Shalom Learning Center Articles

Written by: Erin Parfet

Jewish Dance

Jewish DanceWith a basis in scripture ranging from Miriam’s dance in the Red Sea to the expressive poetry of Psalms, the Jewish people have since the beginning of time incorporated dance into their culture, traditions, and faith as a joyful form of worshipping the Lord. Ecclesiastes 3:1,4 seems to best summarize the Jewish attitude toward dance throughout history, even if that was not the original intention of the scripture. As Solomon writes, "There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven... a time to mourn and a time to dance."

The colorful history of Jewish dance is traced to certain Biblical and Talmudic passages, including Exodus 15:19–21, "When Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and horsemen went into the sea, the Lord brought the waters of the sea back over them, but the Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground. Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her with tambourines and dancing. Miriam sang to them, ‘Sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea.’"

God exhorts His children to worship in dance, such as King David rejoicing at the Ark of the Covenant being returned to Jerusalem in Psalm 149:2–3, "Let Israel rejoice before Him who made her; let the children of Zion be joyful in their King. Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with timbrel and harp." This message is reinforced in Psalm 150:4, "Praise him with the timbrel and dance; praise him with stringed instruments and organs."

Furthermore, scripture indicates the maidens of ancient Israel danced at the Lord’s annual feast in Shiloh.

But look, there is the annual festival of the Lord in Shiloh, which lies north of Bethel, east of the road that goes from Bethel to Shechem, and south of Lebonah.

So they instructed the Benjamites, saying, "Go and hide in the vineyards and watch. When the young women of Shiloh come out to join in the dancing, rush from the vineyards, and each of you seize one of them to be your wife. Then return to the land of Benjamin. When their fathers or brothers complain to us, we will say to them, ‘Do us the favor of helping them, because we did not get wives for them during the war. You will not be guilty of breaking your oath because you did not give your daughters to them.’"

So that is what the Benjamites did. While the young women were dancing, each man caught one and carried her off to be his wife. Then they returned to their inheritance, rebuilt the towns, and settled in them. (Judges 21:19–23)

At one point, Yom Kippur and the 15th of Av (Tu B’Av) were associated with courtship dances known as the "dance of young maidens," derived from Judges 21:19. Both of these holidays have taken on different meanings and more solemnity today. Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel wrote:

There were no happier days for Israel than the 15 of Av and the Day of Atonement, for on them, the daughters of Jerusalem used to go forth in white raiments; and these were borrowed, that none should be abashed which had them not... And the daughters of Jerusalem went forth to dance in the vineyards. And what did they say? "Young man, lift up your eyes and see what thou wouldst choose for thyself; set not your eyes on beauty, but set your eyes on family." (Sendrey, 1969:457)

Dance has also been used as a form of hospitality, such as when Jephthah’s daughter welcomed her father home.

 When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels? (Judges 11:34)

One Talmudic passage supporting the spiritual folk dances associated with the Jewish water-drawing festival is the following:

Whoever has not witnessed the joy of the festival of the water drawing has seen no joy in life. Pious men and men of affairs danced with torches in their hands, singing songs of joy and praise, and the Levites made music with lyres, harps, cymbals, trumpets, and countless other instruments. (Sukkah 5:1b)

To put it simply, many Jews endorse dance based on the above scriptures and more. Jews believe dance merits a place in Jewish life, if on no other basis, to "dance as David danced" in praising G-d. Jewish literature suggests that many of these dances are circular, or "machol."

Historical accounts suggest there were three major forms of Jewish dance dating back to the Biblical Jewish era: solemn ritual circle dances coinciding with temple observances; ecstatic dances based on David who would "dance with all his might," and lyrical dances that juxtaposed music and poetry, often based on Psalm 149:3 (and possibly the Song of Songs in the context of courtship and wedding dances). Lyrical dances seemed to wane in popularity during the Babylonian Exile (circa 600 BCE). Jewish dance (of which there are four general types: Yemenite, Hasidic, Klezmer, and Mizrahi) is not synonymous with the Israeli folk dancing of today.

