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Karen Codman Folk Dance Federation of California, South, Inc.

Biblical Roots in Jewish Dance
By Karen Codman, 1977


Jews The Jews have always been a dance-oriented people. Even during their long and arduous confinement in the ghettos of medieval times, the Jews developed "dance houses" and had "dance leaders." These two developments greatly influenced the growth of court and parlor dancing during the Renaissance Era. The oriental Jewish communities also have had a rich dance tradition throughout their history.

Insights into the roots of Jewish dance can be found in the Biblical and later Talmudic narratives. In Biblical and Talmudic Hebrew, thirty different words for dance and dancing exist; indicating the importance of dance in ancient Jewish religious and secular life. Although actual detailed description of dances are lacking, the Bible contains scores of references to dance. One possible explanation is that dance descriptions were purged from the text because of the similarities that existed between Hebrew and Pagan dance forms. Another probability was that dance was so commonplace in Biblical society that it was taken for granted, and the framers of the Bible saw little religious or literary merit to including dance descriptions.

The large number of terms for ritual dance used in the Bible (eleven), when contrasted with the one word found for secular dance, indicates the essential role of dance in religious practice. The words themselves give some indication of the general styles of the dances done.1 One word used frequently is "hul" ("to whirl"). (Sendry, 1949:446) When used in reference to dance, "hul" connotes a whirling, writhing, twisting motion and a fairly brisk tempo. Dance is usually synonymous to "make merry" and "sahak" in Hebrew; thus, any Biblical reference to making merry, to making sport, or play, usually refers ot a very joyous form of dance. (Sendry, 69:446) This form is often used in reference to ecstatic worship of G-d, as in "and David and Israel played (danced) before G-d with all their might" (II Samuel 6:5) or "Before the Lord I will make merry (dance)" (II Samual 6:21).

Many more such descriptive synonyms exist. One particular important synonim is "chagog," which generally means to celebrate a "hag," or joyous festival or feast. These "hags" usually include solemn processionals in the ritual, thus, festivals came to imply dancing in its colloquial usage, and the word "chagog" came to mean dancing. Another particularly interesting synonim for dance is "pasah," which means "to pass over" (as in the Festival or Pesach or Passover), but also has a secondary meaning, "to limp or to dance in a limping fashion." (Sendry, 1969:447) A possibility exists that a ritual dance done in a limping style was associated with the celebration of Passover.

Early Jewish dance was profoundly influenced by the dances of the surrounding cultures. Certainly, a great impact was made by Egyptian dance and ritual, to which the Jews were exposed for four centuries. Much Egyptian artwork depicts dancers in processionals honoring the various gods. These processionals were very common in Egyptian rituals. Often they were accompanied by sacrificial dances, generally of ecstatic quality and danced during sacrificial sacrifices by the Pharaoh only, who at that moment represented all of Egypt. These sacrificial dances were very similar in form to dances done before the ark of the covenant.2 The Egyptians also had acrobatic dances and harvest dances of thanksgiving, found subsequently in Jewish repertoire. The Jews tended to assimilate the more refined and dignified dance styles of the Egyptians and shunned those dances which were unrestrained or orgiastic.

Influences also filtered into Jewish dance from their neighbors to the north – the Phoenicians. Phoenician ritual included highly developed religious dancing, again with many different processional forms. Also present in Phoenician ritual were the bacchantic dances in honor of Ba'al Markod, the god of dance. This particular style of dance was frowned upon by the Israelite priests and was considered a pagan form. Babylonian and Hittite rituals also included ritual dance processionals which were similar to Jewish dance.

In ancient Jewish tradition, dancing, singing, and playing of musical instruments were all intimately related and usually appeared together. Thus, mention of singers or musicians in the Bible would usually imply dancers as well, and vice versa. All three forms sprang from the same original sources and exhibited many of the same outside influences; and all three forms have the common aim of glorification of G-od. Miriam's dance by the Red Sea is one of the Bible's earliest accounts of dances done in thanksgiving to G-d – ". . . and Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and dances. And Miriam sang unto them: 'sing ye to the Lord, for He is highly exalted; The horse and rider hath He thrown into the sea'." The dance here was accompanied by singing and the playing of timbrels ("hand drums") and reflects its roots in similar sacred thanksgiving rituals of the Egyptians.

