Jewish Dance

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In the Bible, the Israelites use dance as a form of religious expression. From images of Miriam leading the women across the Sea of Reeds to numerous references throughout the Psalms, it is clear that dance was an expression of joy, awe, and worship. 

After the end of the biblical period and throughout most of the Middle Ages, one finds fewer examples of sacred, ritual dance in Judaism. However, because of the mitzvah (commandment) to celebrate a bride and groom, dancing at Jewish weddings was always encouraged. According to Fred Berk's work on Jewish dance, Ha-Rikud, men and women danced separately at religious functions, but dance was nonetheless an important part of the celebrations.

Elaborate dances honoring the newly married couple have been created over the last several centuries, including the iconic ritual of lifting the bride and groom and dancing with them raised on chairs. Wedding dances continue to be an important part of Jewish cultural identity today; many Jewish American couples who consider themselves secular still feature traditional hora dancing as part of their wedding celebrations.

jewish ballet

Hasidism, which began to emerge in the 18th century, focused on praying with joy and passion and seeking connection to God through song and dance. As in biblical times, dance once again became a form for religious expression. The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, and his followers danced in circles, with increasing fervor, seeking a kind of ecstasy through their repeated movements. The dancers would sing a wordless melody (niggun) as they moved, and sometimes their rebbe would dance on his own before the group--creating new movements for the circle to pick up and integrate. This kind of circle dancing, still practiced in some Hasidic communities today, could last for hours.

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Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer

Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer is a freelance writer and educator based in Philadelphia. She is the author of two books of plays for children: The Magic Tanach and Other Short Plays and Extraordinary Jews: Staging Their Lives as well as The Creative Jewish Wedding Book.