It is not clear how the early Jewish dances were exactly performed. Some theorize that descriptions of ancient Hebrew dances may have been purged from the historical record intentionally to avoid being confused with Egyptian dances (Egyptian ritual dances, sacrificial dances performed by Pharaoh, harvest dances, various dances of thanksgiving, etc.). The Phoenician, Babylonian, and Hittite dances of the era were also denounced by the Jewish people as pagan; the Jewish people sought to dissociate Judaism from all things pagan. Some scholars have identified as many as thirty different words for "dance" in ancient Hebrew that would have appeared in the early Biblical writings and Talmud, so it appears dance was certainly integrated into early Jewish life, even if descriptions of the dances are lacking.

Other historians speculate that dancing was simply such an everyday, ordinary part of Jewish life that it was simply unremarkable and not worth mention in scripture or other early texts. For example, the previously mentioned celebration of Tu B’av (the ancient Jewish festival celebrating Israel’s grape harvest) included unmarried girls dressed in white dancing in the vineyards. This was a tradition, not anything remarkable or out of the ordinary given the customs and agrarian nature of the early Land of Israel.

Jewish ritual dances diminished in practice starting around the time of the Second Destruction of the Temple (circa 70 CE); however, these dances were never completely expunged from Jewish life. Such dances would later rebound in popularity in modern times in an effort to return to ancient Biblical roots and fundamental Jewish traditions. Ritual dances both in historical and modern times usually involve processionals around the sanctuary at the Jewish holidays, primarily the "Hags": Hag-Ha-matzot (Passover), Hag-Sukkoth (Feast of Tabernacles), Hag-Purim, and Hag-Shyuot (Feast of Weeks).

With the sunset of the Biblical era and dawn of the Middle Ages, sacred Jewish dance became less commonplace. Instead, secularized dances increased in prevalence in Jewish communities. This is especially true given the cultural influences that Jews experienced in different gentile lands as a result of the Diaspora. Wedding dances, along with Torah processionals and other dances traditionally affiliated with the chanting of prayers, managed to preserve traditional Jewish religious integrity and survive secularization, whereas many other dances succumbed to the secularization of the times. Another exception to the secularization of dance at the time would be found in Orthodox Jewish synagogues on the Feast of Simchat Torah, where some believe that sacred dance may have been preserved despite the surrounding cultural influences.

One reason that sacred wedding and courtship dances survived secularization is because of the Talmudic mitzvah (commandment) to celebrate the bride and the groom, despite the fact that men and women often dance separately at such functions. The Talmud shed light on the dignity of bridal processions, which was believed to be why wedding dances maintained more of a religious aura during this era.

In the modern era, Jewish wedding dances have become more elaborate, lifting the bride and groom on chairs in what has become the hora dance. This has become one of the most recognized Jewish dances worldwide today. The hora, performed in triple meter, originated in the Baltics and Southeastern Europe and could last for hours at some weddings. (However, the modern hora as we see at weddings and similar events today originated in 1924.) Some scholars speculate that the Song of Songs was originally derived from some of these ancient lyrical wedding dances. Even up to present times, wedding dances retain an important place in both religious and secular Jewish culture.

What will you see in the Shulamite? as if it were a dance between two companies.
How beautiful are thy steps in sandals, O prince's daughter! The rounding of your thighs is like the links of a chain, the work of a skilled worker. (Song of Songs 7:1-2)

For the European Jewry of the Middle Ages, dance was more a function of pleasure than an expression of religiosity or worship. Wedding houses and Tanzhaus (buildings used for various festivities other than wedding ceremonies) hired musicians and provided the Jews with public venues for community dance. In Italy during the Middle Ages, Jewish teachers would instruct their pupils in the Bible, Talmud, music, and dance.

During the Renaissance, European aristocracies and common folk alike would often partake in contra dances. These dances were segregated by gender or utilized a tikhele (handkerchief) to separate the genders when there were men and women participating in the same dance. Ashkenazi Jews danced to the klezmer dance during the 16th century, especially in wedding settings, and also to the sher dance, a traditional Jewish dance that evolved from ethnic dances in the Baltics (with Ukrainian and Moldavian influences). The sher dance is a circle dance that later becomes a promenade for couples. Some of these Ashkenazi dances would see a rebirth in the post-Holocaust years, as some Yiddish communities in the former Soviet Union resurrected these traditional dances at this time in history.

