SFDH Logo (tiny)

The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)

The Bible in Israeli Folk Dances

[ Home | About | Encyclopedia |
| Publications | Members ]


Matti Goldschmidt

Israel Bible in Israeli FolkDances The abridged book version was first published in the original German in choreae 5 (1998), 22-50. Revised extended versions in German and in English were both published in Germany under the title: Die Bibel im Israelischen Volkstanz (Willrich 2001) respectively. The Bible in Israeli Folk Dances (Willrich 2001).

For many Central Europeans whose thinking has mainly been influenced by Christianity, Israel is the "Holy Land," in which religion has played an especially important role since time immemorial. Jews are considered to be extremely fond of dancing, both traditionally and contemporarily. In fact, more and more folk dances are being produced in Israel today and folk dancing is still more widespread than in hardly any other nation. A considerable number of the Israeli folk dances that have spread throughout the German-speaking countries of Europe were (as is known) influenced by the Bible. Thus, at a quick glance, one might be tempted to think that Israeli folk dancing is characterized by a special proximity to the nation's religious customs and biblical foundation, and that it is to a considerable extent permeated by the religious motives of Judaism. In reality, however, things appear quite different if one takes the time to examine the range of Israeli folk dances that (until) now exist[1]. Biblical lyrics, which this article will attempt to examine closely, can only be found in a very limited number of the songs to which the folk dances have been set.

First of all, Israeli folk dancing is simply a popular pastime. As a pastime, attending a public dance is generally non-ideological. That is to say, the act of dancing itself is not intended to express a particular ideology – at least not intentionally. Instead, dancing offers most participants the opportunity to engage in social contact while getting a moderate degree of exercise at the same time. In this respect, it is not surprising that the lyrics and content of the songs for the individual dances get pushed into the background and that the music and especially the rhythm assume the dominating role. Furthermore, if one considers the fact that religion is – even for secular Jews – a part of the daily lives of the Jewish population of Israel, and that, due to this fact, Jewish citizens who are not religious have a relatively casual attitude towards the Jewish religion as such, it is not surprising that the average folk dancer in Israel sings along with lyrics that are familiar to him without giving it a second thought. This may certainly apply to lyrics taken from the Bible and even to certain texts considered to be holy. Singing along with, say, a Psalm at a folk dance, does not transform the evening into a religious event[2]; at best, it reflects the broad social spectrum among the folk dancers of Israel.

One must not forget that the contemporary Israeli folk dance has its roots in the secular and socialistically orientated kibbutz movement[3]. Just like any other people, the Jews living in the British protectorate of Palestine were concerned with having, among other things, their own dances and songs. Over the centuries, the old dances had gradually been lost because the people had failed to pass on descriptions and notations of them. (The first evidence of written dance descriptions can be traced back to the late fifteenth century at the earliest.) Because of that, the Jewish dances of biblical times, that is, biblical dances, cannot be reconstructed today (not any more so than "a dance from Antique Crete or ancient Greece could be reconstructed"[4]). Thus, the people had to create dances of their own "against all the laws of development of folk culture the world over"[5].

In the beginnings of Israeli dance, around 1940[6], people attempted to incorporate authentic roots, especially those of their own culture, into dances that were at first conceived primarily as stage dances and only later became accessible to general dance enthusiasts in a mostly simplified form. For the greater part, these dances consisted of elements of dances originating in the various native countries of the Jewish immigrants (for example, Romania or Russia) and the culture group of the East European (Hasidism) or Yemenite Jews (the latter with several sub­divisions[7]). Elements of other ethnic groups were less successful, that is to say, they were not given the slightest consideration. On the subject of the inclusion of the most varied of elements from the two latter above-named ethnic groups, it must be noted that in particular the traditional separation of the sexes in Yemenite dance, for example, or the exclusion of women (who, after all, make up around 50% of the population) in Hasidic dance did not correspond to the needs of the bulk of the population, not to mention the fact that Hasidic dance is intended as an expression of religious devotion and thus was a priori left out of the secular sphere of Israeli dancing.

