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Why Jews Dance in Circles

Why Jews Dance in Circles

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Chassidic pop art by Yitzchok Moully with permission from moullyart.com.
Chassidic pop art by Yitzchok Moully with permission from moullyart.com.

For seven days of Sukkot, Jews walk around in circles, carrying an assortment of green and yellow flora. Then, on Simchat Torah, they dance in circles carrying Hebrew scrolls, working up to a frenzy.

Did I say dance? Well, it’s more like marching, your hands over the next guy’s shoulders, singing and stomping as you march to . . . the same place you started from. Repeat until you plotz.1

Are Jews normal?

The short answer: Yes.

No, you don’t see this at your typical social club event. But then, as any anthropologist will tell you, it’s modernity that’s weird, not the other way around.2 People have been dancing in circles in celebration, in ritual, and just to have fun, in every part of the world ever since there were circles and people. It’s just that it takes Jewish genius to continue doing something so tribal in such an extremely post-tribal world.

Now for my confession: I am one of those weird modern people.

When I was first invited, cajoled and nudniked to join the circular festivities, I was more than hesitant. I attempted to explain that I didn’t see the point of walking in such a way that you don’t get any further than where you started. Needless to say, the argument was ignored, and I was swept into the circle whether I liked it or not.

And I felt stupid. For about the first 40,000 circuits. After that, I forgot about myself and how I felt and what I was doing and why I was doing it and whether I was stupid and that I was there at all. And that’s when the circle became good. Very good.

It was goodIn the circle, I dissolves into we. exactly due to that which I had subliminally feared. Because as I stand here, I am I. In the circle, that I dissolves into we. And in that very act of transcendence, that loss of self, there is unbounded joy.

We Without Cause

There are other ways to dissolve the I into we. You can march to war. Or march for a cause. You can rave at a concert. You can throw rocks at a protest. Or just go wild in the bleachers cheering for your team at a football game.

But there’s a difference. The march is going somewhere—against someone, for something, saying something. The concert, the protest, the game—there’s something there, an extrinsic force, that’s uniting all those people, stripping human beings of their sense of individual selfness and rendering them into a monstrous mass.

In the circle, there is no cause, no reason, no place to go. We are just one because we are.

In the circle, there is no cause, no reason, no enemy and nowhere we are going. We are just one. Because we are.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the classic medieval biblical and talmudic commentator) knew this.

When Pharaoh and his army chased after the Children of Israel, Rashi says they came “with one heart, as one person.” Heart first, then person.

When the Children of Israel camped at Mount Sinai, Rashi says they camped “as one person, with one heart.” Person first, then heart.

Why the switch?

Because Pharaoh and his army were many individuals united by a cause. The Children of Israel were one because they were innately one, and that one now had one heart as well.

The Zulu have a word for it: ubuntu. Generally translated by us weird Westerners as “community” or “social responsibility”—because that’s all we know. But an entire world that we have lost in our modernity opens before us when a tribesman is asked to explain the word. He will say it means, “I am because we are; we are because I am.”3

To feel one with the people of your village, that is a lost treasure. To be one with a people spread over the farthest reaches of the planet for 2,000 years, speaking different languages, living vastly different lifestyles—that is G‑dly.

Holding Back

After a joyous festival of Jews coming together in each other’s sukkahs, in the synagogue and in kosher supermarkets buying oodles of food to feed each other in those sukkahs, G‑d asks them to make one more day of festivity called “Shemini Atzeret.” That means “the eighth day of holding back.”

Who’s holding back what?

The Midrash explains: G‑d says, “It’s hard for me to see you part from one another. Hold back another day, and we’ll celebrate together.”

So we celebrate that we are one, in the oneness of a circle. So that we stay one, even when we part. Because we are.

FOOTNOTES
1. Yiddish for “collapse,” but with an ethnic flair.
2.

Weird is an acronym: western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic. See Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan, “The Weirdest People in the World?” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33 (2010): 61–83.

3.

After writing this, I looked a little more into the concept of ubuntu, and discovered there is a wealth of literature on the topic, with a very broad range of interpretation. See especially What Is Ubuntu? from the South African Journal of Philosophy. To me, it seems that the multiple interpretations arise from Africans attempting to do something that Jews have struggled with for centuries—to apply an ancient tribal ethic within the context of a post-tribal world. See also my article on this site: Why Does Judaism Make No Sense?