In the 18th century, Hasidism (a movement within Orthodox Judaism) focused on developing wordless melodies (niggunim) that often accompanied dances performed at a slow tempo as a means of religious expression rather than pure leisure. The use of circle dances was based on the Hasidic philosophy that "everyone is equal, each one being a link in the chain, the circle having no front or rear, no beginning or ending." Hasidic dances are still practiced in the religious communities today. Sometimes the rabbis would even dance, both individually and as part of the group. This dance would further evolve in the 19th century as Hasidism sought to re-spiritualize aspects of Jewish dance that had fallen to secular influences, bringing back aspects of the traditional Ashkenazic weddings of yesteryear. The goal was to reconstruct a more sacred dance that would be more spiritually edifying and religious while being perceived as less pagan and gentile.

Choreographed dances were believed to have been introduced to Jewish communities in Eastern Europe in the mid-19th century but really only lasted until the end of the 20th century. Cultural changes and world geopolitical events such as World War I and the subsequent Russian Revolution had profound impacts on Jewish dance culture, rendering choreographed dances less prominent in Jewish communities after this time.

It was also the 19th and early 20th centuries that gave birth to Israeli folk dance. Israeli folk dance is a kaleidoscope of different native European folk dances mish-mashed together by European Jews who had all immigrated to Israel and sought to combine their dance backgrounds into one unified dance style that they could all partake in. There were also influences from folk dance customs diffusing into Israel from faraway non-European lands such as Yemen and Ethiopia. Israeli folk dances were often originally performed by barefoot women while incorporating running and leaping. Such dances became part of traditional Jewish holiday celebrations and festival pageants on the kibbutzim. Once Israel became a state in 1948, these folk dances became part of the national fabric and culture of the Jewish state, and slowly became established in Jewish communities worldwide. It was a way that the Jews of the Diaspora could connect with the Jews in Eretz Yisrael and feel like one.

The national folk dance slowly became a symbol for Israeli independence from the British Crown, attempting to recreate many of the beautiful traditional dances of the Jewish people while desperately seeking to exclude anything deemed either pagan or overtly religious. However, the Jews involved in attempting to define Israeli folk dance had no historical records to base anything on—merely their imaginations, scripture, and their knowledge of various dance styles from other cultures. That said, the resulting Israeli folk dances took on a distinct flavor from any one of the cultural influences that contributed. Israeli folk dance falls under the purview of leisure, pleasure, and simply everyday life rather than a form of religious expression. Today, there are more than 3,000 Israeli folk dances.

Today, common Israeli folk dances include Tza’ad Temani, a Jewish folk dance with Yemenite influences often found at weddings and other festivities, and the Hora, originating from Ashkenazi dance. Another widely recognized Israeli folk dance found today is "Mayim Mayim" (meaning "water water"). Mayim Mayim was first choreographed in 1937 in honor of successfully discovering water in the desert.

Besides dance for leisure or pleasure, dance is also used in Jewish culture to honor important individuals, the death of a loved one at Orthodox funerals, the welcoming home and subsequent victory parades held in honor of soldiers who routed an enemy in war, and any event of thanksgiving outside of holiday rituals. The scripture on which this is based is as follows:

And it came to pass as they came, when David returned from the slaughter of the Philistines, that the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing to meet King Saul with timbrels, with joy, and with three-stringed instruments. (I Samuel 18:6-7)

While this article barely scratches the surface of the rich dance history of Judaism, it is evident that dance is very much entrenched in Jewish culture and religion.

"All of the important moments in Judaism are marked by our sense of celebration, which includes dance," said Judith Brin Ingber, a Minneapolis-based instructor of Jewish dance. "It’s a very Jewish time at a wedding; it’s a very Jewish time at the crossing of the Red Sea, when we become identified as a group, and Miriam became a prophet because of the victory dance she did with the women."

"It shows that we’re alive; it shows that we embody the joy of living," Brin Ingber continued. "We understand the sorrows, we understand the difficulties, but even Nazis trying to kill the Jewish body did not stop dancing in the camps... Under duress, in celebration, we never stopped dancing."

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