From the beginning of Hasidism, teachers associated with the movement considered dance, along with music, an avenue of worship. In Hasidic thought and literature, dancing is both an expression and a stimulator of joy, and as such has a therapeutic effect. It purifies the soul and produces spiritual uplift, unites the community, and enhances social relationships; the tsadik’s dance may even encourage repentance.
Although some scholars associate the value assigned to dance with the central role of rejoicing in Hasidic lore, the various genres of Hasidic literature present a more variegated picture. The most important feature of dance is understood to be the theurgic aspect, which sees dance—and especially the mystical acts performed by great tsadikim as they danced (among them, Aryeh Leib, the Zeyde of Shpole; Levi Yitsḥak of Barditshev; Mosheh Leib of Sasov; and Ḥayim of Kosov)—as having an effect on the heavenly worlds. This aspect, rooted in Kabbalah, figures in works by both early and later Hasidic masters (Ya‘akov Yosef of Polnoye; Dov Ber, the Magid of Mezritsh; Naḥman of Bratslav; and, more recently, Aharon Roth, author of Shomer emunim) and is recounted in Hasidic stories; it undoubtedly influenced the idea of dance as a form of worship.
Written evidence, especially that emanating from opponents of Hasidism, reprovingly describes dancing during prayer by early generations of Hasidim. It is not known, however, whether it was disdain in external sources or self-criticism that substantially eliminated dance from Hasidic prayer itself. Today dancing is part of prayer only in a few dynasties (such as Sandz, Klausenberg, and Vizhnits—in the latter even when the rebbe is absent) and only occurs during the last verse of Lekhah dodi (Come, My Beloved), sung on Sabbath evenings. More frequent is dancing on Friday nights after the service, or between the welcoming of the Sabbath (Kabalat Shabat) and the evening service on festival Sabbaths. Bratslav Hasidim dance after each morning and evening service, on weekdays as well as on Sabbaths and holidays.
Occasions for Dance
Hasidic sources almost invariably refer to dancing on holidays and other festive occasions. Dancing has played a central role on Sabbaths and festivals, at events such as Tikun Ḥatsot (a midnight service instituted by the Safed kabbalists of the sixteenth century) and Kidush Levanah (sanctification of the moon), at life-cycle events, at the tsadik’s tish, and during community celebrations, such as a dedication of a synagogue. According to some sources women danced only during the nuptial meal either in front of the bride or with her. In some cases, such as Simḥat Torah, Kidush Levanah, and life-cycle events, dancing itself was never an innovation, having been associated with these occasions long before Hasidism. The change was mostly one of emphasis—of the meaning ascribed to the dance.
One substantial innovation was the practice among early Hasidim of engaging in processional circuits around the synagogue (hakafot) on the night of Shemini ‘Atseret and not only, as is customary, on Simḥat Torah, based on the Zohar and other mystical texts. In Israel (where Shemini ‘Atseret and Simḥat Torah are conflated into a single day), this observance became the so-called “second hakafot,” held by Hasidim on the evening after Simḥat Torah. The significance of dancing on this particular festival is highlighted in Hasidic tales. One story describes the Besht dancing with a Torah scroll; when he continued without the scroll, a disciple said that he had “put aside the physical Torah and taken up the spiritual Torah.” Tsadikim would pick a specific hakafah of particular mystical significance for dancing, most frequently the seventh—the symbol of the unification of the sefirot (10 aspects or emanations of God)—or the sixth, the symbol of the sefirah of yesod (foundation), which for the kabbalists symbolizes both the divine virile power and the essence of the human tsadik (based on Prv. 10:25, “ve-tsadik yesod ‘olam,” and the Zohar). Hasidic stories describe tsadikim dancing in spite of sickness or even while mourning for their own family members; some ordered their Hasidim to dance at their deathbeds, or when mourning for other tsadikim.
Forms of Dance
The most common form of dance in Hasidic society is the round dance. Lubavitch and Slonim Hasidim have their own dance steps. Younger Hasidim will often leap into the air with fervor; at weddings, they may form concentric circles, break out in lines and rows, form snake-like processions, or dance with each dancer placing his hands on the preceding dancer’s shoulders; all of these movements are expressive of joy. Hasidim have also preserved at least one East European dance, known as the patsh tants.
The so-called mitsve tants, performed today as the final ceremony of a Hasidic wedding, is particularly important because of its mystical significance. In the presence of the family (at weddings of the rebbe’s offspring [including grandchildren], the whole Hasidic congregation), male members of the two families are invited to dance in turn with the bride. Each dancer holds one end of a sash whose other end is held by the bride; after a brief dance, he retires but continues to dance with a group of Hasidim. The last dancer is the groom, who actually holds the bride’s hand.
In modern Israel at weddings, the tkhies hameysim tants (“resurrection of the dead dance,” a pantomime for two, partly based on the Diasporabroygez tants) is specially choreographed and has become an integral part of Hasidic dance tradition. As for the dances of tsadikim in Israel, we have information only about the hakhnoe tants (dance of submission), attributed to Elimelekh of Lizhensk and known in Israel also as shmoyne shrotsim (“eight insects”)—an East European line dance featuring couples passing under “gates” formed by the other dancers. At weddings, some tsadikim used to perform dances in fancy dress. Such dances as performed by ordinary Hasidim are seen today at weddings only in the month of Adar.
Unique genres that show the influences of Eastern (oriental) dances and gestures have emerged from the festivities at Meron. These include the debka—a group dance with solo acrobatic elements—and vituoso solo performances. Both take place at weddings as well.
Michael Fishbane, “The Mystery of Dance According to Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav,” in The Exegetical Imagination: On Jewish Thought and Theology, pp. 173–184, 226–231 (Cambridge, Mass., 1998); Tsevi Fridhaber, Ha-Maḥol be-am Yisra’el (Tel Aviv, 1984); Me’ir Shim‘on Geshuri, Ha-Nigun veha-rikud ba-ḥasidut, 3 vols. (Tel Aviv, 1954/55–1958/59); Betsal’el Landoi, “Ha-Maḥol veha-rikud ba-tenu‘ah ha-ḥasidit,” Maḥanayim 46 (1960): 56–62; Ya‘akov Mazor, Masoret ha-klezmorimbe-Erets Yisra’el (Jerusalem, 2000), musical score, introduction and notes in Hebrew and English; Ya‘akov Mazor and Moshe Taube, “A Hassidic Ritual Dance: The Mitsve Tants in Jerusalemite Weddings,” Yuval 6 (1994): 164–224; Yesha‘yah Meshulam Faish ha-Levi Rottenberg, Zamru li-shemo (Jerusalem, 1996).
Translated from Hebrew by David Louvish