All My Bones Cry Out to the Lord

Jewish dance from the Bible to Hasidism.

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Reprinted with permission from the Encyclopedia Judaica (Thomson Gale).

In the Bible, Mishnah, and Talmud, dance is referred to in various contexts as an important ritualized activity and as an expression of joy. 

Victory Dances

Biblical dancing to the accompaniment of drums is associated with the celebrations of military victories and welcoming home heroes who have routed an enemy. The women's role was to receive and extol the fighters.

After the triumphant crossing of the Red Sea, "Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances" (Exodus 15:20-21). On his triumphant return from battle to Mizpah, Jephtah was greeted by his daughter with timbrels and dancing (Judges 11:34).

When David and Saul returned from the battle with the Philistines, "the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with timbrels, with joy, and with rattles" (Samuel I 18:6).

biblical danceThere is a detailed description of a victory parade, where Judith leads the women in the dance, to the accompaniment of a special thanksgiving song: "And all the women of Israel hurried to see her, and they praised her and made a dance for her…And she went out in the dance before all the people, leading all the women" (Judith 15:12-13).

Ecstatic Dances

The most telling biblical evidence of the power of music inspiring ecstasy and the prophetic vision is connected with King Saul. A passage from Samuel tells that Saul goes to the hill of God where he meets a group prophesizing while in motion, accompanied by several instruments.

The text adds: "And the spirit of the Lord will come mightily upon thee, and thou shalt prophecy with them, and shalt be turned into another man" (Samuel I 10:5-6). There is no mention of dancing, which typically accompanies ecstatic practices, but the movement that is an inherent part of the situation described may well allude to its ritual nature.

David's dance before the Ark was an example of the religious ecstatic dances performed by men. The Psalms exhorted people to "praise God's name in the dance"--"praise Him with timbrels and dance" (Psalms 149:3; 150:4).

Folk Dances

Detailed descriptions have been handed down to us from the period of the Mishnah, from which we learn that there was folk dancing at religious celebrations. During the festival of Tabernacles, there was a daily procession around the altar in the Temple following the sacrifices.

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Amnon Shiloah

Amnon Shiloah is Professor of Musicology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Dvora Lapson

Dvora Lapson (1907-1996) performed, choreographed, and researched Jewish dance. She served as director of the Dance Education Department of the Board of Jewish Education in New York, and was an instructor in Jewish dance education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.