Simchat Torah: Rejoicing in the Torah

A day where Jewish people show their love of the Torah through dancing and other honors unique to the Torah.

Map of Country

This map of Israel Shows its neighboring countries and the Mediterranean Sea.   http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/middle_east_and_asia/israel_pol88.jpg

 

Abstract

Simchat Torah literally means “Rejoicing in the Torah” and that is exactly what is done during the holiday—the Jews rejoice in the love and truth G-d has bestowed upon them through the Torah. The annual cycle of weekly Torah readings is completed at this time when they read the last Torah portion, and then immediately proceed to the first chapter of Genesis. This reminds them that the Torah is a circle, and it never ends. Simchat Torah fosters a sense of communitas, “the primal ground or creative impulse of a culture that is accessed through symbolism” (Davies 2002; 128), and displays elements of gender stratification.

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Additional Image 1   Additional Image 2

The Torah open to a few columns.

http://infotrue.com/torah.html

Dancing with the Torah around the shul during Simchat Torah.

http://www.wsat.org/new_torah/gallery5a.htm

Introduction

Judaism involves “ritual and may be expressed through myth and symbolism” (Davies 2002). During the holiday Simchat Torah the Jews express, via many different means, their love, gratitude, devotion, and dedication to the Torah , otherwise known as the Old Testament. The Torah is the heart of this celebration—all is sustained by the Torah, which is not only a code of conduct for how to live ones life, but the way Jewish people connect to G-d. Simchat Torah literally means “Rejoicing in the Torah” and that is exactly what is done during the holiday—the Jews rejoice in the love and truth G-d has bestowed upon them through the Torah. The annual cycle of weekly Torah readings is completed at this time when they read the last Torah portion, and then immediately proceed to the first chapter of Genesis. This reminds them that the Torah is a circle, and it never ends. Simchat Torah fosters a sense of communitas, “the primal ground or creative impulse of a culture that is accessed through symbolism” (Davies 2002; 128), and displays elements of gender stratification.

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Context of Israel

Israel is a small country (smaller than the size of New Jersey ) located in the Middle East , bordering the Mediterranean Sea , between Egypt and Lebanon . Israel is only approximately 20,770 sq km in area, with 20,330 sq km being land and the remaining 440 sq km water. The landscape of Israel varies greatly from its highest point, Har Meron 1,208 m, to its lowest point, Dead Sea -408 m. Overall the climate is temperate, but rather hot and dry in the southern and eastern desert areas of the country. In addition, “there are 242 Israeli settlements and civilian land use sites in the West Bank, 42 in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, 25 in the Gaza Strip, and 29 in East Jerusalem (February 2002 est.); Sea of Galilee is an important freshwater source” (http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/is.html).

  Israel has approximately 6,199,008 inhabitants, including about “187,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, about 20,000 in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, more than 5,000 in the Gaza Strip, and fewer than 177,000 in East Jerusalem (July 2004 est.)” (http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/is.html). Hebrew is the official language of the nation, while Arabic is used for the Arab minority and English is the most widely used foreign language.

By 1947, the British left the Middle East to the United Nations to decide the fate of the region. The UN passed resolution 181 partitioning the land west of the Jordan River (the original 25% of Palestine) into a Jewish Palestinian state and an Arab Palestinian state. The Jewish people accepted the resolution, but the Arabs rejected it, claiming all of Palestine . On May 14, 1948 the Palestinian Jews celebrated for the first time as Israelis; however, on the following day, seven of the neighboring Arab armies of Egypt , Jordan , Syria , Lebanon , Saudi Arabia , Iraq and Yemen invaded the newly formed state. The Independence War lasted about a year and a half and the Arabs that had stayed in the Israeli boundaries became Israeli citizens; those that had left are known as one of the first waves of “refugees” (http://ms.essortment.com/palestineislam_rkev.htm).

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Origins of Simchat Torah

The origins of Simchat Torah are obscure. There has not always been clear agreement about when Simchat Torah should be observed. Several medieval Spanish authorities record a custom, ascribed to the Babylonian Ge'onim , of reading the first verses of the Torah (though not necessarily from an actual scroll) on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. They cite as their reason the following legend (Yaari, A. 1989):

Throughout the Ten Days of Repentance, Satan has been accusing Israel , arguing "Behold, the Torah which you have bestowed upon Israel –they have already finished with it!"

Now, when the Holy One hears them beginning again from Genesis, he immediately rebukes Satan saying "Look how, as soon as they complete it, they immediately start over again, so great is their love for my Torah!"

