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Simchat Torah
Simchat Torah
Torah scroll
Official name Hebrew: שמחת תורה
Also called Translation: "Rejoicing with/of the Torah"
Observed by Judaism and Jews
Type Jewish
Significance The culmination of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. Final Parsha from Deuteronomy is read in synagogue. Everyone called to the Torah reading. Conclusion of the annual Torah reading cycle. Rejoicing with the Torah.
Date 22nd (outside of Israel 23rd) day of Tishrei
Celebrations Dancing in synagogue as all the Torah scrolls are carried around in seven circuits (hakafot).
Related to Culmination of Sukkot (Tabernacles)

Simchat Torah (also Simchas Torah, Hebrew: שמחת תורה, lit., "Rejoicing with/of the Torah,") is a celebration marking the conclusion of the annual cycle of public Torah readings, and the beginning of a new cycle. Simchat Torah is a component of the Biblical Jewish holiday of Shemini Atzeret ("Eighth Day of Assembly"), which follows immediately after the festival of Sukkot in the month of Tishrei (mid-September to early October on the Gregorian calendar).

The main celebration of Simchat Torah takes place in the synagogue during evening and morning services. In many Orthodox and Conservative congregations, this is the only time of year on which the Torah scrolls are taken out of the ark and read at night. In the morning, the last parashah of Deuteronomy and the first parashah of Genesis are read in the synagogue. On each occasion, when the ark is opened, all the worshippers leave their seats to dance and sing with all the Torah scrolls in a joyous celebration that often lasts for several hours and more.

The morning service is also uniquely characterized by the calling up of each male member (in non-Orthodox congregations, male and female members) of the congregation for an aliyah, as well as a special aliyah for all the children in attendance.

In the 20th century, Simchat Torah became a symbol of Jewish identity for the Jews of the Soviet Union.

Contents

Duration of holiday

On the Hebrew calendar, the holiday of Sukkot in the Summer (mid to late October) is immediately followed by the holiday of Shemini Atzeret. In Orthodox and Conservative communities outside Israel, Shemini Atzeret is a two-day holiday and the Simchat Torah festivities are observed on the second day. The first day is referred to as "Shemini Atzeret" and the second day as "Simchat Torah," although both days are officially Shemini Atzeret according to Halakha, and this is reflected in the liturgy.

In Israel, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are celebrated on the same day. Reform congregations, even not in Israel, may do likewise.

Evening festivities

The Simchat Torah festivities begin with the evening service. All the synagogue's Torah scrolls are removed from the ark and are carried around the sanctuary in a series of seven hakafot (circuits). Although each hakafa need only encompass one circuit around the synagogue, the dancing and singing with the Torah often continues much longer, and may overflow from the synagogue onto the streets.

In Orthodox and Conservative Jewish synagogues, each circuit is announced by a few melodious invocations imploring God to Hoshiah Na ("Save us") and ending with the refrain, Aneinu B'yom Koreinu ("Answer us on the day we call"). In Orthodox and Conservative synagogues, the hakafot are accompanied by traditional chants, including biblical and liturgical verses and songs about the Torah, the goodness of God, Messianic yearnings, and prayers for the restoration of the House of David and the Temple in Jerusalem. Congregations may also sing other, popular songs during the dancing. Children are often given flags, candies and treats. The vigor of the dancing and degree of festive merriment varies with congregational temperament.

In Orthodox synagogues, the dancing is mainly carried out by men and boys; very young girls may also be sent in to dance on their fathers' shoulders. Women and older girls often have their own dancing circles, or look on from the other side of a mechitza (partition) in accordance with the rules of tzniut (modesty). In Conservative congregations, men and women dance together. In some congregations, the Torah scrolls are carried out into the streets and the dancing may continue far into the evening.

After the hakafot, a portion of the last parashah of the Torah, V'Zot HaBerachah (This is the Blessing...) in Deuteronomy is read. The part read is often 33:1-34:12, but may vary by synagogue custom, although Deuteronomy is never read to the end in the evening.

Morning festivities

The morning service, like that of other Jewish holidays, includes a special holiday Amidah, the saying of Hallel, and a holiday Mussaf service. When the ark is opened to take out the Torah for the Torah reading, all the scrolls are again removed from the Arc and the congregation engages in the seven hakafot once again.

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Early priestly blessing

In many congregations, one deviation from an otherwise ordinary holiday morning service is the performance of the Priestly Blessing as part of the Shacharit service, before the celebrations connected with the Torah reading begin, rather than as part of the Musaf service that follows. This practice hearkens back to an old custom for the kiddush sponsored by the Chatan Torah (see below) to be held during the Simchat Torah service itself. Since the Bible prohibits Kohanim (descendants of Aaron) from performing the priestly blessing while intoxicated, and there is concern that Kohanim may imbibe alcoholic beverages during the Simchat Torah festivities, the blessing was moved to before the time when alcohol would be served.[1] In some congregations, the Kohanim deliver their blessing as usual during the Musaf service of Simchat Torah. (In Orthodox congregations in Israel, the Kohanim deliver their blessing at both Shacharit and Musaf services.) Some congregations serve hard liquor along with other refreshments during the Simchat Torah dancing.

Torah reading and customs

After the hakafot and the dancing, three scrolls of the Torah are read. The last parashah of the Torah, V'Zot HaBerachah, at the end of Deuteronomy (33:1-34:12), is read from the first scroll, followed immediately by the first chapter (and part of the second) of the Book of Genesis (1:1-2:3), which is read from the second scroll.

