This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

So You Think You Can Dance*

The Day of Atonement is characterised by its mood of austere solemnity as the Torah commands us to “afflict our souls,” depriving ourselves of food and other physical pleasures in order to concentrate on the spiritual purification that will, we hope, make us deserving of divine clemency.

And yet ancient Jewish texts also portray Yom Kippur as a joyous time. The Mishnah records that Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel looked back nostalgically to the days when the Second Temple stood in Jerusalem, and recalled that “there were no days as festive for Israel as the fifteenth of Av and the Day of Atonement. On those days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white garments... and dance in the vineyards.

And what would they say? Young man, lift up your eyes and behold what you are choosing for yourself. Do not fix your gaze on beauty, fix your gaze on pedigree...

Indeed the Mishnah’s description suggests a kind of dating site in which each lady strives to profile her most pleasing trait—whether it be physical beauty, prestigious family or an appeal to the young man’s altruism.

There is no obvious thematic connection between Yom Kippur and the fifteenth of Av, and perhaps their similarity consisted of nothing other than the joyous feeling that they shared.

The fifteenth of Av is not mentioned explicitly in the Bible, and the talmudic sages devoted considerable efforts to speculations about the reasons for its special status as a day of festivity or seeking marital partners.

As regards the Day of Atonement, on the other hand, the ancient sages provide no extensive discussion as to why it would have been celebrated by dancing in the vineyards. In one passage, the Talmud treats this as an obvious corollary of its being the occasion for forgiveness and pardon—the culmination of an intense process of judgment and spiritual renewal that reaches its climax in the dwindling twilight hours, as the merciful creator grants forgiveness to his people.

According to the traditional chronology, Yom Kippur was also the date when Moses descended from Mount Sinai bearing the second set of tablets inscribed with the ten commandments. This was seen as an assurance that the people had been pardoned for their fall from grace in the shameful episode of the golden calf that had impelled Moses to shatter the first tablets.

Nevertheless, a small faction of commentators could not accept the notion that virtuous Jewish maidens were dancing and trying to attract marriage partners at a time that was supposed to be devoted to moral introspection and physical deprivation.

A medieval Yemenite commentary attributed that opinion to the Babylonian Ge’onim Sherira and Hai. According to them, the two dates mentioned by Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel were equated only as regards their intense joyfulness—however the dancing in the vineyards took place only on the fifteenth of Av and not on Yom Kippur, since “we do not empower the evil inclination on the Day of Atonement.”

An ironic twist on that premise gave rise to an intriguing development in some modern Jewish communities. When freethinkers, especially followers of the anarchist ideology, were looking for a blatant way to flaunt religious tradition, they introduced “Yom Kippur balls” at which participants could enjoy dinner, singing and dancing. This institution debuted in London in 1888, then spread to various North American communities. It enjoyed popularity and notoriety until it eventually fizzled out (in part because it failed to offend the tolerant Canadian Jewish religious establishment) with the final event of its kind, held in Montreal in 1905.

Travelers to the Caucasus in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reported that it was customary there to hurry through the Yom Kippur service, after which bands of unmarried young people would wander off, equipped with drums and concertinas, and spend the afternoon in lively song (though not, apparently, in dance). Similar testimonies came from Jewish communities in Libya.

Some writers want to see this as a survival of the ancient Israeli custom of dancing in the vineyards. More prosaically, I wonder whether it might simply have arisen as a way for young people (especially girls, who were usually unlettered in those traditional societies) to deal with the seemingly endless holiday prayers while their parents were occupied all day in the synagogue.

The wording of the Mishnah strongly supports the position that the dancing took place on Yom Kippur. After identifying the two festive dates, Rabban Simeon stated that the daughters of Jerusalem would dance “on those days”—using the plural form—which seems to leave no room for doubt that the description applies to both the fifteenth of Av and the Day of Atonement.

Several other ancient rabbinic texts also understood that Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel was referring to dancing on Yom Kippur. For example, when the book of Lamentations says of devastated Zion that “her virgins are afflicted, and she is in bitterness,” the Aramaic Targum inserted an explanation that “her virgins mourn because they have stopped going out on the fifteenth of Av and on the Day of Atonement to dance their dances. Therefore she too is very bitter in her heart.”

