The Women’s Sacred Dance on Yom Kippur

Many consider Tu B’Av to be the festival of love. The source for that is the mishna (Taanit 4:8) about the maidens of Jerusalem who, on that day, would go dancing in the vineyards to find husbands.

But the rest of that mishna is not as well known: it says that the maidens would dance in the vineyards not only on Tu B’Av, but also on Yom Kippur. It is a custom that many have forgotten, perhaps due to association of the Day of Atonement with immensely powerful and meaningful traditions: fasting, penance, and the priestly duties in the Temple. Yet, the mishna implies that the dancing of the maidens was no less momentous than the rest of the day’s events, for it attests to the fact that “never were more joyous festivals in Israel than…Yom Kippur” (ibid.). What was the secret of the dance? And why does it express, more than all the other customs of Yom Kippur, the special joy of that day?

Yom Kippur is the only day of the year when a person was allowed to enter Holy of Holies, the most holy part of the Temple. At the heart of the Holy of Holies was the Ark of the Covenant, atop which stood the two cherubim. On Yom Kippur, the Divine Presence would reveal Itself in a cloud between them. The Talmud tells us that the cherubim were in the shape of a male and a female in a perpetual embrace, so as to equate the love between God and the Jewish people to the intimate bond between man and woman (Yoma 54a).

The entrance of the high priest, who represents the entire nation, into the Holy of Holies, is likened to the intimate union of two lovers. This union is at the heart of the Song of Songs, which describes the relationship between God and His people in allegorical terms, as the relationship between the lover and his wife

These ideas can teach us about the dancing of the maidens of Jerusalem, which, it turns out, was about a lot more than solving some “shidduch crisis.” Let us take a closer look at the Mishna:

Never were more joyous festivals in Israel than Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur, for on them the maidens of Jerusalem used to go out dressed in white garments – borrowed ones, in order not to cause shame to those who had them not of their own. These clothes were also to be previously immersed. And thus they went out and danced in the vineyards, saying, “Young men, look and observe well whom you are about to choose.” (Taanit 4:8)

The white garments of the dancers are like the white vestments that the high priest wears when he enters the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. The halakha mentioned in this seemingly aggadic mishna – “These clothes were also to be previously immersed” – reinforces the link between the dancing of the maidens and the world of the Temple, with its stringent requirements of ritual purity. The dances are directed toward God; He is the audience. The priest’s encounter with God is occasioned by the Temple rituals, while the women come before Him in dance.

What does their dance express? Further along, the Mishna interprets the verse from the Song of Songs that describes the wedding day as an allegory for the building of the Temple and the Giving of the Torah:

And thus is it said, “Go out, maidens of Zion, and look on King Solomon, and on the crown wherewith his mother has encircled [his head] on the day of his espousals, and on the day of the gladness of his heart” (Song 3:11). “The day of his espousals” alludes to the day of the gift of the law, and “the day of the gladness of his heart” was that when the building of the Temple was completed.

The dance is the fulfillment of the verse in the Song of Songs about the gladness of the heart and the wedding day, which the Mishna links to the Temple and the Giving of the Torah. What does it mean? My friend Amnon Dokov notes that the story of the dancers contains many allusions to the Song of Songs, primarily in the description of the women as “maidens of Jerusalem,” a term that appears in the Song of Songs seven times. The location of the dance – the vineyards – is also mentioned many times in the Song of Songs. In addition, in the Mishna, as in the Songs of Songs (5:15), the potential lovers are referred to as “young men,” or baĥurim. Based on the fact that in the Song of Songs, the maidens of Jerusalem serve as bridesmaids who mediate between the bride and her beloved, Dokov concludes:

The dances are an enactment and realization of sorts of the verses in the Song of Songs – a feminine awakening on the part of the maidens of Jerusalem aimed at reinvigorating the relationship between the lover and the bride. It was no coincidence that on the same day that the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies, the maidens of Jerusalem would go out and sing the people of Israel’s song of love for God.