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription.
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Discussion (34)
October 28, 2012
Lake Louise
We ARE a family of all of us, and it's seems there is a big question about all of this, and maybe that is why, women dance with men, in other branches of Judaism. Surely diversity IS key, but so is, the opening of conscience and consciousness about being left out, and feeling left out. Maybe it's time we women took over a bit more, of the conversation, all over Chabad.

I wrote often, some deep things, to the "management" and for that, outpouring of soul, got nothing back. And for that I say, there's something really wrong about THIS.

So really, Who speaks for G_D? and why is it, the voices of women seem strangely delegated to the back pages.
ruth housman
marshfield hills, ma
October 28, 2012
community
We are family, all of us.
louiseleon
long pond, PA
October 7, 2012
Dancing in Circles
Rabbi Freeman,
A question: Yes it is obvious from any Jewish Gathering that Jews dance in circles. However, why are there two separate circles? There is the circle for men and ten feet adjacent there is the circle for women. Wouldn't it make more sense to have a circle of men surrounded by a circle of women? (Think the mother's womb; the baby is surrounded by the womb which pushes it together and feeds it, similarly how women's desires compel men to unite)
Barry Polinsky
Brooklyn, NY
October 6, 2012
To Shmueli H
Thank you for answering my question. It was a sincere question and I appreciate your answering it in a straight forward way. I understand your answer and it feels right to me. I appreciate, as well, the reference to the Tanya, which I will search out. Sometimes the language of religion can cause conflict, rather than enlightenment, and so I am often quite reluctant to use such language, despite the the fact that my heart often resonates with it. Whatever blessing is appropriately said to someone that has done a good deed, may it be yours.
Yosef ben Eiaju
Redwood City, CA
October 6, 2012
Hebrew wedding dancing
I learned the two steps forward and one step backwards in Israel. Then I thought, that is how life is! We go two steps forward and also in life we sometimes backwards. To learn this as a community we are all moving ahead, in spite of little times, going backward. I like it.
connie anderson
Beaver City, Nebraska
October 6, 2012
Just Lost Everything...or did I?
Yesterday the inevitable happened. My computer crashed and burned in a way that i KNEW was going to happen. Backing up is something I encourage all to do. Following my own advice, I had it all backed up.
Hashem has his mysterious ways, right? The backup FAILED!
That has "cost" me all of my photos, all of my documents but most terrible of all, I lost all of the outstanding material that I had saved from Rabbi Freeman. THAT hurt.
If someone had broken (heaven forbid!) into my home and stolen the laptop, it would be gone anyway. I still have the lingering joy of Sukkot and the upcoming excitement of Simcha Torah that is almost upon us (I'm writing this just after Shabbat) so, what have i lost? Nothing! It was all "stuff" that I may have never accessed again.
Baruch Hashem!
Beverly Margolis-Kurtin
Hurst, Texas
October 6, 2012
Shavua tov
As we red today:
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
Last monday we dansed on bima after I had said last time in my life"Blessed is He who has now freed me from the responsibility of this boy"

Do Chabadnics march on Yom Kippur when singing March of Napoleon?
Anonymous
Helsinki, fin
October 5, 2012
To Yosef ben Eliaju
Why G-dly? Good question, and perhaps I can shed some light on why. Basically, we consist of a body and a soul. The soul, which is a spark of G-dliness, enlivens our physical bodies. When we focus on the body, we can feel separate and different. When we focus on the soul, we can feel as one, being that the soul is G-dly, and G-d is One.
For further elaboration, see Likutei Amarim- Tanya, chapters 2, and 32
Shmueli H
Brooklyn, NY
chabadrego.org
October 5, 2012
2 answers to why jews sway while praying.
when a person is afraid he will shake of fear. the sway of a Jew while praying expresses the ultimate fear (yirat shamoyim) of awe that he has for his creator who is the king of all worlds! a second answer; a flame of fire constantly strives upward for it wishes to connect to its source. a Jews sway while praying is the expression of his soul disiring its return of its saurce, its creator.
Anonymous
brooklyn, new york
October 5, 2012
To Joyce Shulman
I heard that one of the reasons for that is that it's caused by deep concentration connecting us to G-d. Just like a flame on a candle is always pointing upwards and it "sways" a little, we are also "pointing upwards," connecting to our Creator, which causes us to sway a little. Hope that explains it a bit.
Hannah
USA
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