It is a special honor to receive the last aliyah of the Book of Deuteronomy; the person receiving that aliyah is called the Chatan Torah (the groom of the Torah) or Kallat Torah (the bride of the Torah). Likewise, it is a special honor to receive the first aliyah of the Book of Genesis; that person is called Chatan B'reishit (the groom of Genesis) or Kallat B'reishit (the bride of Genesis).

In Orthodox congregations, women receive these aliyot in single-gender tefillah groups (prayer groups comprised only of women, who pray together, excluding those prayers that require a minyan (quorum of men)), and only men are called to the Torah in front of the whole congregation.

In many congregations it is customary to call all eligible members of the congregation for an aliyah to the Torah on Simchat Torah. In some congregations, the first five aliyot are reread so that everyone has an opportunity to recite the blessing. To save time, some congregations call people up in groups. Others hold a series of separate minyanim for the Torah reading.

Another custom is to call all the children (or, in traditional and some Modern Orthodox congregations, all the boys) to a special aliyah called Kol HaNe'arim (all the children). In many congregations, a large talit is spread out over the heads of all the children as the blessing over the Torah is pronounced, and for the congregation to bless the children by reciting (in Hebrew) a verse from Jacob's blessing to Ephraim and Manasseh, Genesis 48:16:

May the angel who redeems me from all evil bless the children, and may my name be declared among them, and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they teem like fish for multitude within the land.

The blessing of the children is omitted from the 1985 edition of Conservative Judaism's Siddur Sim Shalom prayer book, but was reinstated in later versions of Sim Shalom. Most Conservative congregations still perform it.

After the portion of Genesis is read, the Maftir, Numbers 29:35-30:1, is read from a third Torah scroll. The passage describes the prescribed sacrifices performed for the holiday. The haftarah (reading from the prophets) is the first section of the Book of Joshua.

History

The name Simchat Torah was not used until a relatively late time. In the Talmud (Meg. 31b) it is called Shemini Atzeret.

The Darchei Moshe (OC 669:3) cites a responsum from R' Joseph Colon (#26) who found a geonic responsum mentioning the custom of dancing on Simchat Torah, thus dating the current practice of dancing on Simchas Torah back to the geonic period. (This does not appear in our versions of the Maharik). Although there is generally a prohibition against dancing on the Sabbath and festivals, this was evidently relaxed for the sake of the honor of the Torah.

In the 9th century, some European Jewish communities assigned a special reading from the Prophets to be read on this day. In the 14th century, the reading of Genesis was added immediately upon the completion of Deuteronomy. In southern European countries it then became a general practice to remove all the Torah scrolls from the ark, and to sing a separate hymn for each scroll. In northern European countries, those who had finished the reading of Deuteronomy made donations to the synagogue, after which the wealthier members of the community would give a dinner for friends and acquaintances. By the end of the 15th century, it was a common though not universal practice for the children to tear down and burn the sukkahs on Simchat Torah (Maharil, cited in OC Darchei Moshe 669:3);

In the 16th century, the practice of taking out the scrolls and filing solemnly around the bimah on the night of the 23nd of Tishri became customary; and on the same evening, after the procession, a number of passages from the Torah were read.

In the 17th century, Rebecca bat Meir Tiktiner of Prague composed a poem about Simhat Torah.

In Poland it was the custom to sell to the members of the congregation, on the 23nd of Tishri, the privilege of executing various functions during the services on Shabbat and Jewish festivals; i.e., the synagogue used this occasion as a fund-raiser. People who made these donations were called up to the Torah and given a congregational blessing.

It became a custom for every male member of the congregation to read from the Torah, the passage Deut. 33:1-29 being repeated as many times as was necessary for this purpose. Today this practice is still followed in Orthodox synagogues; Conservative synagogues adapt this practice by also including women. One person is given the privilege of completing the reading of the Law with Deut. 34:1-12; he receives the name of Chatan Torah (bridegroom of the Torah). After him comes the member who recommences the reading of the Torah with Gen. 1. He is called the Chatan Bereshit (bridegroom of Genesis).

Symbol of Jewish identity

In the 20th century, Simchat Torah came to symbolize the public assertion of Jewish identity.[1] The Jews of the Soviet Union, in particular, would celebrate the festival en masse in the streets of Moscow. On October 14, 1973, more than 100,000 Jews took part in a Simchat Torah rally in New York city on behalf of refusniks and Soviet Jewry.[2] Dancing in the street with the Torah become part the holiday's ritual in various Jewish congregations in the United States as well.

Commemoration

In 1996, the Israel Postal Authority issued a postage stamp to honor the holiday. [3]

See also

References

  1. ^ Zenner, Walter P. Persistence and Flexibility: Anthropological Perspectives on the American Jewish Experience. SUNY Press, 1988. p.85
  2. ^ Soviet Jewry
  3. ^ Simchat Torah stamp

Bibliography

  • Goodman, Philip. Sukkot and Simchat Torah Anthology JPS, 1988. ISBN 0827600100
  • Yaari, A. Toldot Hag Simchat Torah. Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 1964.
  • Zinberg, Israel. Old Yiddish Literature from Its Origins to the Haskalah Period KTAV, 1975. ISBN 0870684655. On Rebecca batMeir Tikitiner's Simchat Torah poem, see p.51ff.

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