Saturday, October 18, 2008

Simchat Torah

History, Halacha, and Minhag

By: Rabbi Ari Enkin

The evolution of Simchat Torah as part of the Shemini Atzeret celebrations first originated in Babylon and was not even observed in Israel until the end of the Gaonic period. For Babylonian Jewry, Simchat Torah was the celebration of the completion of the annual Torah reading cycle. The Torah had been divided up into 54 separate parshiot, with a different parsha (and sometimes two at a time) being read every Shabbat, thereby completing the entire Torah each year.[1]

Simchat Torah was first referred to as "Yom Habracha", adapting this name from the final parsha of the Torah, "Vezot Habracha". It appears that the name "Simchat Torah" only arrived much later, likely originating in Spain, of all places. It was also referred to as "Yom Hasiyum" (The Day of Completion) in some regions. None of these names, however, nor any discussion of specific Simchat Torah festivities or customs is mentioned mentioned anywhere in the Talmud, where the day is simply referred to as an extension of Shemini Atzeret.

Click here to read moreIn the Land of Israel, the Torah was only completed every three or three and a half years. As such, the Simchat Torah celebrations were always held on different dates each time the Torah had been completed, whenever that would be. Originally, Simchat Torah was simply celebrated with a festive meal in honor of the Torah's completion. Even the current univeral custom to immediately begin reading the Torah from the beginning once it is concluded only arrived much later, as well. Simchat Torah is the only holiday where the day's Torah reading has no connection to its Biblical (Shemini Atzeret) roots.

The custom of dancing Hakafot is first documented as occurring in Tzfat, in the late sixteenth century. Although universal practice today is to conduct seven hakafot, original customs included conducting only one, three, or six hakafot. The Hakafot, dancing around the Bima with the Torah scrolls, was adapted from the Hoshana Rabba custom of circling the bima seven times with one's lulav and etrog. Hakafot are generally done on Simchat Torah night and then repeated again the next morning, though there are communities which conduct Hakafot again at Mincha, as well as the night following the conclusion of the holiday. The individual who receives the final Aliya of the Torah is referred to as the "Chatan Torah". It is interesting to note that this title is actually a corruption of the orignial name for this Aliya, which is "Chatam Torah" (the one who seals/concludes the Torah).

There are a number of intriguing customs which the many different communities of the Diaspora traditionally observe(d) on Simchat Torah. There was once a custom to dance the Hakafot while holding candles, symbolizing the verse "Ner Mitzva V'torah Or" (The candle is the mitzva and the Torah is the light). In Worms, the Simchat Torah Hakafot used to take place around bonfires. In many other Ashkenazi communities as well, there were additional games and rituals which involved fire, including the setting off of firecrackers.

Of questionable halachic practice was the custom in some communities to hire non-Jews to play musical instruments as part of the Simchat Torah celebrations. It also may just be that today's permissive approach to dancing on Shabbat, seemingly forbidden by normative halacha, evolved due to it's adaptation from the Simchat Torah festivities. Indeed, it seems that dancing on Shabbat or Yom Tov was unheard of until the canonization of Simchat Torah. The Simchat Torah mid-davening Kiddush is an ancient Ashkenazi practice which is why the Birkat Kohanim is performed at Shacharit, not at Mussaf, lest the Kohanim become intoxicated at the Kiddush.

Women have always carved out for themselves a noble status as part of the Simchat Torah festivities, as well. It was often the women who would decorate the Torah scrolls in advance of Simchat Torah. They would also auction off among themselves the opportuntiy to throw candies on the men who would be receiving Aliyot on the holiday as well as the priveledge of being able to sweep the floors of the synagogue throughout the year. Wives of the "Chatanei Torah" were refereed to as the "Kallot Torah". There were communities which permitted the women to observe the Simchat Torah festivities in the men's section. It seems that it was once universal custom to ensure that the women would have the opportunity to kiss the Torah on Simchat Torah.

Of course children feature prominently in the Simchat Torah customs, as well. The custom of calling every child for an Aliya has become universal, and in some communities they would even read their Aliya themselves. Originally, it was only children above the age of six or seven who would receive Aliyot. In some communities children would be called to the Torah individually, while in others there was one large "group Aliya" for all the children of the congregation, as is the common custom today. Flags are distributed to children to wave and strut. It is explained that the flags are reminiscent of each of the Tribes of Israel which would be led by their flag. These flags, decorated with pictures of the Torah, also represent that the Torah is our weapon in spiritual warfare. There are usually other pictures and designs which are printed on the Simchat Torah flags as well, each representing another theme in Torah study or mitzva observance.

On Simchat Torah children would burn the schach which had been used for Sukkot. It is also customary for the adults to randomly throw candies and even fruit in the synagogue in order to have the children scramble for them and await their launch. This was likely an effort to keep the children awake and interested throughout the day's festivities. It may just be that the common custom to dance with children upon one's shoulders is meant to be reminiscent of the mitzva of "Reiya". Similarly, it is taught that the custom of welcoming women and children to take part in the Simchat Torah festivities was intended to recall the mitzva of "Hakhel" where the entire nation would come together as one.

There is a widespread custom to read the Torah on the night of Simchat Torah. Historically, however, there were congregations which never adapted this custom out of consideration for the halachic opinions which teach that a public Torah reading, or even Torah study, should never take place at night. As somewhat of a compromise approach, there were congregations that would read the Torah but omit the opening and closing blessings of the Aliyot in deference to this view. Children would frequently be called for Aliyot at this nighttime reading just as they are called today for the daytime one. Congregations which do read the Torah at night read either three or five Aliyot from "V'zot Habracha".


[1] As this chapter is gleaned entirely from the many pages of Toldot Hag Simchat Torah, by R. Avraham Yaari, individual references have been omitted. For those unfamiliar, Toldat Hag Simchat Torah is simply "the everything" to do about the holiday. A must read.

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