Contact Us

The Dancing Maidens of Jerusalem

The Dancing Maidens of Jerusalem

The Holiday of Tu B'av

 Email

There were no greater festivals for Israel than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur. On these days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out... and dance in the vineyards. And what would they say? "Young man, raise your eyes and see which you select for yourself...."

And so it is written, "Go out, daughters of Zion, and see King Solomon,1 in the crown with which his mother crowned him on his wedding day and on the day of his heart's rejoicing" (Song of Songs 3:11). "His wedding day" -- this is the Giving of the Torah; "the day of his heart's rejoicing" -- this is the building of the Holy Temple, which shall be rebuilt speedily in our days.

Talmud, Taanit 26b

It is no coincidence that Yom Kippur and the 15th of Av served as occasions for matchmaking for the young men and women of Jerusalem: these two days are the respective betrothal and marriage2 dates of G‑d and Israel. Yom Kippur -- the day on which the Second Tablets were given to Moses, marking the fulfillment of the covenant at Mount Sinai -- is the day of Israel's betrothal to G‑d. Av 15 -- the day that represents the rebirth which follows the great fall of the Holy Temple's destruction on the 9th of Av -- celebrates the ultimate consummation of our marriage with the final redemption of Moshiach.

After relating how "the daughters of Jerusalem would go out... and dance in the vineyards" and "whoever did not have a wife would go there" to find himself a bride, the Talmud goes on to describe three different categories of "daughters" and how each would call out to her perspective bridegroom:

What would the beautiful ones among them say? "Look for beauty, for a woman is for beauty."

What would those of prestigious lineage say? "Look for family, for a woman is for children."

What would the ugly ones say? "Make your acquisition for the sake of Heaven, as long as you decorate us with jewels" (Talmud, Taanit 31a).

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that the marriage of G‑d and His people also includes these three categories of "brides": the souls of Israel include "beautiful" souls, souls "of prestigious lineage," and "ugly" souls,3 each of whom contribute their own unique dimension to our relationship with G‑d.

Love

There are two types of love, say the Chassidic masters. There is a love that is generated by the person's own mind and heart, when s/he meditates on the greatness and desirability of a person (or thing, or state) and thereby develops feelings of love and attraction to him/her/it. Then there is an inborn love: a love that a person has not created himself -- indeed, he may be unaware that he possesses it -- but which resides in his heart from birth, a natural bond and attraction to something that is implanted in his soul by virtue of who and what he is.

"You shall love G‑d" (Deuteronomy 6:5) is a crucial component of our relationship with the Almighty. Aside from the fact that loving G‑d is itself a mitzvah (Divine commandment), it is also a prerequisite for the proper observance of all the mitzvot. As Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi elaborates in his Tanya, mitzvot which are not motivated by a love of G‑d are performed mechanically and erratically; only one who loves G‑d serves Him in a manner that is both integral and enduring.

Our love for G‑d also comes in the two forms described above. By studying what G‑d has revealed about Himself to us in His Torah, and contemplating and meditating upon these truths, one develops a feeling of love toward Him -- a desire to approach His great and magnificent being, to unite and become one with it. Indeed, this is one of the primary functions of prayer, "the service of the heart": to generate a feeling of love for the Creator by meditating on His greatness and majesty.

But also the person who does not succeed in creating a "self-generated" love by these means can attain a love of G‑d, by resorting to the inborn love for Him we each possess as "an inheritance from our forefathers." Abraham, the first Jew, was the very embodiment of divine love ("Abraham, who loves Me," in G‑d's words to Isaiah), and G‑d rewarded him with the gift of "fatherhood" -- the ability to bequeath this love to his descendants. So each and every Jew has Abraham's love of G‑d encoded in his spiritual genes. As with all inborn characteristics, this love may be buried in the subconscious, stifled by the dross of material life; but it can always be wakened and called upon to stimulate and vitalize our observance of the mitzvot.

The advantages of the second type of love are obvious. Every Jew possesses it -- and the ability to realize it -- regardless of the extent of his cognitive and meditative skills or his spiritual sensitivity. Furthermore, a self-generated love will always be limited by the finite capacities of the mind and heart which have created it, and will fluctuate in accordance with the person's mental and emotional state at any given moment; our inborn love, being divinely granted, is infinite and unequivocal.

But there are advantages to self-generated love as well. Though lesser in essence and scope, it is more keenly felt, more exuberantly experienced. For such is our nature: what we create is more precious to us than the most valuable endowment, what we conceive of ourselves is somehow more relevant and real than what is learned from the greatest master. So although the stimulation of our inherited love for G‑d would suffice to drive our observance of the mitzvot, we should nevertheless strive to enhance our relationship with Him with the ecstasy and passion that only a love created by our own faculties and initiative can bring. In the words of our sages, "Although a fire came down [on the Altar] from the heavens, it is imperative to also kindle a man-made fire."

The Sallow-Skinned Bride

Therein lies the deeper significance of the Talmud's description of how "the beautiful ones," "those of prestigious lineage" and "the ugly ones" among the daughters of Jerusalem conducted their courtship dance in the vineyards on Av 15.