Three major forms of dance could be found in Biblical Jewish practice. Most common was the ritual dances done in conjunction with temple observances. These sacred dances were always performed in a solemn, dignified manner. Processionals generally were ritual in nature as were dances encircling sacred objects.3 These round dances evolved from earlier magical rites of enclosing the sacred objects in a magic circle to ensure its protection.4 These round dances became very popular, not only in ritual practice but as secular dances as well. Any form of unrestrained dance in a ritual context was considered pagan.

The second form was ecstatic dance. The most famous example of religious ecstacy is the account of David's dance before the ark when it is brought to Jerusalem. "Thus, all Israel brought up the ark of the covenant of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of trumpets and with cymbals, sounding aloud with psalteries and harps. And it came to pass, as the ark of the covenant of the Lord came to the city of David, that Michal, the daughter of Saul looked out at the window, and saw the king David dancing and making merry; and she despised him in her heart." (I Chronicles: 15:28-29) This dance is mentioned three different times in the Bible, and each time King David leads the Jewish people in joyous dancing to honor and exalt the name of G-d. One description of David dancing "with all his might" is indicative of a state of religious ecstacy. His is a transcendental state of sublime adoration of G-d, as expressed through his movements.

Other forms of ecstatic dance were common among the prophets of Israel. Biblical accounts of bands of prophets always include reference to musical instruments, which implies dancing. The prophets would whirl themselves (as taken from the word "hul") into a state of frenzy, possibly using these ecstatic bodily movements to induce a state of trance (as Jews were not allowed to use any artificial means of inducing a trance state other than music and dance), at which time they would begin to prophesize. Often these ecstatic states were infectious, and even onlookers would be carried away emotionally and would join in the dance. "And when they came thither to the hill, behold, a band of prophets came to meet him; and the spirit of G-d came mightily upon him, and he prophesied among them." (I Samuel: 10:10)

Lyric dances comprised a third area of Biblical Jewish dance. These dances combined the elements of poetry, mime, and music. The lyric form most probably derived from (or at least was influenced by) analogous dance form in Egypt which had codified dance symbols called "dance tours" (much like Indian "mudras"). Other similar dance forms were found in Sumer and Babylonia.

These lyric dance forms were possibly part of the ritual complex involving the Psalms. References found in early 6th century BCE documents, such as the Codex Kosmos, state that the Psalms were danced, with accompanying music and song. The Psalms themselves contain numerous references to ritual dance. "Praise Him with the blast of the Horn; Praise Him with the psaltery and the harp. Praise Him with the timbrel and the dance; Praise Him with stringed instruments and pipe. . ." (Psalm: 150:3-4) "Let them praise His name in the dance; Let them sing praises unto Him with the timbrel and harp." (Psalm: 149:3) The Song of Songs may also have had accompanying dances; however, those dances were probably more secularly oriented, dealing with courtship and romance.

Although lyric dance seemed to have died out during the Babylonian exile (600 BCE), most ritual dance continued to play a major role in Jewish observance until the destruction of the second temple (approximately 100 BCE). During the diaspora, most dances became secularized, although certain customs, such as sexes dancing separately and the association of dance with festivals, weddings, etc. survived. Dance as ritual has survived only in remnants such as processions carrying the Torah and in the custom of "davening," swaying back and forth in rhythm to the chanting of prayers.

Dance was found on almost any festive occasion. The primary dancing festivals were the "Hags," usually the seasonal agricultural festivals: Hag-Ha-matzot (Hag-Hapesach) Passover; Hag-Sukkoth (feast of Tabernacles); Hag-Shvuot (feast of weeks). An essential feature of all these holidays was a ritual dance, often a processional around the sanctuary. For example, the 7th Day of Sukkoth was characterized by processionals around the ark (7 times around – 7 being a magic number in Jewish tradition). Sukkoth celebrated the ingathering of the crops and was a very joyous holiday. Many of the practices and rites during Sukkoth, such as the water libations which occurred on each of the seven days of the festival, had roots in earlier Canaanite rites of sympathetic magic to produce rain. These rites included many processional dances which were very ecstatic in sentiment.