In addition to the dance traditions already listed, people eventually gave consideration to the Bible when choreographing the new dances. This happened for three reasons:

  1. Firstly, several of the festive events held over the course of the year on the kibbutzim, the agriculturally oriented social communities, were based on Jewish holidays, references to which can clearly be traced back to the Bible, for example Shavu'oth, or other holidays based on religious backgrounds, for example Tu bi-Sh'vat.
  2. Furthermore, dancing in Jewish tradition and history is mentioned in writing. Some of these texts have been proven to be over 2500 years old.
  3. Finally, the avant-garde among the Hebrew songwriters, that is, the composers and lyricists (who were often one and the same person), searching for roots that went back as far as possible as well as totally authentic material, chose to use song lyrics that came directly from the Bible[8]. (The simultaneous benefit of not having to write lyrics from scratch is hardly worth mentioning.)

That is why it cannot be denied that modern, contemporary Israeli dancing has borrowed from the Bible on several occasions. In addition, Benjamin Zemach (whose essay, originally composed in Yiddish, dates back to 1940) sees in "Jewish folk dancing," with its closed harmony and singleness of form, a realization of the fact that "the Jewish concept of monotheism tended to mold diverse parts into one great unity"[9]. In the end, that is exactly what happened. A wide variety of influences resulted in the Israeli folk dancing we know today, even though, because of its clearly secular sphere, it is most likely that biblical and, above all, theological elements were integrated unintentionally.

On the whole, one cannot overlook the fact that the founders of today's Israeli dancing were concerned with a unifying, national, cultural component with a clearly non-religious character. The shape of Israeli folk dancing arose from the need for a means of expressing cultural and national independence like that felt by any other people. This has been verified by, among others, Gurit Kadman, who sees the source of Israeli dancing as being in the "earth, labour, and the resurgence of the Jewish nation"[10].

One can only begin to realize why many Central European dance groups believe that Israeli dancing is generally influenced by the Bible[11]. Allow me to briefly summarize the foreseeable reasons for this.

It was not until the 1960s that the first Israeli dances were introduced – at least in larger numbers – into Germany via Holland. This period also included various seminars given in West Germany by Rivka Sturman, whose dances, as we will see later, have an above-average share of religious texts.

  1. The relatively easy dance sequences appealed to a wide audience, the religious texts to sacred and liturgical dance groups among others. Furthermore, unlike the newer Israeli dances, the music and character of the dance sequences corresponded to the tastes of all-around folklore dancers.
  2. While the dance scene in Israel "became independent" (for example, it no longer revolved around the kibbutz, but rather the municipal recreation center; the dances became more complex, the Middle Eastern influence increased in step with the demographic structure, etc.), Central Europe stood still in its development as far as Israeli folk dances were concerned. The Central European dance groups did not want or were not able to follow the changes (new, oriental melodies, banal texts, more complex step sequences, etc.) that had taken place in Israel over the course of approximately 20 years.
  3. While dance groups with a purely Israeli repertoire, who also and above all took the modern Israeli folklore dance scene into consideration (such as in Berlin, Bern, Munich, Stuttgart, or Zurich), did not form in Central Europe until the late 1980s (through the influx of a number of masters of Israeli dance), outside these groups it is certain that a far larger number of the 1960s dances that were known up until then were passed down over the years.
  4. Thus, the considerably smaller number of dancers of "modern" Israeli folk dances in Central Europe orientate themselves on the real Israeli folkloric (dance) culture[12] and dance without closer consideration of the extensive backgrounds to the texts of each song. The more traditionally influenced groups constantly maintain the same 15 to 25 dances (such as "Ha-Shu'al," "Tzadiq Ke-Thamar," "Le-Or Khiyuchech," "Mal'ach Mi-Sulam Ya'akov," and "Mah Naa'vu"). Since these dances do indeed have a relatively large number of texts of biblical origin and these groups possess only limited knowledge of the current Israeli folklore dance scene, it is understandable for the false impression to arise that the majority of Israeli folk dances can be traced back to the Bible at least as far as their texts are concerned.

