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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. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Anonymous NYC October 28, 2014

Dance segregation It is my understanding that men and women are segregated in Jewish ritual for at least two good (my opinion) reasons. One.....men could be distracted during prayer should females be about. Two...purity is a big issue and segregating the "sexes" may help to ensure this. Reply

Tzvi Freeman October 26, 2014

For Eena Women also do the same, but religious women won't do so if men are watching. So they need a mechitza (partition). Sadly, that's not provided often enough. Reply

Eena Mace Erlanger,Ky. October 16, 2014

Why only the men dance in such ways? Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma 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. Reply

louiseleon long pond, PA October 28, 2012

community We are family, all of us. Reply

Barry Polinsky Brooklyn, NY 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) Reply

Yosef ben Eiaju Redwood City, CA 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. Reply

connie anderson Beaver City, Nebraska 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. Reply

Beverly Margolis-Kurtin Hurst, Texas 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! Reply

Anonymous Helsinki, fin 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? Reply

Shmueli H Brooklyn, NY via chabadrego.org 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 Reply

Anonymous brooklyn, new york 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. Reply

Hannah USA 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. Reply

Peter White donegal, ireland via jewishcyprus.com October 5, 2012

circles this man rabbi tzvi writes some very good thoughts. we should hold on to the good things about our tribal past - the first time I "danced" in a circle was at a wedding on the Orkney Isles off Britain. Like the rabbi, i was hesitant but basically given no choice and it was super fun. Up on those Isles, dancing is mandatory on the primary school curriculum for boys and girls - it pays off.

Thanks agian Rabbi for your words. Reply

Rachel Colleen MakGlamroth Troutman, NC October 4, 2012

Circles Circles are weird, the "O". As your mind says "o", think; were did it go. No where. I had a button that said, "I'm so far behind I think I'm first", it was on my bike bag as I struggled to keep up with my daughter on 4 hour 25 miles bike rides to get home from town on Friday sundown to keep Sabbath on Saturday. When I ran track, it was still a big "O" going round and round, ending up where I started. Such is God's existence, The Alpha and Omega, such is the universe, as far as we can calculate an eliptical circle. Such is the cycle of life, the moon and planets and stars and ?spaceships and aliens and, oh yeah, us Humans. Round and Round we go, where we'll really land, even sometimes we don't know. I have run the race, I have gone the course and now I'm hurting and older. So where has all that running, dancing, playing (maypoles when young and hope you never got wrapped up in all those streamers of different colors); living day to day, GOING IN CIRCLES got me. "O" I guess n"O"where! Reply

Redneck Jew CA October 4, 2012

Response to why we rock back and forth Although I do not know why others do that because I am still learning all aspects of my faith but i can tell you for myself that it helps put me in a state of absolute beleif for what I pray for and when I pray as I let out my crys to El Shaddai iand pray the Psalms it helps me focus on the word in those Psalms and His all sustaining power. I have paid a heavy price for sin that was in my life but am even more amazed at His grace when i pray those Psalms to do what he promised in His word. he has given me a path to healing when their was none because he said in the word that he would make a way where there was none. He protects me from those too strong for me as he said in the Psalms. Even though I work while my body is racked with pain when I pray those Psalms it's like magic but it is the REAL THING, the living G-d. As I walk through the refiners fire I will come out without the smell of smoke. Reply

Joyce Shulman Assisi, Italy October 4, 2012

prayer Why do Jews rock back and forth while prayingg? I always wanted to ask! Reply

Devorah Tallahassee, FL October 4, 2012

Circle Dancing I LOVED this....the explanation was SO well written and in depth. I am sharing and I hope others feel the wonderful closeness to Hashem this article sparked!!! Thank you!!! Reply

Sarah Masha W Bloomfield, MI/USA October 4, 2012

Or you could say that you are tied by gravity to this plane so physically you go in a circle. But spiritual growth can go upward, making your path a spiral. Reply

Yosef ben Eliaju Redwood City, CA October 4, 2012

Why G-dly? I enjoyed your article overall, and appreciate the joy of being one with a group involved in simple ritual. You said: "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" My question is why do you consider this G-dly, and what do you mean by G-dly? I must tell you that for me to use the term G-dly associated with a person or a people feels somewhat inflated - I'm not very comfortable with it. Why should I think of myself or my people in any terms that are other than humble. Can you explain? Thank you. Reply

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