A Complicated Relationship

It seems that the dancing maidens are not merely performers and bridesmaids, but rather represent the bride herself when they perform in white before the young men. Indeed, with their clothing they correspond to the high priest who enters the Holy of Holies. There is no contradiction between the characterization of the maidens as bridesmaids and as brides: in many rituals one can serve in several roles at once. During Kabbalat Shabbat, for example, one at once approaches Shabbat like a groom proceeding toward his bride, and arouses God to unite with Shabbat: “Your God will rejoice concerning you/As a groom rejoices over a bride,” says the liturgical song Lekha Dodi. According to Kabbala, any human action below, in the mundane plane, precipitates a parallel action above, in the divine realm. Just as one can be both Shabbat’s lover and the one arousing God’s love for Shabbat, so too the maidens can at once represent the bride and arouse God’s love for the Jewish people.

The dance shows us not only that women were active in the Temple ritual, but that the Jewish people is the feminine party in its relationship with God, just as in the Song of Songs. According to Kabbala, the image of the Jewish people as a woman is behind the fact that the Jewish calendar is based on the moon, a feminine symbol, rather than the masculine sun. In the context of standing before God, a Jewish person is feminine.

A Cathartic Experience

The Mishna links the phrase “the day of his espousals” from the Song of Songs to the Giving of the Torah. According to that interpretation, the Giving of the Torah is the marital contract between God and Israel. However, this lovely analogy has a catch: if the Giving of the Torah is the marriage of God and Israel, then the sin of the Golden Calf is tantamount to a bride committing adultery under her bridal canopy (Song of Songs Rabba 8). This points us toward another level of meaning in the dance of the maidens on Yim Kippur. On the seventeenth of Tammuz, in the aftermath of the sin, Moses breaks the tablets he received on Mount Sinai (Mishna Taanit 5:4), but the rectification of that shattering, the receiving of the second tablets, takes place on Yom Kippur. That is why the Talmud describes Yom Kippur as a positive day for the Jewish people: “Because it is a day of forgiveness and pardon and on it the second Tables of the Law were given” (Taanit 30b).

The shattering of the tablets symbolized a crisis in the relationship between God and the Jewish people, and the giving of the second tablets is a healing, cathartic experience. The dance of the maidens in the vineyards represents the renewed bond between the lover and his wife, the bride and her beloved.

Yet, there is even more to the dance. When a horrified Moses witnesses the sin of the Golden Calf, he notes the “dancing” around the idol: “He saw the calf and the dancing; and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and broke them beneath the mount” (Ex. 32:19). The dancing of the maidens before God is the remedy for the dance around the Golden Calf.

Husband and Wife, and the Shekhina In Between

As the Mishna tells us, the maidens also dance for a more mundane purpose – to find husbands. Yet, the intimacy and love expressed in their dance are inherent on two intertwined planes: both in the relationship between God and Israel and in the one between man and wife. The Song of Songs, too, teaches us about our relation not only to the supernal world, but to this one as well. Rabbi Akiva, who calls the Song of Songs “the Holy of Holies” (Mishna Yadayim 3:5), says, “When husband and wife are worthy, the Shekhina abides with them” (Sota 17a). The image of man and woman is not merely a metaphor for the relationship between God and humanity; the encounter with God is achieved via interpersonal relationships.

The Talmud (Ketubbot 62b), in discussing the commandment of onah (the requirement that a man have relations with his wife), tells of Rabbi Reĥumi, who would come home once a year, on the eve of Yom Kippur. The context of the story implies that he would have relations with his wife only on that day. Just as there is a special commandment to eat on the eve of Yom Kippur, so too it seems that, according to Rabbi Reĥumi (whose name means “love” in Aramaic), even though intimate relations are forbidden on Yom Kippur itself, there is a special quality to the union of man and wife in the hours leading up to it.

About the Author
Yakov Nagen is the Executive Director of the Ohr Torah Interfaith Center, a division of Ohr Torah Stone. He also heads its Blickle Institute for Interfaith Dialogue and Beit Midrash for Judaism and Humanity. He is a Rabbi at the Yeshiva of Otniel and has written ten books about Jewish Spirituality, Talmud and Interfaith.
Related Topics
Related Posts