—Biblical Data:

Rhythmical and measured stepping to the accompaniment of music, singing, or the beating of drums. This exercise, generally expressive of joy, is found among all primitive peoples. It was originally incident to religious worship, or to the martial demonstrations of a tribe. It may be inferred, therefore, that dancing of this character obtained also among the ancient Hebrews. Their cognates, the Bedouin Arabs, at the present time indulge in wild dances of this kind (Doughty, "Arabia Deserta," i. 31), and in the rites of the hadj old religious dances have been preserved (Wellhausen, "Reste Arabischen Heidentums," 1st ed., pp. 106, 165).


That dancing among the Hebrews was chiefly connected with demonstrations of joy is indicated by the use of the word , usually connoting "playing," "sporting," or "jesting" (I Sam. xviii. 7; II Sam. vi. 5, 21; I Chron. xiii. 8, xv. 29; Jer. xxx. 19, xxxi. 4: ). That violent motions of the feet, not a graceful gliding, characterized the dance appears from the verb , meaning originally "to leap like lambs," used with the meaning of "to dance."

, in II Sam. vi. 14, 16, seems to indicate a round dance (compare I Chron. xv. 29), most likely the turning round and round upon the heels on one spot, as practised by the dervishes. The choric dance is denoted by , a derivative of = "to writhe," "to turn" (Lam. v. 15; Ps. xxx. 11, 12; Cant. vii. 1; Ex. xv. 20, xxxii.19; I Sam. xviii. 6 [Septuagint, "dancing women"], xxi. 2, xxix. 5; Judges xi. 34, xxi. 21; Ps. lxxxvii. 7). That the religious dance constituted the principal feature of every festival is shown by the history of the word ("Z. D. M. G." xli. 719; Driver's "Notes on the Books of Samuel," p. 173; Wellhausen, "Israelitische und Jüdische Geschichte," p. 101, Berlin, 1897; idem, "Reste Arabischen Heidentums," l.c.). In the course of time it came to mean merely a festival, or one of the three pilgrim festivals, though its primitive connotation was a procession around the altar or shrine executed in a certain halting rhythm, whence the pilgrimage to Mecca, the hadj, has taken its name. The term "pesaḥ" recalls the same facts. It indicates this "limping" dance (see Toy in "Journal of Biblical Literature and Exegesis," xvi. 178 et seq.); whence, also, the jibe in I Kings xviii. 26: "How long will you dance at two 'thresholds'" (Jastrow's emendation). These religious processional dances may have represented some mythological event, a swaying to and fro of contending parties (see Jacob's experience in Gen. xxxii. 29: "he limps").

Religious Dances.

The Biblical books have undoubtedly preserved the memory of religious dances in connection with the making of the golden calf, and at the Red Sea (Ex. xv. 20, xxxii. 19). The story of Jephthah's daughter (Judges xi. 34) illustrates this custom, and suggests that it was a part of a very ancient sacrificial cult. In I Sam. xviii. 6, xxi. 11 women dance in honor of Saul and David. It seems that women were prominent in these choragic ceremonies. The "ḳedeshot" attached to every sanctuary may even have been professional dancers. Ps. cxviii. 27 probably alludes to a procession of this kind in the puzzling phrase . Post-exilic psalms evidence that processions of dancers to the sound of various musical instruments (flutes, trumpets, timbrels, cymbals, drums) had a prominent share in religious celebrations (Ps. xxvi. 6, cxlix. 3, cl. 4 [lxviii. 25: S. B. O. T.]). The request which was addressed to Pharaoh by Moses (Ex. x. 9) indicates that such processions were an old-established custom.

As do the dervishes even at the present day (Tristram, "Eastern Customs," pp. 207-210), so did the Prophets resort to dancing as a means of working themselves up to the proper nervous pitch (I Sam. x. 10, 11; xix. 20-24). Their resulting exaltation proved contagious, as do, according to Lane, the mad contortions of the dancing dervishes today.

Tribal and Family Dances.

