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Juggling in Biblical Times by Raphael Harris

We may think that juggling is a modern discovery, invented perhaps by Barnum & Bailey or by street performers, but it turns out that there are veiled references to juggling in a number of early Jewish sources. These sources include the Mishna, the most ancient section of the. Talmud, which dates back to biblical times [at least in its oral form].

The reference in the Mishna reads as follows (Tractate Succah, Chapter 5, Mishna 41: "Pious and prominent men used to dance with burning torches in their hands before the thousands of celebrants; they sang before them songs and praises to G-d. The Levites played on harps and lyres, and with cymbals, trumpets, and numerous musical instruments, upon the fifteen steps leading down to the courtyard."

The Mishna is describing the celebrations at the Temple in Jerusalem during the Festival of Succoth. This is in accordance with the Biblical injunctions to rejoice on the occasion of the Succoth Festival, as it says, "and you shall rejoice before G-d seven days," and "in Succoth shall you dwell, seven days" (Leviticus 23:40, 421, and, "draw forth water (for the festival Temple service) in gladness" (Isaiah 12:3).

Concerning the phrase of the Mishna, "danced with burning torches," the commentary of Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki of Troyes, France, 1040-1105 CE) reads as follows: "They would throw them high and catch them. Some were expert with four, some with eight. They would continually throw and catch, throw and catch." Similarly, the illustrious scholar Rabbi Ovadia Yarei of Bartinoro (b. Italy,1440 - d. Jerusalem, 1516) backs up Rashi's opinion with his own: "with four or eight torches they would throw and catch one after the other," thus confirming that the statement in the Mishna is indeed referring to juggling, and not to some other form of entertainment.

The Mishna continues to describe the wondrous celebrations that took place for many generations so long ago, and emphatically declares, "whoever missed, these celebrations had never seen true rejoicing!" and "the entire city of Jerusalem was illuminated by the lights of these celebrations." As we can see, juggling was considered an integral part of the celebrations of the Jewish people, even in ancient times.

This article originally appeared in Your Jerusalem, July, 1997. Used by permission of the author.

Raphael Harris lives in Jerusalem where he works as a writer and juggler. His hobbies include: travel, painting, historical research, zoology, and, of course, writing and juggling. Other articles about Judaism and juggling have appeared in Jugglers World (Winter 1994-1995 & Summer 1995), Kaskade (June, 1993, #30), Two-Ply Press (Volume 7, #9, September 1994), Yiddishkeit: The World Torah Review (Issue 24, Summer 1993), In Jerusalem (February 1995) and numerous other publications. Raphael has a nice web page, too.

And this is Raphael Harris at Scott Seltzer's wedding:

Contents: Jewish Jugglers | Juggling in Biblical Times by Raphael Harris | Juggling in Post-Biblical Jewish Sources by Raphael Harris | Jewish Occasions to Juggle | Juggling Mitzvahs | Juggling Jews | Photos of Jewish Performers | Juggling in Israel | Jewish Juggling Tricks | Links to Other Sites, Juggling & Jewish | Log of Jewish Jugglers Construction

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