Ask A Jew: How come Jews pound their chest when they pray?

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By Neal Schindler

How come sometimes, when Jews pray (like during Yom Kippur services), they pound their chests with their fists?

The article on the Viddui — the ritual of confession on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement — at MyJewishLearning.com explains that:

worshipers gently beat themselves on the chest for each transgression listed. This action serves as a symbolic punishment for our hearts, which are ultimately responsible for leading us to sins of greed, lust and anger.

Back in 2013, JTA (aka the Jewish Telegraphic Agency) ran a considerably sassier article on the same topic. The lede asks: “On Yom Kippur, when we beat our chests during the confession, maybe we should be knocking instead on our heads. After all, isn’t that where all the trouble starts?” JTA’s piece includes a perspective that views the ritualistic chest-tapping less as self-flagellation and more as self-help:

To Rabbi Goldie Milgram — the founder of Reclaiming Judaism, an organization seeking Jewish innovation and “maximal involvement,” and author and publisher of a number of books on creating a meaningful Jewish life — striking one’s chest on Yom Kippur is an acknowledgment that “I am out of alignment.” Tapping on the chest is a way to realign, Milgram said from the Alliance for Jewish Renewal Aleph Kallah in New Hampshire, where she was teaching.

I’m not a fan of associating punishment with physical self-harm, so I appreciate Rabbi Milgram’s point of view. I haven’t attended a Yom Kippur service in a good long time, but if I do again someday, I’ll likely prefer the rabbi’s language of alignment — somewhat reminiscent of yoga, isn’t it? — to the cruder notion that atonement requires even symbolic self-punishment.

Nonetheless, I assume that for many Jews this long-standing practice is a meaningful expression of remorse for a year’s worth of misdeeds. There are about as many ways to be Jewish as there are Jews, and I try my hardest not to look down on others’ practices (in part because I wouldn’t want them looking down on mine).

About Neal Schindler

A native of Detroit, Neal Schindler has lived in the Pacific Northwest since 2002. He has held staff positions at Seattle Weekly and The Seattle Times and was a freelance writer for Jew-ish.com from 2007 to 2011. Schindler was raised in a Reconstructionist Jewish congregation and is now a member of Spokane's Reform congregation, Emanu-El. He is the director of Spokane Area Jewish Family Services. His interests include movies, Scrabble, and indie rock. He lives with his wife, son, and two cats in West Central Spokane.

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