All My Bones Cry Out to the Lord

Jewish dance from the Bible to Hasidism.

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The celebrations reached a climax in the dances of the water-drawing festival: "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 of praise, and the Levites made music with lyre and harp and cymbals and trumpets and countless other instruments" (Sukkah 5:1b).

The Book of Judges (21:21), in describing the annual feast in Shiloh, tells of the bride-choosing ceremonies. The story of the capture of brides by the surviving men of the tribe of Benjamin indicates that choosing brides during the vineyard dances was a recognized practice in Israel.

Others believe it was the celebration of the vines on the Fifteenth of Av. According to the Mishnah, Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel declared, "There were no holidays for Israel like the fifteenth of Av and the Day of Atonement, on which the daughters of Jerusalem went out in white dresses which were borrowed so that no one need be ashamed if she had none. And the daughters of Jerusalem went forth and danced in a circle in the vineyards. And what spake they? 'Youth, lift up thine eyes and behold her whom thou wouldst choose'" (Taanit 4:8).

In the Song of Songs (7:1), one finds the rather obscure mention of "the dance of the two companies," which seems to have been taken from a traditional wedding dance, and may imply two groups of dancers, a type of dancing that can still be seen at Bedouin festivities in the Middle East.

In talmudic literature (Ketubot 17a) the bridal procession was regarded with great deference and was given priority on public thoroughfares requiring even a funeral procession to make way. Dancing in honor of the bride at a wedding was considered an act of religious devotion. Rabbis and scholars performed it joyously, each in his own manner.

Rabbi Judah ben Ilai would take a myrtle twig and dance before the bride singing. Rabbi Samuel ben Isaac, even when he was old, would juggle three myrtle twigs as he sang and danced. Rabbi Aha danced with the bride on his shoulder (ibid.).

In the Diaspora

During the dispersion, the dancing associated with the normal activities of a nation in its own country ceased. The rabbinical authorities often forbade dancing in public.

The many discussions in the rabbinical literature and responsa about dancing include opinions ranging from lukewarm compromise to outright hostility. At weddings and bridal feasts and for the Sabbath and particularly on Purim and Simhat Torah and Lag ba-Omer dancing continued while taking on new forms.

In European Jewry of the Middle Ages, dancing for pleasure was an end in itself. In the medieval ghettos of France, Germany, and Poland, where living quarters were crowded, almost every Jewish community had a wedding-house or Tanzhaus for festive occasions. Here the Tanzfuehrer (dance leader or caller) was aided by hired musicians.

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Amnon Shiloah

Amnon Shiloah is Professor of Musicology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Dvora Lapson

Dvora Lapson (1907-1996) performed, choreographed, and researched Jewish dance. She served as director of the Dance Education Department of the Board of Jewish Education in New York, and was an instructor in Jewish dance education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.