THE HISTORICAL ORIGIN AND CUSTOMS OF SIMCHAT TORAH

HISTORY1

It was the 10th century Jewish Community of Babylonia (present day Iraq) which invented the holiday, gave it the name Simchat Torah and began the custom of dancing with the Torah. From Babylon it spread to the entire Jewish world, with each ethnic group contributing new customs which were then absorbed by Klal Yisrael.

In 12th century France, not only was the Ata Horeita verses added, but they began to read Vezot Habracha (the last Torah portion) many times "until the entire congregation had an aliya." and instituted that a Hatan Bereishit should read the beginning of Bereishit. While in the same period, the Jews of Spain began to recite the beginning of Genesis by heart. Rabbi David Abudraham explained this aspect of Simhat Torah in 14thcentury Spain: "And the reason we start again at Bereishit... just as we have merited to finish the Torah, so may we merit to begin her again". In Germany in the 14th century, they invented the kol hane'arim aliya so that all the children in the synagogue could have a collective aliya and in the early 15th century they added a hakafa - parading with the Torah scrolls - in the evening. In 16thcentury Safed, the Ari and his students instituted that there should be seven hakafot around the bima. Then in 17thcentury Germany, they would honor the wives of the Hatan Torah and Hatan Bereishit - the men who had the last aliya of the Torah and the first of Genesis - with the title kallot ("brides") and say to them: "gut yontiff, kalla!"

Thus, Simchat Torah has become the modern equivalent of the joy of the ancient water pouring celebration that in Temple days characterized the first day of Sukkot. The children of Israel dance and sing, and create special ceremonials for honoring and reading the Torah.

PRESENT PRACTICE2

The special celebration of Torah begins in the evening after the first day of Sh'mini Atzeret . . . .After Maariv, the congregation takes all the Torah scrolls it owns out of the Ark, in order to do seven hakkafot, or circlings with them. (Some communities then light a candle in the empty Ark so that the light of Torah should not go dark there.) In the hakkafot, the scrolls are carried by dancing congregants around the raised pulpit area or around the prayer hall -- or even around the building itself, with excursions into the streets.

The actual carrying of the scrolls is shared among all the congregants. Even in synagogues where women are traditionally segregated, on Simchat Torah they are welcomed into the main sanctuary, there to touch and kiss the Torah scrolls. And children join in the processions -- often carrying flags with an apple impaled on the flagpole and a candle burning in the apple. (Perhaps this is a displaced version of the burning torches the Levites used to juggle at the water pouring celebrations in Jerusalem?)

The seven hakkafot provided Kabbalists with an opportunity to see in Simchat Torah a microcosm and a unification of the seven days of Sukkot. . . .Simchat Torah is the time when the seven S'phirot fuse into Unity, show that they are in fact emanations of the Holy One.

For this reason, the seven hakkafot have long been associated with the seven lower S'phirot, those emanations from God that make tangible contact with the world. In recent years some congregations have been developing a practice whereby the forms and rhythms of the seven dances, the melodies used for each one, the stories to be told, colors of banners -- all are differentiated, each tuning in to one of the S'phirot so that in the very bones and muscles of the Torah-dancers the various aspects of God are acted out. Thus the gentle and flowing rhythms of Chesed, Loving-kindness, are quite different from the strong and stately rhythms of Gevurah, Power . . .While the differences from hakkafah to hakkafah are acted out, the hakkafot are also tied together with a continuing thread of prayer. As each one is danced, the dancers sing: Ana Adonai, hoshi-a-na; ana Adonai, hatzlicha-na, ana Adonai, aneynu-b'yom kareynu. Lord, please save us! Lord, please prosper us! Lord, please answer on the day that we cry out.

After the dancing, all but one of the Torah scrolls are returned to the Ark, and the congregation reads the last two chapters of Deuteronomy, dealing with the death of Moses. It is the only Torah passage that is read at night, and the only one never read on Shabbos. Aside from the practicalities, perhaps this has to do with the relationship between night, sleep, and death -- and with an unwillingness to recount the death of Moses on Shabbos.

Next morning that passage is reread and the first chapter of Genesis, dealing with the seven days of Creation, is added. In many modem American congregations, both passages -- the whole end-and-beginning -- are read in the evening, probably out of the experience that many fewer congregants will come in the morning if Simchat Torah falls on a workday.

Thus the readings reassert the cycle of death-into-life at two levels: the cosmic level in which Moses' death leads straight to the creation of the world, and the historical level in which it leads straight to new leadership and the beginning of a new task. We are being taught, as it were: "The building of a new society is like the creation of a new world."

On Simchat Torah, the Torah dancing begins with the physical dance with physical scrolls; but the dancing mood is then extended into the process of reading the Torah. The reading takes a playful turn, one in which the text itself is tossed from reader to reader as ballet dancers might toss one of themselves. The whole congregation -- even those usually left on the fringes -- gets involved.

1David Golinkin, "The Four Faces Of Simhat Torah," The Jerusalem Post, Oct. 24, 2005

2Excerpts from chapter v, Seasons of Our Joy (Beacon, 1990) By Arthur Waskow.

Return to Religious Celebrations