All My Bones Cry Out to the Lord

Jewish dance from the Bible to Hasidism.

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During the Renaissance, Jews danced for recreation and entertainment. David Reuveni describes the dancing in the home of Jehiel Nissim of Pisa in 1524. They also danced in public as in the procession of Palermo celebrating the marriage of King Ferdinand of Castille and Isabella of Aragon in 1469.

In Jewish homes in Italy the Hebrew teacher taught Bible and Talmud, music, and dancing. That Jews engaged extensively in the profession of teaching in that period is emphasized by the recurring laws closing schools of dance and music conducted by Jews, such as the edicts of 1443 in Venice, and 1466 in Parma.

There were Jewish dancing teachers in Renaissance Italy, the most distinguished dance master of the time being Guglielmo de Pesaro, author of a treatise on the dance dated 1463. In the 16th century, another Jew, Jacchino Massarano, won fame as a dance master and teacher in Rome.

Oriental Jewry

There are many communities, such as the Moroccans, Georgians, Libyans, and Ethiopians, in which spontaneous group folk dancing is important, yet the Jews of Yemen and Kurdistan Jewry are among the most prominent traditional cultures attributing dynamic importance to dance in the daily and festive life of the community.

Dance among the Jews born in Yemen comprises stylistic diversity characteristic of urban and rural settlements as well as including women and men. Dancing usually takes place during ceremonies and celebrations.

Fundamentally, the men's dances are composed of steps and figures executed in a very small area. The dominant line is vertical--with agile, springy bending of the knees. The very expressive hands are used for an infinite variety of gestures. One or two singers, rhythm instruments, or hand clapping always accompany the dance, but no melodic instruments are used.

The women's dances are less variegated and more restrained. They are accompanied by the singing of the dancers themselves, or that of two female musicians who beat the rhythm respectively on copper plate and drum.

Hasidic Dances

With the rise of Hasidism in Eastern Europe in the 18th century, dance assumed great importance for the Jewish masses. Israel ben Eliezer Ba'al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, used dance to attain religious enthusiasm (hitlahavut) and devoted adherence to the Almighty (devekut). He taught his followers that "the dances of the Jew before his Creator are prayers," and quoted the Psalmist, "All my bones shall say: Lord, who is like unto Thee?" (Psalms 35:10).

Hasidic dance assumed the form of the circle, symbolic of the Hasidic philosophy that "every one is equal, each one being a link in the chain, the circle having no front or rear, no beginning or ending." The Hasidim would start their dancing in slow tempo, and as the music became faster they held arms upwards and leapt in the air in an effort to reach spiritual ecstasy. The accompanying melodies were composed to brief texts from either the Bible or the Talmud.

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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.