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    Dances on Yom Kippur

    “Dance the Yom Kippur Blues Away” – that was the way the London Jewish Chronicle used to advertise post-Yom Kippur balls at West End hotels.

    Community opinion was scandalised, and the Chronicle’s letter columns were full of disapproving frowns.

    After such a solemn day, is that a way to carry on?… such was the response of the elders.

    I do not seem to remember the young people holding a different opinion, though presumably enough of them patronised the balls to make the events financially and socially viable.

    Yet consult the Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:8), and what do you find?

    “Rabban Shimon ben Gamli’el said, ‘There were no festive occasions in Israel to rival 15 Av and Yom Kippur, for on these days the daughters of Jerusalem went out and danced in the vineyards. What did they say: Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself. Don’t set your eyes on beauty; set your eyes on family background’.”

    So the maidens used Yom Kippur to dance in the vineyards and attract the interest of the boys. The elders were in the Temple where the atonement ceremonies were under way; the youngsters were busy with girls and gaiety.

    Leaving out for the moment the reference to 15 Av, the midsummer celebration a week after Tishah B’Av, was it really possible that frivolity and flirtation could take place – with the sanction of the sages – on the Day of Atonement?

    Those who emend texts suggest that instead of Yom HaKippurim the Mishnah originally read Yom HaPurim, which makes all the difference in the world. Purim is a light-hearted day when dancing and match-making could never be out of place. But the Talmud specifically refers to Yom Kippur, “the day of forgiveness and pardon” (Ta’anit 30b).

    Does this then mean that the sages were not so disapproving after all and looked on benignly when the youngsters cavorted in the vineyards?

    Rabbi AE Silverstone, an Anglo-Jewish scholar of an earlier generation, finds this hardly fits the refined spirituality and austerity of Yom Kippur.

    He asks why Yom Kippur and 15 Av appear side by side in the text.

    What was 15 Av? The day when a series of happy events occurred, some of them connected with marriage.

    The decree that the generation of the wilderness would die before reaching the Promised Land came to an end on 15 Av in the 40th year since leaving Egypt. The law limiting whom the daughters of Tz’lof’chad could marry was lifted. The men of Benjamin were permitted to marry women from the other tribes.

    15 Av was an appropriate occasion to make shidduchim. But the Mishnah adds that the girls wore borrowed garments so as not to embarrass the poor. According to Maimonides’ Mishnah commentary the dancing and match-making occurred on 15 Av only.

    We must ask, however, why Yom Kippur was mentioned in the Mishnah. It was one of the two great festive days, each with its own style of rejoicing – 15 Av when the rejoicing was social and earthy, and Yom Kippur when the people rejoiced spiritually at receiving what they call in Yiddish a good kvittel.

    There were no Yom Kippur blues to dance away. There were no dances.

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