The eminent medieval Provençal exegete Rabbi David Kimchi also accepted the historicity of the dancing on the Day of Atonement. Thus, when the biblical book of Judges relates how the Israelite tribes wanted to revoke their earlier oath to withhold their daughters from the men from the tribe of Benjamin, it describes their plan to abduct some young ladies who could thereby be married to Benjaminite husbands without actively violating the oath: “And, behold, if the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance in dances, then come ye out of the vineyards.” In commenting on this passage, Rabbi Kimchi speculated that the allusion was to an ancient festivity that would be held annually on one of the festivals, “possibly Yom Kippur.”

A prominent authority who rejected the tradition about dancing on Yom Kippur was Rabbi Israel Lipschutz of Danzig in the nineteenth century. It was clear to him that the supremely holy day is not an appropriate occasion for young Jewish ladies to be roaming outdoors trying to ensnare potential husbands. (On the other hand, the medieval Spanish scholar Rabbi Yom Tov Ishbili stressed that the white garments donned by the maidens symbolized the purity and wholesomeness of their motives.)

In support of his interpretation, Rabbi Lipschutz pointed to the fact that Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel in the Mishnah cited a verse from the Song of Songs: “Go forth, O ye daughters of Zion, and behold King Solomon with the crown wherewith his mother crowned him in the day of his espousals, and in the day of the gladness of his heart.”

Now, according to rabbinic tradition, the Song of Songs must not be understood in its literal sense as a romantic song, but rather as a sublime allegory depicting the relationship between God and the people of Israel. Rabbi Lipschutz insisted therefore that Rabban Simeon’s statement must also be interpreted in this manner, as depicting the spiritual longing of the Jewish people who are being personified allegorically as a young maiden. She is imploring her beloved to overlook her sins and imperfections, and not to be taken in by the superficial charms of the rival heathen nations. With this in mind, our eager bachelorette urges the Almighty to appreciate her holiness and Israel’s unique pedigree as the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

And we hope this year that the lady will impress her prospective partner with her spirited and flawless footwork.


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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, September 9, 2018, p. 9.
  • For further reading:
    • Abraham ben Solomon. Perush Neviʼim Rishonim. Edited by Yosef Kafaḥ. 1st ed. Ḳiryat Ono: Mekhon Mosheh le-ḥeḳer Mishnat ha-Rambam, 759. [Hebrew]
    • Albeck, Chanoch, ed. Shishah Sidré Mishnah. Vol. 2. 6 vols. Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv: Mosad Bialik and Dvir, 1959. [Hebrew]
    • Bergman, Yehuda. Ha-Folklor Ha-Yehudi: Yedi‘at ‘Am Yisra’el, Emunotav, Tekhunotav u-Minhagav. Jerusalem: R. Mass, 1961. [Hebrew]
    • Chorny, Joseph Judah. Sefer ha-Masaʻoth be-’Eretz Ḳauḳaz uva-Medinot ’asher me‘ever le-Ḳauḳaz u-Ḳetzat Medinot ’Aḥerot be-Negev Russia. St. Petersburg: Obshchestvo dli︠a︡ rasprostraneni︠a︡ prosvi︠e︡shcenii︠a︡ mezhdu Evrei︠a︡mi v Rossii, 1884. [Hebrew]
    • Margolis, Rebecca E. “A Tempest in Three Teapots: Yom Kippur Balls in London, New York, and Montreal.” Canadian Jewish Studies 9 (2001): 38–84.
    • Sassoon, David Solomon. Ohel David: (Ohel Dawid) Descriptive Catalogue of the Hebrew and Samaritan Manuscripts in the Sassoon Library, London. 2 vols. London: Oxford University Press, H. Milford, 1932.
    • Sperber, Daniel. Minhage Yisraʼel: Meḳorot ve-Toladot. Vol. 2. 8 vols. Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 1991. [Hebrew]
    • Tabory, Joseph. Jewish Festivals in the Time of the Mishnah and Talmud. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1995. [Hebrew]