Unlike every other holiday of the year, Simchat Torah is a holiday that has no historical, cultic,
or agricultural basis. All the other holidays celebrate a harvest (Sukkot, Pesach, Shavuot), a
historical event (Chanukah, Purim, Pesach, the fast days), or a religious observance (Rosh
Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret). Simchat Torah as a holiday evolved out of the events
that marked the end of the Torah-reading cycle. Another oddity: all of the festivals are marked
with a Torah or haftarah reading that has some connection to its biblical roots. The Simchat
Torah readings have no connection to any biblical event or observance; the Torah readings
simply comprise the ending and the beginning of the Torah; the maftir is the regular festival
maftir portion; and the haftarah is taken from the first chapter of the book of Joshua.
The custom of reading the Torah publicly, which began after the return from Babylonian exile,
did not become a fixed ritual until some time after the third century CE, so there was no
particular date when the entire Torah’s reading was completed and begun anew. The custom of
marking the reading of the end of Deuteronomy with a celebration was known in Babylon during
the gaonic period (ca. 590–1000 CE), when the reading of the Torah was fixed on a one-year
cycle, but these celebrations were not the origin of the Simchat Torah holiday.
In Babylon during the gaonic period, the Torah had been divided into 54 parashiot, “reading
portions,” with one (or two during the shorter non-leap years) to be read each Shabbat during the
year. The day that the last portion of Deuteronomy was read was called Yom haBrakha after the
name of the parashah, v’Zot haBrakha. Some communities, particularly those in northern Africa,
called it Yom haSiyyum, the “Day of Completion,” while in Spain it didn’t have any name in
particular, it was just referred to as the last yom tov of Chag.
During this period in Israel, the Torah was read on a three- to three-and-a-half year cycle, not
necessarily finishing at the same time for each cycle. Descriptions survive from Israel that tell of
celebratory meals following the completion of reading cycles, but these too were not equivalent
to the later Simchat Torah observance. The Talmud doesn’t make any special mention of
celebrations marking the ending of the Torah reading cycle; it only regards the day as an
extension of Shemini Atzeret.
The completion of the Torah reading cycle was just that: a completion. The aliyah for the final
portion of Deuteronomy became known as the chatam Torah, the “sealer of the Torah.” In an
interesting corruption of this term, as Simchat Torah evolved this aliyah came to be called chatan
Torah, which means “bridegroom of the Torah.” The custom of reading the first few verses of
Genesis after the Deuteronomy reading is complete also began during the gaonic period; the
person honored with this aliyah is called chatan Bereshit (kallat Bereshit, “bride of
Genesis,” in some communities). Adding this reading after the Torah reading cycle was ended was done to
symbolize that the reading of the Torah is never completed.
Haftarah (from the Hebrew root pey-tet-resh, “to conclude”) readings were assigned to each
Torah reading of the 54 parshiyot fairly early in the history of the beginnings of public Torah
readings, but little is known of the actual origin of this custom. One theory holds that the
readings were established in the third century BCE to differentiate Jewish practice from that of
the Samaritans, who believed that only the Torah, and not the Prophets, were holy works.
Another points to the period when Israel was under the domination of the hellenistic Syrians in
the second century BCE, who forbade the teaching of Torah, so readings from the prophetic
writings were substituted. It is well documented that haftarah readings were firmly established in
the liturgy by 100 CE, and references to this practice appear in the Christian Bible. The haftarah
of Simchat Torah is unique in that it is the latest change to the Torah-reading liturgy, occurring
hundreds of years after the haftarah readings were established. The original haftarah assigned to
this parashah was from 1 Kings chapter 8, which told of Solomon’s dedication of the Temple on
Sukkot, but in the ninth century Rav Amram Gaon, head of the Sura academy in Babylon, wrote
that the haftarah used for the holiday was from chapter 1 of the book of Joshua; this reading has
been the custom ever since.
Development of the Simchat Torah celebration into its modern form seems to have occurred
slowly, over the course of several centuries. Until the eleventh century the holiday continued to
be known as the second day of Shemini Atzeret or even, as in Spain, as the ninth day of Sukkot.
It appears that the first use of the holiday name of “Simchat Torah” occurred in Spain some time
during the late eleventh century.