Let us now turn to the dances that are the special focus of the observations in this article, namely those whose song lyrics can be traced back to the Bible. Of the Israeli folk dances that exist to date, it was possible to categorize fifty-two as dances of this kind[13]. Without a doubt, there is an even larger number of songs with religious lyrics, such as "Ani Ma'amin," "Al ha-Nis­sim," or "Dror Yiqra," however their origin is not the Bible, but the Siddur (the Jewish book of prayer) or other written sources. Therefore, these dances were not given any consideration. Also not included was, for example, Rivka Sturman's dance "Debka Gilboa," in which the composer, Emanuel Zamir, in a new Zionist pioneer spirit, took "Ye mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew nor rain upon you . . ." (II Samuel 1:21) and in the modern lyrics made the exact opposite out of it: "dew and rain on Mt. Gil­boa" ("Tal u-Matar al Hare'i ha-Gilboa" in Hebrew); after all, water was to be used for agriculture! Of the titles that have been listed here, five were included only under limited conditions. One, "Mal'ach mi-Sulam Ya'akov," more or less paraphrases certain scriptures. Four other songs only contain partial quotes from the Bible ("Al Thira," "Debka he-Kha­mor," "Od Evnech" und "Sh'khorah Ani"). Thus, there remain many dances whose texts are taken directly from the Bible.

In the long overview representing the second part of this article, all of these dances or, rather, these songs have been listed in order of their appearance in the (Hebrew) Bible, to include the corresponding scriptures. The Hebrew text quoted, which has been transliterated in Latin script, is intended to enable one to recognize the biblical words in song. Since, in many cases, only a portion of a verse has been included in the song, simply giving the number of the verse could be potentially misleading. Therefore, the respective scripture has been given verbatim. For the German translation, the one written by Leopold Zunz was chosen[14]. This version was not only influenced by a Jewish environment, but it is perhaps also more notable for the fact that the German audience is less familiar with it than, say, the Einheitsübersetzung ("Unified Translation," which has been proven to contain imprecise translations) or the Luther translation (which is according to Martin Buber a version in "German comprehensible to the common man" rather than an exact translation). The same is true for the chosen English translation by Gutstein/Graubart[15], copyrighted by the Jewish Publication Society of America, vs. the commonly known (Christian) American Standard or King James Version.

As far as possible, additional information on each dance has been given, such as the name of the composer, the type of dance, the year of its debut, etc. Information on the latter was not available for all of the titles, on the one hand because of a lack of source material and on the other hand due to insufficient cooperation with the author on the part of the choreographers (for example, direct written inquiries went unanswered). A striking number of dances, namely seventeen, approximately one third, take their respective lyrics from the Song of Solomon, eleven from the book of Psalms, eight from Isaiah, and six from Jeremiah. An analysis of the debut years of the individual dances reveals that the vast majority belong to the category of the older dances. Even a large part of the dances without a debut year being given emerged in the period of 1950-1975.

It is remarkable that, of the younger-generation choreographers, Avner Naim is obviously the only one who chooses songs with biblical lyrics for dances. Just over the half of the dances listed are circle dances (twenty-eight), partner dances are represented seventeen times, while ten dances are danced in a line formation (including six double choreographies, three dances could not be assigned to any category out of a total of fifty-eight). Perhaps despite the expectations of mainly Christian orientated dance groups, the melodies of the songs are not predominantly calm or resonant such as in "Hinach Yaffah," "Libavthini," or "Th'filathi," for example. More than one or two dances not only have accented rhythms, such as Yehoshua or Ozi we-Zimrath Yah, but are quite joyful and have an extremely fast tempo, such as We-Shavu Banim, Ethen ba-Midbar, or Al Thira.

With an abundance of that kind, dance events can easily be organized along a particular theme. For example, in Israel on Shavu'oth, the day of thanksgiving, one dances to songs whose lyrics go back to the days of the Jewish pioneers before the State was founded. On what is known as Jerusalem Day (the day of the re­unification of Jerusalem as a result of the Six Day War in 1967) one dances to songs whose lyrics have to do with Jerusalem, and so on. Thus, it would be quite conceivable to have a dance evening with Israeli dances whose texts have been taken exclusively from the Bible. May the following also provide encouragement and assistance in doing just that.