Dancing marked also tribal and family festivals. At Shiloh an annual feast was celebrated at which the maidens indulged in dancing (Judges xxi. 21), and it is more than probable that Abel-meholah ("the dancing meadow") owes its name to a similar usage (I Kings xix. 16). For the times of the Talmud a kind of "marriage dance," such as is found in many modern children's plays, is remembered (Ta'an. iv. 8) as occurring on the Day of Atonement and on the fifteenth day of Ab; and the theory that these "dances" are survivals of marriage by capture is not without reasonableness. The "torchlight procession" which took place at the Festival of the Water-Drawing () was particpated in by the most distinguished notables (Suk. v. 1-4).

In the days when Greek immoralities menaced the very existence of Judaism, dancing—especially by professional and probably lewd women—was looked upon with disfavor (Ecclus. [Sirach] ix. 4). The daughter of Herodias undoubtedly imitated and took the place of a professional dancer at the banquet (Matt. xiv. 6). From other Biblical passages it is clear that dancing was demanded on similar occasions (Jer. xxxi. 4, 13). Lam. v. 15; Eccl. iii. 4; and Ps. xxx. 11 indicate that the dance was considered an expression of joy. Some have urged Cant. vii. 1 in support of the theory that a sort of square dance ("kimeḥolat ha-maḥanayim") was known to the Jews. Wetzstein identifies it with the sword-dance that still takes place at Eastern wedding-feasts.

E. G. H.—In Talmudic Times:

In post-Biblical times dancing continued to be a favorite exercise on both religious and secular occasions. "The woman of sixty runs to the sound of music like the girl of six" (M. Ḳ. 9b). A feast was made complete by dancing, and noted scholars were in the habit of providing such entertainment for their guests (Ned. 51a). Dancing in honor of the bride at a wedding was deemed an act of piety, and sedate rabbis often vied with one another in its exercise. Thus, R. Judah b. 'Illai used to dance at weddings waving a myrtle branch (Ket. 17a). Moreover, the festive procession which in Biblical times made the periodical pilgrimages to Jerusalem such a source of popular joy, forming the main feature in the observance of the great holidays, continued to fill with glee the highways of Palestine in Talmudic days. Franz Delitzsch properly uses a description of these jubilant ceremonies as an argument against these theorists who hold that the Law had rendered the life of the post-exilic Jews sad and gloomy, depriving their religious practises of spontaneity and joyfulness. The Mishnah, for instance, relates in how truly popular a manner and with what accompaniment of genuine joy the men from the provinces were wont to bring the first-fruits to the Temple at Jerusalem. They did not come singly, as men bearing burdens, but in festive processions, with light, joyous, grateful hearts.

(Bik. iii. 2; Yer. ad loc.)

"All the villages of a district send their dwellers to the chief city of the district; the pilgrims pass the night in the streets of the town, refraining from entering the houses, and at dawn the leader cries out: 'Arise, and let us go up to Zion, to the house of our God!' while on the march they sing choral psalms, 'I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go unto the house of the Lord,' being the favorite refrain. When they reach Jerusalem they chant: 'Our feet are standing within thy gates, O Jerusalem!' (Ps. cxxii.). At the Temple mount they strike up: 'Praise ye the Lord, praise God in his sanctuary!' (Ps. cl.), and having reached the hall, they finish with 'Praise ye the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!' (Ps. cxlvi.). The men fromthe neighborhood bring fresh figs and grapes, and those from afar dried figs and grapes. And the ox of sacrifice goes before them, its horns embossed with gold and a crown of olive on its head. The flute is played all the while they are marching, until they come close upon Jerusalem. Then they send delegates to the city to offer their first-fruits. The foremost priests come out to meet them: according to the number of pilgrims is the priestly deputation. In Jerusalem all workmen in the streets pause in their work to greet the comers: 'Be welcome, our brethren, men of such-and-such a town!' And the flute still plays on before them until they reach the mount of the sanctuary".

Festival of Water-Drawing.

