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May Jews bow as a courtesy?

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Like many Jews, I have been taught that Jews don't bow; many people trace this prohibition to Mordechai not bowing to Haman.

This custom can be further traced to Exodus 20:5 - "You shall not bow down to them or serve them." - while literally talking about idols, the prohibition was extended to monarchs who were seen as divine, or as extensions of divine power.

A number of years ago, though, I travelled to Japan, and faced a different cultural reality -- bowing not as an acknowledgement of superiority, but merely as a polite courtesy among equals. After a brief period of discomfort, I decided that the Japanese polite bow was simply not the same as the prohibited bow-to-authority, and started returning the bow of anyone who bowed to me. (I'm aware that there is huge cultural nuance in how shallow or deep a bow is, but I wasn't far enough immersed in the culture to do more than a bare minimum of politeness.)

Now we come to 2020, the first plague year in most people's lifetimes, where norms and customs are changing rapidly. In my area masks are mandatory, and will likely remain mandatory for quite some time; losing the ability to smile at people makes other gestures of courtesy and politeness feel even more important. I have adopted a modified bow with my hands over my heart as both a polite greeting/"thank you" and as a subtle way to keep people from trying to shake my hand. (In the course of my work I interact with many people, and it is important to me to avoid contact as much as possible.)

Is this Halachically acceptable?

And the bigger question: is the prohibition on bowing an actual part of Jewish law, or merely a tradition?

(Please note that while I bring up Mordechai and Haman, this question is absolutely not "Purim Torah".)

Why should this post be closed?

2 comments

I offered my shul Rabbi exactly that! We bowed to each other instead of shaking hands after daven. ‭Alaychem‭ 16 days ago

How do you define bowing? Bending your knees? Touching the ground with your face? ‭Kazi bácsi‭ 16 days ago

1 answer

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We can't learn from Mordechai not bowing to Haman, as that was a special case. Our Sages were bothered that it is permissible to bow to a human, so why didn't Mordechai bow? Indeed, we see that Yaakov bowed to his brother Eisav (Genesis 33:3). Yosef's brothers bowed to him (ibid 42:6). There are also halachic sources which permit bowing to a human when there's no concern for literal idol worship (Sanhedrin 61b; Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 89:2; Rema Yoreh Deah 150:3).

Therefore, the Sages understood that Haman had an idol attached to his clothing (Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer Chapter 50; Esther Rabbah 6:2). Mordechai didn't want to bow to such an idol, which definitely is forbidden. Had it not been for this idol, it would have been permissible to bow to him (Yalkut Meam Loez to Esther 3:2).

In fact, the Aish article you linked to says that that boy in the story didn't want to bow to an idol. Furthermore, the article you linked to about Mordechai brings the same arguments I did, so I'm not sure what's the question. Therefore, bowing out of respect shouldn't be problematic.

Although, just to clarify, and I'm not sure if this was included in your question, but there is a Biblical prohibition against bowing fully prostrated on a stone surface (Leviticus 26:1; Sefer HaMitzvos Lo Sa'aseh § 12). Rabbinically, it is prohibited to do so on any surface (see Rema Orach Chaim 131:8 and Taz ad. loc.). So whether or not there's an idol around, a person wouldn't be allowed to do such a bowing gesture, even out of respect. However, I would think it would be socially awkward to do such a thing to another, even in Japan, even during a pandemic.

2 comments

This seems pretty clear, though now I'm wondering at the source of the rather widespread perception that Jews shouldn't bow to Earthly authority. ‭Aliza‭ 15 days ago

@Aliza I personally have never heard of that perception. If I'm right that it's incorrect, what's the value of knowing how it started? Your initial suggestions seem good enough ‭robev‭ 15 days ago

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