     Bible Verse        Dance or Song Title       English Translation            Composer         Choreographer        Year
     According to Genesis 28:12        Mal'ach mi-Sulam Ya'akov       An Angel of the Jacob's Ladder            Hirsh, Nurith         Gabai, Yonathan        
     Exodus 15:1-2        Shirath ha-Yam       Song of the Sea            Halevi, Moshiko         Halevi, Moshiko        1992
     Exodus 15:11        Mi Kamocha       Who Is Like unto Thee            Halevi, Moshiko         Halevi, Moshiko        1982
     Deuteronomy 26:15        Eretz Zavath Khalav       A Land, Flowing with Milk            Gamliel, Eliyahu         Gamliel, Eliyahu        1963
     Deuteronomy 32:13        Wa-Yineqehu       And He Made Him to Suck            Aldema, Gil         Spivak, Rayah        1979
     Joshua 1:1-3.9; 6:1.4-5.20;
        11:4; 10:12; 12:23.
       Yehoshua       Joshua            Weinkranz, David         Dassa, Danni        1981
     Judges 5:3        Ken Yovdu       So Perish            Giv'on, U.         Gurit Kadman;
          Tanai-Levi, Sara
     Isaiah 1:3        Debka he-Khamor       The Donkey Debka            Zamir, Emanuel         Cohen, Viki        
     Isaiah 1:3        Mayim, Mayim       Water, Water            Amiran, Emanuel         Dublon, Elsa        1937
     Isaiah 41:19        Ethen ba-Midbar       I Shall Plant in the Wilderness            Shelem, Mattitjahu         Levi, Yankele;
           Sturman, Rivka
     Isaiah 52:1-2        Uri Zion       Awake, O Zion            Wilenski, Moshe         Sturman, Rivka        1968
     Isaiah 52:7        Mah Navu       How Beautiful            Spivak, Yossi         Spivak, Rayah        1975
     Isaiah 60:1.4        Qumi Uri       Arise, Shine            Ne'eman, Amitai         Hermon, Shalom        1958
     Isaiah 65:21        U-Vanu Bathim       And They Shall Build Houses            Admon, Yedidyah         Havatzeleth,
     Isaiah 66:10; 62:6; 60:4        Sissu eth Yerushalayim       Rejoice Ye with Jerusalem            Nof, Akiva         Gabai, Jonathan        1975
     Jeremiah 17:8        We-Hayah ke-Etz
      For He Shall Be as a
         Tree Planted
           Ne'eman, Amitai         Hermon, Shalom        1953
     Jeremiah 31:4        Od Evnech       Again Will I Build Thee                     Peretz, Avi;
          Kadosh, Naftali
     Jeremiah 31:10        Mezareh Israel       He that Scattered Israel            Ne'eman, Amitai         Hermon, Shalom        1952
     Jeremiah 31:17        We-Shavu Banim       And Thy Children Shall Return            Halevi, Moshiko         Halevi, Moshiko        1988
     Jeremiah 33:10-11        Od Yishama       Yet again there Shall Be
           Karlibach, Shlomo         Gabai, Jonathan        1975
     Jeremiah 46:27 (28)        Al Thira       But Fear not Thou            Ze'ira, Mordechai         Karmon, Jonathan        1969
     Psalm 1:1-2        Ashre'i ha-Ish       Happy Is the Man            Shevach, Uri         Dassa, Danni        1982
     Psalm 23:1-6        Mizmorim       Psalms            Schenker, Ben-Zion         Naim, Avner        1996
     Psalm 34:13-15        Mi ha-Ish       Who Is the Man?            Chayat, B.         Gamliel, Eliyahu        1979
     Psalm 55:2.7.17        Th'filathi       My Prayer            Shemer, Naomi         Naim, Avner        1994
     Psalm 92:13        Tzadiq ke-Thamar       The Righteous,
         Like the Palm-Tree
           Ne'eman, Amitai         Gabai,
     Psalm 118:1; 133:1;
       Isaiah 2:4; Psalm 118:24
       Hodu la-Shem       O Give Thanks unto the Lord            Halevi, Moshiko         Halevi, Moshiko        2000
     Psalm 118:14; 24:8        Ozi we-Zimrath Yah       The Lord Is My Strength
         and Song
