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Historical Dimensions of Yom Kippur – 2
Yom Kippur: A Festival
of Dancing Maidens
טכס הבאת הביכורים בגן-שמואל 2009 – Amos Gil cc
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 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 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.
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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?
 Here is the full text of the mishna:
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: Israel had no greater days of joy than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur. On these days the daughters of Israel would go out dressed in white which were all borrowed in order not to shame anyone who didn’t have [a suitable white dress]. All the garments required ritual immersion [before being donned to ensure their purity from niddus]. The sons/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. [For] grace is false and beauty is vain; a woman who fears the Lord she will be praised. And the verse further states: “Give her from the fruit of her hands and let her deeds praise her in the gates” (Proverbs 31:30). So too, Scripture says: “Go forth O you daughters of Zion and gaze upon King Shlomoh [i.e., the Holy One, the King of Peace] crowned with the crown His nation made for Him on the day of His wedding and on the day of the gladness of His heart” (Songs 3:11). On the day of His wedding refers to [Yom Kippur] the [day of the] giving of the Torah [i.e., the second Tablets], and on the day of the gladness of His heart, refers to the building of the Holy Temple [inaugurated on Yom Kippur], may it be built speedily in our days (Soncino Translation).
אמר רבן שמעון בן גמליאל, לא היו ימים טובים לישראל כחמישה עשר באב וכיום הכיפורים, שבהם בני/בנות ירושלים יוצאין בכלי לבן שאולים, כדי שלא לבייש את מי שאין לו. וכל הכלים טעונין טבילה. ובנות ירושלים יוצאות וחולות (וחונות) בכרמים. וכך הן אומרות, שא נא בחור עיניך וראה, מה אתה בורר לך; אל תיתן עיניך בנואי, אלא תן עיניך במשפחה. וכן הוא אומר, “צאנה וראינה בנות ציון, במלך שלמה–בעטרה, שעיטרה לו אימו ביום חתונתו, וביום, שמחת ליבו” (שיר השירים ג,יא): “ביום חתונתו”, זה מתן תורה; “וביום, שמחת ליבו”, זה בניין בית המקדש. יהי רצון שייבנה בימינו.
 ניחא ביום הכיפורים שהוא כפרה על ישראל
 ואנו עומדים ותמהים… ביום הכיפורים?! לשדך שידוכים?! ולחול בכרמים?!
Zion’s roads are in mourning, empty of festival pilgrims; all her gates are deserted. Her Priests sigh, her maidens are unhappy– she is utterly desolate.
 It is unclear whether he thinks there was a dance of Jews, but it was meant as allegory, or whether he thinks that the entire mishna is meant as an allegory, and if so, whether it is an allegory on Tu Be’Av or not.
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