The dancing maidens of Jerusalem calling out their virtues to their prospective bridegrooms echo the call of the souls of Israel to their Divine Groom. Among these are the beautiful souls, those who have achieved a best-of-both-worlds perfection in their love of the Almighty: a passionate, self-generated love set upon the immutable foundation of inherited love. "A woman is for beauty," call these souls to G‑d; take us as your bride, and You will be rewarded by the pleasure You derive when Your creations realize the potential for perfection You have invested in them.

Then there are the souls of "prestigious lineage." We cannot offer you the flawless beauty of our perfect sisters -- they call to G‑d -- but we have unearthed the hereditary love You have implanted in us. "A woman is for children": our relationship might not, as of yet, yield beauty, but it will bear fruit -- the mitzvot generated by our natural love for You. (In the words of the Midrash Pesikta Zutrati on Genesis 6:9: "The offspring of the righteous are good deeds.") For is not Your ultimate purpose in creation that Your creations fulfill your will? Our love for you might not excite our senses and illuminate our lives, but we offer You the rewards of family -- the good deeds that are the tangible, enduring offspring of Israel's commitment to her Creator.

And the ugly ones? Those who have neither roused their minds and hearts to desire their Creator, nor wakened their hereditary loyalty to Him? Those who never generated a self-created love and whose inborn love lies dormant under a squalid veneer of apathy and iniquity? They cry: "Make Your acquisition for the sake of Heaven!"

"Do for Your sake, if not for ours,"4 call the "ugly" souls of Israel. Take us as Your own, despite our appearance, because only You know what lies behind our appearance, and only You know the truth of what You can inspire in us. For You know that, in truth, "The daughters of Israel are beautiful, it is only that poverty obscures their beauty."5 You know that our "ugliness" is not our true essence, but imposed upon us by the spiritual poverty of galut.

If we have failed to realize our potential for beauty and fruitfulness, then it is left to You to "decorate us with jewels" -- to shower us with the gifts that will waken our quintessential bond to You and bring to light our innate perfection.

Footnotes
1.
In metaphoric language of Song of Songs, "King Solomon" is a reference to G‑d, "the King whom peace (shalom) is His.
2.
According to Torah law, the marital union between husband and wife consists of two stages: kiddushin ("consecration" or "betrothal") and nissu'in ("marriage"). As elaborated in a previous essay (Yes and No), the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai constituted the kiddushin in the marriage of G‑d and Israel, while the ultimate consummation of our union awaits the rebuilding of our eternal home in the age of Moshiach.
3.
Corresponding to the tzaddik, beinoni and rasha as classified by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in the first eighteen chapters of his Tanya.
4.
From the Slichot prayers.
5.
Talmud, Nedarim 66a.
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; adapted by Yanki Tauber.
Originally published in Week in Review.
Republished with the permission of MeaningfulLife.com. If you wish to republish this article in a periodical, book, or website, please email permissions@meaningfullife.com.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
 Email
Join the Discussion
Sort By:
11 Comments
1000 characters remaining
Anonymous August 10, 2014

Can you tell us more? Were there chaperones nearby? Did they dance only in certain places where they knew the right men would be? Reply

miriam rhodes August 5, 2009

thank you reading this added to my appreciation for this special day. Reply

Menachem Kovacs Baltimore, Md August 3, 2009

Kedusha context Single women dancing in front of men makes more sense if we remember that this was on Yom Kippur (!) as well as on 15 Av. In other words the Rebbe explains the context was one of Kedusha (holiness), far different than contemporary culture. Reply

Ahava Brooklyn, NY August 12, 2008

modesty "Since both of these dates mark a time of forgiveness and purification, the early generations did not hesitate to establish them both as times when the daughters of Israel would go out and dance in the vineyards, for they did not fear that doing so would breach the fence of modesty. The very essence of these days was that they were a time free from sin and thusthere was no reason to fear that people would stumble. It is for this reason that the verse in Shoftim (21:19) refers to the fifteenth of Av as a festival of G-d - that is, a festival all of whose activities are meant entirely for the sake of Heaven." (Eliyahu Kitov, The Book of Our Heritage)
Our generations are not on that level. Reply

Avital NY August 2, 2007

Me, too Yes I've always wondered- if my teachers say that dancing in front of men is immodest, why was there no problem with these women dancing? Or, the other way around- if these women could dance in front of men, why can't we? Reply

Anonymous July 29, 2007

Very well written. Powerful and moving. Reply

Miryam poway July 28, 2007

Great to read after such mourning. Reply

Shoshannah Raleigh, NC August 15, 2006

Modesty? On a literal level, how did the practice of maidens dancing before the young men fit in with the practice of tzniut? Reply

Michael August 7, 2006

Beautiful essay! Very inspiring! Reply

y'hoshua halevi los angeles, ca. usa August 16, 2005

kiddush H' this piece is a beautiful kiddush HaShem. the more we know the true nature of love related to G-d, the torah and israel, the better we can live our lives as a blessing. thank you! Reply

Anonymous Kings Point, NY/USA August 10, 2005

Beatifully written, with such words that get you truly believing in every power that G-D holds. Reply

Related Topics
This page in other languages