Practice of Simchat Torah prior to the fifteenth century seems to have been limited to very few
added customs. Chief among these, reported in the Kol Bo, a compendium of Jewish law thought
to have been published during the middle of the fifteenth century, were collective group aliyot
and a ceremony where all of the sifre Torah were removed from the ark and readings celebrating
Moses and “those who had contributed to the honor of the Torah, the living and the dead,” were
declaimed. From this description, there wasn’t much “simchat” involved.
Historical records are silent about the holiday until the sixteenth century, when a number of
elaborate ceremonies began to be attached to the holiday. The sixteenth century saw a dramatic
rise in Jewish mysticism, and the town of Safed in Ottoman Palestine was the epicenter of the
movement, of which a school established by Rabbi Isaac Luria, the “Ari,” was in the forefront.
The mystics of Safed developed many ritual practices, including the tikkun leil Shavuot, the
night-long Shavuot text-study session, and their contribution to the celebration of Simchat Torah
appears to be the hakafot.
The custom of performing the hakafot, the circuits of worshipers around the sanctuary, was an
adaptation of the custom of the Hoshanah Rabbah hakafot, where the bimah was circled seven
times by worshipers with their lulavim and bunches of aravot branches. While the hakafot on
Hoshanah Rabbah circled the bimah where the Torah remained stationary, for Simchat Torah the
Torah, and sometimes all the sifrei Torah, joined the procession. The earliest Simchat Torah
hakafot involved anywhere from one to seven circuits. This custom is unknown prior to the late
sixteenth century, and seems to have remained a local custom in Palestine for almost one
By 1660, letters, books, and visitors to Palestine had brought descriptions of the Simchat Torah
celebrations of Palestine to the Jews of Europe, from Russia to Spain. Also, this period was an
emotionally charged one, marked by the appearance of a Jew named Sabbatai Zevi, who claimed
to be the messiah. Although it may be a coincidence, the spread of the new Simchat Torah
customs seemed to accompany the messianic fervor many communities showed in favor of Zevi,
and by the end of the seventeenth century, the nature of Simchat Torah had completely changed
throughout Europe. The way the holiday had now become celebrated—as another Purim, in fact,
complete with frivolity, public intoxication, and rowdiness, hallmarks of Sabbatian-inspired
events, suggests the influence of Zevi’s followers.
There are some customs on Simchat Torah that appear to defy halakhah.
- Collective aliyot. This is the only time that collective aliyot are permitted—in fact, are
mandated. The idea is that every worshiper should have an aliyah on this holiday, and a
large tallit is held over the group to symbolize the unity of the Jewish people.
- Aliyot by children. Before their b’nei mitzvah, children are not given aliyot. On Simchat
Torah, however, there is a special aliyah, kol ha-na’arim, “all the children,” when the
children gather around the bimah and a large tallit is spread over them while they recite
- Torah reading at night. According to halakhah, the Torah is not read at night. However,
it’s read on erev Simchat Torah in most communities.
- What’s read from the Torah on erev Simchat Torah? It could be anything (except the last
verses of Deuteronomy). Customs vary, and in some synagogues the section that the
Torah is open to, whatever it happens to be, is read. Note that many synagogues have a
number of sefrei Torah, and every one of them would not necessarily be rolled to the
- Dancing with the sifrei Torah. Sometimes the dancing and parading spills out into the
- Unrolling the Torah. Normally halakhah doesn’t permit the exposing of more than three
columns of the Torah for public viewing, a kind of “modesty” issue. On Simchat Torah
some celebrations may involve unrolling the scroll to encircle the entire room.
- Decorum is a non-starter. In some communities, particularly traditional ones, the
frivolity at Simchat Torah even outdoes Purim. Throwing candy and fruit at the Torah
reader? Check. During Torah reading? Check. Practical jokes on the Torah reader and
others on the bimah? Check. There were even some changes made to the order of the
liturgy to accommodate some of the shenanigans.
- Eating and drinking in the sanctuary. Yes, even when the Torah was being read.
- Playing music on yom tov in the sanctuary. This is ordinarily forbidden, but on Simchat
Torah many rules are suspended. After all, we’re supposed to “rejoice”!
Simchat Torah has many other intriguing and unique customs, past and present. Here are
several, excerpted from Toldot Chag Simchat Torah by Avraham Ya’ari.
