The Origins of Jewish Performance

From Prohibition to Precedent.

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Theatre as we know it emerged from ancient Greece. To celebrate their gods, the Greeks gathered to watch plays on religious holidays. Greek theatre connected spectators, actors, and gods through observation. Judaism's strict adherence to monotheism, modesty, and mitzvot--designed to connect people to their creator through action--stands in obvious contradiction. 

Indeed, there is a long-standing tradition of Jewish opposition to theatre. Many base this prohibition on the second commandment, "Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness" (Exodus 20:4). The Talmud also records forceful comments that cast a broader prohibition, forbidding "the theatre and circuses of idolatry" (Avodah Zarah 18b; Shabbat 150a). Yet despite resistance and conflict, a Jewish tradition of theatricality and performance emerged.

Biblical Theatre

In the Bible, performance and theatrics appear in a number of contexts. Some biblical figures use costumes to hide their identities and thus secure what they need or want. Rebecca dresses Jacob in Esau's clothing to help him pursue the birthright through deception (Genesis 27). Joseph, as Egypt's viceroy, feigns not recognizing his brothers when they meet in Egypt, years after they sold him into slavery (Genesis 42). Joab directs a woman to act as a mourner to draw King David into meeting his rebellious son, Absalom (Samuel II 14). Performance in the Bible is also presented as an act of worship. Miriam leads the women in song and dance after crossing the Red Sea (Exodus 15), and David performs an ecstatic dance before the ark as it was brought to Jerusalem (Samuel II 6).

theater masksBut how much do these instances of drama in the Bible reflect the realities of ancient Israel? Unlike the ancient Greeks, who attended performances of tragedies and comedies chanted by masked actors during the religious festival of Dionysus, ancient Israelites had no theatres. However, the Bible does describe an ancient practice of publicly reading or chanting the Torah text: "When all Israel comes to appear before the Lord, your God, in the place that He will choose, you shall read this Torah before all Israel, in their ears..." (Deuteronomy 31:11-13).

This commandment evolved into the current practice of weekly chanting from the Pentateuch in synagogues. The cantillation notes, whose current version dates back to between the 8th and 10th centuries, add more than a melodic element to this custom. Cantillation serves as punctuation, indicating when a sentence or idea begins and ends, and in a few instances also dramatizing biblical scenes. For example, in the story of the seduction of Joseph by Potiphar's wife, the shalshelet cantillation note on Joseph's "adamant refusal" (Genesis 38:8) is a sustained wavering sound that rises and falls three times. This seldom used note underscores the tension between Joseph’s desire and his ultimate refusal to yield to temptation.

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Yoni Oppenheim is a theatre director living in New York and the associate editor of the Jewish Play Catalogue. He holds a B.F.A. in Drama from NYU and is a candidate for an M. Ph. in Ibsen Studies at the University of Oslo.