Historical Dimensions of Yom Kippur – Part 2
Yom Kippur: A Festival of Dancing Maidens
If ever there were a surprising dimension to Yom Kippur, the following mishna wins the prize.
Brought down in Tractate of Taanit and not in Yoma, the Mishna describes maidens dancing in the vineyards to attract the attention of the unmarried men.
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: Israel had no greater days of joy than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur. On these days the sons/daughters of Israel would go out dressed in white which were all borrowed in order not to shame anyone who didn't have....The daughters of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards. And what would they say? “Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself… Don't set your eyes upon beauty; rather, set your eyes upon family…” (Ta’anit Ch.4 Mishna 8) 
How are we to understand this very surprising form of celebration on Yom Kippur?
Many Bible scholars understand the day of Yom Kippur to have gone through a transformation at some point in ancient Israel and to have evolved into a of day fasting and repentance. This mishna can be seen as having preserved some of the flavor of this older Yom Kippur. Nevertheless, there have been some attempts by traditional authorities to make this Yom Kippur celebration and courtship work with the (later) model of Yom Kippur as a day of atonement.
1. Marriage as a Form of Atonement
The Yerushalmi (Taanit 4:11) claims that it makes perfect sense to have a courting ritual on Yom Kippur, since this is the day of atonement. Although this statement seems almost inexplicable, the Chida (Rabbi Chaim Joseph David Azulai, 1724 – 1806) elaborates on this point in a responsum (Chayyim Sha’al 1:51) by connecting this statement with another one in the Yerushalmi (Bikkurim 3:3), which states that a bride and groom are forgiven for all their sins on their wedding day. Accordingly, Yom Kippur, which is a day of forgiveness, is an appropriate day to look for a spouse, since marriage also brings forgiveness.
2. Reflection on the Holiness of the People in Ancient Times
Rav Eliyahu Dessler in Michtav M’Eliyahu (vol. 4, 180-181) questions this astounding practice on Yom Kippur. How could Yom Kippur be a day of dancing and dating?  To strengthen his question, Rav Dessler quotes the targum’s translation of Lamentation 1:4 “the maidens are unhappy” as being due to the fact that they ceased to celebrate Yom Kippur (and the fifteenth of Av) with dancing and betrothals. In other words, Rav Dessler notes, it isn’t only that this practice occurred that the Sages consider it to have been one of the holy practices that ceased with the destruction of the Temple!
To explain this paradoxical practice, Rav Dessler explains that it seems inexplicable to us because of how much less spiritual and righteous our generation is in comparison with the Jews of old. Those generations were able to utilize the joy of atonement as an impetus for courting—all for the sake of heaven. In such a generation, he writes, there was no fear that any man, other than one looking for a wife, would go to see these maidens dance, and the maidens made sure to dance and speak—not sing!—their lines in the vineyards away from the public eye to ensure that modesty was sustained.
3. Allegory for the Relationship between Israel and God
Rabbi Israel Lipschitz, in his commentary on the Mishna, Tiferet Yisrael (ad loc. Yachin 63), finds the notion of maidens dancing/ singing in the vineyards on Yom Kippur to attract men to be ludicrous. Therefore, he explains the practice as, in fact, an allegory reflecting Israel singing to God. The maidens, he explains, represent the Jewish people singing to God and asking God not to see their imperfections i.e. their sins, but look at the family, i.e. the forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Read our short series on the Historical Dimensions of Yom Kippur
1 – Yom Kippur: A Celebration of Liberty on the Jubilee Year
2 – Yom Kippur: A Festival of Dancing Maidens
3 – The Absence of Yom Kippur in Nevi’im and Ketuvim
4 – Does Ezekiel in 572 B.C.E Know of Yom Kippur?
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
September 11, 2013
March 19, 2021
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Essays on Related Topics: