Simchat Torah

Rejoicing in the Law

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  • 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 hundred years.

    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 the blessings.
    • 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 current parashah.
    • Dancing with the sifrei Torah. Sometimes the dancing and parading spills out into the street.
    • 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.

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