahal. As an example, even after Haham Obadia overruled selihot after arbit on the basis of kabbala (as the Hida had done a couple of hundred years earlier), most of the Spanish and Portuguese kahal continued, on the basis of not following any rulings based on kabbala.

I read R’ Mansour regularly and was a little surprised by this halaha. Nonetheless, I have never noticed Sepharadim hold their hands this way in tefilla. I would say that this is because they are usually holding a siddur or if not, have their right hand over their heart and their left hand over their right, i.e. both hands against their chest. I cannot think of anyone who would avoid clasping his or her hands because of this Zohar or its proponents. It may be, however, that many have avoided doing so out of mesora.

Kol tuv


Wagner said...

"At least one person there appears to believe that the image has been PhotoShopped, because it is impossible that Rav Elyashiv would do such a thing!"
I wouldn't necessarily believe that commenter. There are enough jokesters who post their narishkeit comments on these sorts of blogs.

Boruch said...

I am of opinion that clasping hands became an issue due to Catholic prayer ritual, hence objections to such a behavior are first found in medieval Jewish literature ( Zohar , Sefer Hachasidim)


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