"The water parade was another genuine folk spectacle. It began with a procession from Mount Moriah to Lake Shileah. At its head marched a priest holding a golden pitcher with which he drew water to pour on the altar. On the return journey, he stopped at the water-gate where the people met him to the accompaniment of silver trumpets and the song "And Ye Shall Draw Water of Joy from the Wells of Salvation."5

"Another group of priests went to Motza and brought back willow rods. The branches were placed on the altar and the priest sprinkled them with water from the golden pitcher, after which the procession carried the branches around the altar. The Levites used to sing "Hallel" and the people accompanied them and shook their palm branches to the rhythm of the music." (Bemach, 1972:5-6)

Before Yom Kippur and the 15 of Ab became days of mourning for the destroyed Temple, these days were associated with ritual courtship dances known as the "dance of the young maidens." (Judges: 21:19) Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel offered this description in "Miohna Ta'anit" ("the Rabbinic writings):

"There were no happier days for Israel than the 15 of Ab 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 uip thine eyes and see what thou wouldst choose for thyself; set not thine eyes on beauty, but set thine eyes on family'." (Sendrey, 1969:457)

Hag-Purim, the feast of Esther, was originally a Babylonian festival, brought back by the Jews returning from exile. Purim was a day when "anything goes" and became a day when, through revelling, dancing, masquerading, and drinking, the population had a chance to release psychic tensions built up during the year. One prevalent rite associated with Purim, the fire dance (in which the effigy of Haman was burned and young men would jump through a hoop over the fire) survived well into the Middle-ages.

Just as courtship dances were common, all weddings were celebrated with dance. Aside from the aspect of celebrating at weddings, was the more important ritual motivation of honoring the bride. Some scholars have postulated that the Song of Songs originally stems from traditional verses recited and danced (lyric dances) befor the couple, who were seated on thrones, to prepare the bride and groom for the sensual aspects of marriage. (Song of Songs: 7:1-6) (7:1-2 follows:)

"What will ye see in the Shulamite? As it were a dance of two companies.
How beautiful are thy steps in sandals, O prince's daughter!
The rounding of thy thighs are like the links of a chain, the work of a skilled workman."

Important individuals were often honored through dance as well. Dancing was also found during funerals. The custom arose from the more primitive beliefs about the need to appease the spirits. The original dances have evolved over the generations to the simple foot-stomping found even today at many orthodox funerals. Dances of thanksgiving, besides being done as part of holiday rituals, were done during personal rites, such as the welcoming home of victorious soldiers. (I Samual: 18:6-7) "And it came to pass as they came, when David returned from the slaughter of the Philistine, that the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing ot meet King Saul with timbrels, with joy, and with three-stringed instruments." Metaphorical use of dance in Jewish literature was also very common. Some of the most beautiful verses in Biblical literature include dance metaphors.

Although ritual Jewish dance died with the second destruction of the Temple and the diaspora which followed, dancing was by then too ingrained in Jewish soul and psyche that the urge to dance could not die. Certain attitudes towards dance fluctuated with external pressures (during Greek and Roman times, the Rabbis looked with disfavor upon the foreign incursions into the Israelite dance-styles), but dance itself survived. In modern times, the Jews still dance, and nowhere is the influence of the Biblical roots stronger than in Israel where new dances, whose inspiration and meaning are drawn from the Bible, are being created daily.


  1. Some examples of synonyms for dance are: "machol" &150; from the root "hul;" "rikad" – to skip about; "dalag" – to leap; "pazaz" – leaping; "ditza" – to leap; "kafota" – skipping; "sachek" – to make merry, sport, play; "chagog" – to celebrate a festival; "sabah" – to encircle.
  2. See Exodus 25-28 for description of the ark.
  3. The present day custom of parading the Torah through the congregation on Shabat and on holidays is a modern day carry-over from these ancient processional dances.
  4. The superstition involving magic circles existed in Jewish mysticism through the 19th century. In current Jewish litrature its existence as a folk belief has been portrayed in such works as Ansky's "The Dybbuk."
  5. The song we know as "Mayim."


Used with permission of the author.
Printed in Folk Dance Scene, April 1977.