Lift your hands toward the sanctuary and acknowledge Adonai as the Source of Blessing. (134:2)
Raised hands with clenched fists can be an aggressive gesture, as in a boxer’s posture, ready to fight. Raised hands can be a gesture of surrender, hands far away from a weapon. Raised hands and arms stretched to the sides can be a welcoming gesture, preparing to envelope a loved one with an embrace. The same raised hands and arms extended forward can look more like a gesture of supplication.
Holding one’s hands up as a gesture of prayer is common in some Christian churches, but rarely seen in synagogues. Yet not only do both the Psalmist and Isaiah (1:15) make reference to raised hands as a prayer posture, but also the Priestly blessing (Numbers 6:23-27), known in Hebrew as nesi’at kapayim, raising of the hands, is recited with raised, outstretched hands.
I experience the posture of the priestly blessing as an active posture, channeling God’s blessings through the split fingers of the Kohen, forming the letter Shin for the word Shalom, peace, the most important blessing of all. The posture of prayer with raised hands, on the other hand, feels more passive to me, one’s hands open to receive whatever God choose, or chooses not, to send. I wonder if Jews lost the art of praying with our arms because we who grew to rely on holding books of prayer to formulate our words to God. Thus, our hands were no longer free to engage in prayers and gestures of their own.
Sometimes, during prayer, I put the book aside and allow myself to use my upper body to more fully engage with the words I am saying. I keep in mind, though, that it is the inner kavanah that counts, not the external fervor of the loudness of the voice of the body. Ultimately, the goal is to acknowledge God as the Source of Blessing and express gratitude. Gestures and posture ought to serve that purpose, rather than becoming an end unto themselves.