Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 13 November 2004 / 29 Heshvan 5765

To Bow or Not To Bow?

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman - www.rabbiullman.com
The Color of HeavenArtscroll

From: Ari T. in Illinois

Dear Rabbi,

I am thinking about taking a class in Tai Kwan Do to get some exercise. After sitting in on the first class, it seems that there is a lot of bowing involved: students are supposed to bow to the training room, to each other, and to the instructor. The instructor told me that this bowing is a typical gesture of respect, that it is bi-directional (instructors bow to students too), and is not a supplication. Given the Purim story though, where Mordechai refused to bow to Haman, I am hesitant to participate in this class. Is there any conflict between this type of bowing in martial arts and Judaism?

Dear Ari T.,

Bowing to people as a gesture of respect is perfectly okay. Abraham bowed to his guests: And he lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, three men were standing beside him, and he saw and he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent, and he prostrated himself to the ground (Genesis 18:2). Josephs brothers bowed to him: Now Joseph was the ruler over the landand Joseph's brothers came and prostrated themselves to him, with their faces to the ground (Genesis 42:6). Moses bowed to his father-in-law: So Moses went out toward Jethro, prostrated himself and kissed him (Exodus 18:7).

So if Tai Kwan Do bowing is nothing more than a gesture of respect toward others, there is no problem with it. Why then in the Purim episode did Mordechai refuse to bow to Haman? The Midrash explains that Haman claimed divine powers for himself. He even went so far as to attach an idolatrous icon to his clothing. He intended to lure the Jews to idol worship, and under these circumstances bowing to him would have been tantamount to bowing to an idol, which is strictly forbidden.

Regarding the question about bowing to the room, although it is customary to bow upon entering a synagogue, we dont bow to the room, but rather to the Divine presence resting within it. Therefore, bowing to the room in martial arts, even if it is not to a spiritual force but rather out of deference to the place of training, is forbidden. We may not bow, even out of respect, to anything other than people.

This does not mean that Judaism doesnt teach respect for other things, animate or inanimate. G-d instructed Aaron to initiate the first three plagues, and not Moses, as an expression of Moses deference to the waters of the Nile that saved him, and to the sand that received the body of the Egyptian murderer. (If this display of respect applies to inanimate objects, all the more so one must respect and appreciate living things and people.) However, bowing to these things is taking it a step too far. And even though we sometimes kiss a Torah scroll, or mezuzah or some holy book, it is important to realize that we are not kissing the object itself, per se, but expressing love for G-d whose name is written within it.

Sources:

  • Rashi on Megillat Esther 3:2
  • The idea of bowing to G-ds presence in the synagogue is expressed in the verse which is the source for the custom, and which we actually say while entering and bowing: But I, with Your great loving-kindness, shall enter Your House; I shall prostrate myself toward Your Holy Temple in the fear of You (Psalms 5:8).
  • Regarding Moses deference to the water of Nile and to the earth, see Exodus 7:19, 8:1, 8:12, and Rashi there

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