- In Worms, the hakafot used to take place around bonfires. In many seventeenth century
Ashkenazi communities, particularly in Poland and the Balkans, there were games and
rituals which involved fire, including jumping over fires and setting off firecrackers.
- Fire seemed to play an important role in the holiday. During the seventeenth to
nineteenth centuries in Israel, worshipers would do their hakafot holding lit candles or
even havdalah candles; this custom spread to other countries too. And children would
make fires to burn the s’khakh from Sukkot.
- In a highly controversial custom, a small number of communities in Europe would
engage non-Jews (as well as Jews in certain places) to accompany singing with
instruments. In Sarajevo, the hakafot were accompanied by drums.
- In the synagogue, men and women worshiped separately; a screen called the mechitzah
divided the men’s and women’s sections, or the women’s section was in a balcony of the
shul. But in many communities on Simchat Torah, the barriers came down, and women
took part in the festivities too. Once the hakafot began, in many shuls women were
allowed to watch, even in communities such as Yemen, where women generally did not
come to shul at all. In Ukraine, women were actually allowed into the men’s section; in
Lithuania, women and girls came into the synagogue to kiss the sifrei Torah; in Baghdad,
each shul used to lay out all of its sifrei Torah and both the men and the women used to
go from shul to shul kissing each Torah.
- Women pretty much got left out when it came to ritual observances. But on Simchat
Torah, communities allowed or even encouraged women to become involved—but not in
the actual rituals of the holiday. Some of the things women did for the holiday included
decorating the sifrei Torah after minchah on Shemini Atzeret in preparation for the
holiday; throwing candy at the chatan Torah and chatan Bereshit; honoring the wives of
the chatan Torah and Bereshit as “kallot Torah,” “brides of the Torah”; and even
auctioning off the women’s mitzvot for the rest of the year. One of those mitzvot
was—sweeping the shul’s floor.
- Simchat Torah has been compared with Purim, but its celebration, it seems, has a history
of being even rowdier. For example, the birkhat kohanim. the priestly blessing, was
moved from the musaf (afternoon) service to shacharit (morning) so that the kohanim
would not be drunk when they said it. Some synagogues canceled the blessing altogether.
Parodies of religious songs were common, and in some communities, a “Purim rabbi,”
typically a yeshiva student, would be appointed to manage the services. Good-natured
practical jokes, like tying people’s tallitot together, splashing water on the service leader
when he reads the prayer for rain during the amidah, and similar pranks, if not
widespread, are well known.
- We can get some idea of a seventeenth century Simchat Torah service from a non-Jewish
source: Samuel Pepys, the famous English diarist, described visiting a synagogue in 1663
in London in one of his entries. Of course he had no idea that what he was witnessing was
not typical, but his horrified reaction is some indication of just how raucous the event
must have been.
Thence home and after dinner my wife and I, by Mr. Rawlinson's conduct, to the Jewish
Synagogue: where the men and boys in their vayles [tallitot], and the women behind a lattice out of
sight; and some things stand up, which I believe is their Law, in a press [aron] to which all coming
in do bow; and at the putting on their vayles do say something, to which others that hear him do
cry Amen, and the party do kiss his vayle. Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew. And
anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several
burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that every one desires to have the
carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is
singing. And in the end they had a prayer for the King, which they pronounced his name in
Portugall; but the prayer, like the rest, in Hebrew. But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing,
sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing
the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so
much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly
performed as this. Away thence with my mind strongly disturbed with them, by coach and set down
my wife in Westminster Hall, and I to White Hall....
Simchat Torah is the only holiday that is not celebrated at the same time everywhere in the
world—and even on different dates by different denominations! In Israel, the holiday is
celebrated concurrently with Shemini Atzeret on 22 Tishrei. In the diaspora, where Shemini
Atzeret is two days, Simchat Torah is celebrated on the second day, 23 Tishrei. To make matters
more complex, many Reform and liberal Jewish communities in the diaspora only celebrate one
day of Shemini Atzeret, and some of these follow Israel’s calendar, celebrating Simchat Torah on
22 Tishrei. Fitting, isn’t it—that a holiday that’s celebrated with such abandon can’t be pinned
down to a specific date!
Contents copyright © 2015 S.R.