           traditional (jem.)         Sturman, Rivka        1946
     Psalm 128:5-6        Yevarechecha       Bless Thee            Weinkranz, David         Kadmon, Giora        1980
     Psalm 133:1        Hineh Mah Tov       Behold, how Good It Is            Jakobson, Moshe         Sturman, Rivka, Rivka        1950
     Psalm 147:12-13        Shabekhi Yerushalayim       Glorify, O Jerusalem            Medinah, Avihu         Gov-Ari, Shmulik        1984
     Psalm 150:5-6        Halleluyah be-Tsil'tsele'i
      Praise Him with the
         Loud-Sounding Cymbals
           traditional (?)         Naim, Avner        1995
     Psalm 150:6.1-5        Kol ha-Neshamah       Every Thing that Hath Breath            Amrani, Barak         Levi, Yankele        1981
     Proverbs 31:10-11        Esheth Khail       A woman of Valour            Halevi, Moshiko         Halevi, Moshiko        2000
     The Song of Songs 1:5; 2:2        Sh'khorah Ani       I Am Black            Grand, G.         Dassa, Danni        1985
     The Song of Songs 1:6.5        Al Thir'uni       Look not upon Me            Amiran, Emanuel         Havatzeleth,
     The Song of Songs 2:2-3        Ke-Shoshanah ben
      As a Lily among Thorns            Hadar, Joseph         Levi, Yankele        1960
     The Song of Songs 2:8        Qol Dodi       Hark, My Beloved            Tanai-Levi, Sara         Sturman, Rivka        1946
     The Song of Songs 2:11-13        Hineh ha-Stav Avar       For, lo, the Winter Is Past            Eilath, D.         Amar, Shalom;
           Tiram, Bentzi
     The Song of Songs
       Nitzanim Nir'u ba-Aretz       The Flowers Appear on
         the Earth
           Heiman, Nachum         Friedhaber, Zvi        1972
     The Song of Songs 2:16;
        3:6; 4:9.16
       Dodi Li       My Beloved is Mine            Hen, Nira         Sturman, Rivka        1948
     The Song of Songs 4:1        Hinach Yaffah       Behold, Thou Art Fair            Mustaki, Josef         Levi, Yankele        1966
     The Song of Songs 4:8;
       Ithi mi-L'vanon       With Me from Lebanon            Hen, Nira         Sturman, Rivka        1949
     The Song of Songs 4:9-11        Libavthini       Thou Hast Ravished My Heart            Amarilio, M.         Eskayo, Moshe        1971
     The Song of Songs 5:10-11        Dodi Tzakh we-Adom       My Beloved Is White
         and Ruddy
           Âmiran, Emanuel         Sturman, Rivka        1950
     The Song of Songs 6:1-2        Anah Halach Dodech       Whither Is Thy Beloved Gone            Aldema, Gil         Ashriel, Yoav;
           Tanai-Levi, Sara
     The Song of Songs 6:11;
        7:12-13; 4:16
       El Ginath Egoz       Into the Garden of Nuts            Tanai-Levi, Sara         Tanai-Levi, Sara        1944
     The Song of Songs 7:13;
        7:7; 4:11; 7:12; 2:10
           (also 2:13)
       Eth Dodim Kalah       Time of the Friends, Beloved            traditional         Halevi, Moshiko        1960
     The Song of Songs 7:14;
        1:16; 8:14
       Ha-Duda'im       The Mandrakes            Heiman, Nachum         Levi, Yankele        1966
     The Song of Songs 8:8-10        Akhoth Lanu Q'tanah       We Have a Little Sister            traditional (jem.)         Yakovee, Israel        1974
     The Song of Songs 8:13-14        Ha-Yosheveth ba-Ganim       Thou that Dwellest in
         the Gardens
        Levi, Yankele;
           Hillman, Zvi
     Second Chronicles 26:9-10        Wa-Yiven Uziyahu       And Uzziah Built            Sarai, Jonathan         Sturman, Rivka        1952



This page © 2018 by Ron Houston.
Please do not copy any part of this page without including this copyright notice.
Please do not copy small portions out of context.
Please do not copy large portions without permission from Ron Houston.