The Talmud also contains traditions concerning the joyful manner in which the two national holidays, the 15th of Ab (the Feast of Wood-Offering, or "Xylophoriæ," as Josephus calls it) and the Day of Atonement, were celebrated. Various causes, it appears, were held to have given birth to these two feasts; at any rate, they were generally observed. On those days the maidens of Israel were in the habit of going forth to the vineyards, each clad in well-washed white, and joining in the choral dances. They all appeared in borrowed gowns, so as not to shame the poor. The young men came and looked on, while the dancers sang appropriate songs. It would seem that brides were oftentimes chosen at these gatherings (Ta'an. 30b). Similarly, there is a Talmudic tradition that "whoever has not witnessed the joy of the Festival of Water-Drawing has seen no joy in his life." On those occasions, on the night of the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles, huge assemblies of people gathered in the women's court of the Temple, bearing lamps of gold and vessels for water, while every house in Jerusalem was brightly illuminated. "Pious men and men of affairs," adds the tradition, "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" (Suk. 51a; Maimonides, "Yad," Lulab, viii. 12, 13). Two galleries were built for the spectators, one for men and one for women. The celebration lasted all night and ended at dawn, announced by blasts of trumpets, with the pouring of water upon the altar.

The fondness of the ancient Jew for dancing is suggested in the hope naively expressed by R. Eleazar: "Some day the Holy One, blessed be He! will give a dance for the righteous, and He will sit among them in the Garden of Eden, and each one will point his finger at Him, saying, as it is written (Isa. xxv. 9), 'Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is the Lord; we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation'" (Ta'an. end).

It will be seen that dancing among the Jews preserved its primitive character: a spontaneous expression of joy rather than an esthetic pleasure. In both ancient and medieval times, therefore, it consisted of "gesticulations, violent leaps and bounds, hopping in a circle, rather than graceful pose, and soft, rhythmic movements." The popularity of the amusement in the Middle Ages is attested by the spread of the dancing-hall, or "Tanzhaus," which, for the use of both weddings and ordinary dances, was established in almost every ghetto of France and Germany. At first these halls, frequented especially on Sabbaths and feast-days, witnessed little mixed dancing. But when the latter habit came into vogue, the Rabbis opposed it strenuously on account of the license and the marital quarrels to which it led, citing in support the verse in Proverbs: "Hand to hand shall not go unpunished" (xi. 21, Hebr.). The nearest relations alone, such as husband and wife, father and daughter, brother and sister, were exempted from the inhibition. Needless to say, the rabbinic rule was often infringed by the bolder young men and women. That mixed dancing was not without its moral dangers was witnessed by the license which its prevalence engendered among the enthusiastic followers of Shabbethai ḃebi. Occasionally, professional Jewish dancers occur; for instance in the seventeenth century, when the sultan engaged Jewish fiddlers and dancers to perform at a banquet; and they are not infrequent in the modern Orient, more especially in Tunis. In these latter forms, of course, dancing has become a purely social diversion without any religious import; but the original significance of dancing as an expression of religious joy and fervor may yet be observed in the synagogues of Orthodox Jews on the Feast of Simḥat Torah ("Rejoicing of the Law"), where the primitive religious dance may be said to have survived.

  • Tristram, Eastern Customs, pp. 207 et seq.;
  • Wetzstein, Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, 1873, pp. 285 et seq.;
  • Benzinger, Arch. Index;
  • Nowack, Lehrbuch der Hebräischen Archäologie, i. 279;
  • Wellhausen, Psalms, in S. B. O. T. Appendix;
  • Schudt, Merckwürdigkeiten, ii. 5;
  • Berliner, Aus dem Innern Leben, p. 8;
  • Güdemann, Gesch. des Erziehungswesens, iii. 138 et seq.;
  • Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, pp. 75, 254, 380 et seq.;
  • Hamburger, R. B. T. i. 977;
  • Franz Delitszch, Iris, pp. 189 et seq. (English trans.).
S. S. H. G. E.
Images of pages