One factor that might have influenced the choice was a Talmudic tradition that designates Deuteronomy 28, with its fire-and-brimstone threats against those who disobey G-d, as the fitting reading for the Sabbath preceding Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, "so that the year and all its curses will be put behind us" (Yaari, A. 1989). Following the normal parashah (portion) divisions, this would lead to the reading of the entire Torah being completed just after the current date of Simchat Torah . A more decisive reason for the choice of date had to do with its Prophetic reading ( haftarah ). According to the rules set out in the Talmud, the correct haftarah for the second day of Sh'mini ‘Atzeret is 1 Kings 8, which relates how King Solomon blessed the people at the dedication of the newly erected Temple, an event that is usually understood to have occurred on the eighth day of Sukkot , i.e., on Sh'mini ‘Atzeret (Yaari, A. 1989). Eventually the original Talmudic haftarah from the Book of Kings was completely pushed aside and virtually forgotten. When that happened, we lost a vital clue to the obscure beginnings of Simchat Torah (Yaari, A. 1989).

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Performance

On the eve of Simchat Torah girls and women (or if there isn't a woman in the house, the head of the household), should light candles from an existing flame (such as from a pilot flame), after dark , as on the holiday one may not create a fire, which includes, but is not limited to the use of electricity, a car, or anything that creates a simple spark. The next morning at shul (synagogue) the annual cycle of weekly Torah readings is completed at this time when we read the last Torah portion, and then immediately proceed to the first chapter of Genesis. This reminds them that the Torah is a circle, and it never ends. This completion of the Torah readings is a time of great celebration. There are processions around the synagogue carrying Torahs. As many people as possible are given the honor of carrying a Torah scroll in these processions. The Jews celebrate their love of Torah with lots of joyful singing and dancing.

On Simchat Torah , the Torah is concluded and is begun again from the beginning. Thus, on the day of Rejoicing with the Torah the yearly cycle of the weekly readings of the Torah is completed, and begins it anew. All the Torah scrolls are taken from the Ark and carried in a parade around the synagogue seven times. They rejoice, sing and dance with the Torahs, for the re-establishment of their covenant with the Torah as a groom rejoices with his bride, “for the Torah is betrothed to Israel as a wife is to her husband” (www.Chabad.org). Children are given gifts of candy and fruit because it is stated that the commandments of the L-rd are sweeter than honey. On Simchat Torah , Mark Podwal writes, "The year's weekly readings of the Torah are finished. And right away begin again. Round carrot slices. Round sandwiches. Round the synagogue seven times. Everything round is a reminder that the reading of Torah has no end." ( Podwal, M. 2003)

Three scrolls are taken out on S imchat Torah . In the first one we read the last portion of chumash (Torah) V'zoth ha'Brachah . The reading is divided up into two parts. The first part is read and re-read as many times as is necessary, in order to give every one, from the age of Bar - mitzvah and up, an opportunity to be called up to the Torah.

After the reading, a special prayer is recited on behalf of the boys: "The angel who redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads; and let my name be named on them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and may they grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth." This blessing was originally bestowed by Jacob on his grandchildren Manasseh and Ephraim (Genesis 48:16). Needless to say, it is an exciting and inspiring moment for the boys of pre Bar- mitzvah age, since it is generally the only occasion during the year when they are called up to the Torah.

The second part (from 33:27 to the end of the Torah) is reserved for the "Bridegroom of the Torah" ( Chatan Torah ), usually a distinguished and learned member of the congregation, since this reading concludes the Torah. Before he is called up, a special blessing is recited for him. This closing section of the Torah tells of the passing on of Moses at the age of one hundred and twenty years, after seeing the Promised Land from a distance, standing on the peak of Mount Nebo. The Torah tells that Moses died "by the Mouth of G-d," and was buried by G-d in the valley below, in the land of Moab , "and no one knows his burial place to this day." The children of Israel wept for Moses thirty days, but they had not been left without a leader, for "Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom," and he had been appointed by Moses, at G-d's command, to succeed him. In the concluding verses, the Torah tells us that there was not a prophet like Moses before of after him, "whom G-d knew face to face."

For the very last verse the congregants rise to their feet, and at the conclusion exclaim: "Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen each other!" –a determined call to continue reading, studying and following the Torah with ever growing devotion. The Sages tell that these last verses of the Torah, like every other word of it, were written by Moses himself, by the word of G-d, "G-d dictating, and Moses writing it down with tears in his eyes."

In the second scroll, the Torah is begun from the beginning, from Genesis. This reading is reserved for the "Bridegroom of Bereishit " ( Chatan Bereishith ), and the honor is again accorded to a distinguished, pious gentleman. Before being called, a special blessing is recited for him, too, as in the case of the other "Bridegroom." During the reading, when the Reader reaches the verse "And it was evening, and it was morning, the first day," the entire congregation recites this verse in unison, which is then repeated by the Reader. The same procedure is followed in the case of all the other Days of Creation. The final section, including the entire portion of Vayechulu (which forms the first part of the Friday-night Kiddush) is likewise recited by the entire congregation and repeated by the Reader.

In the third scroll, the portion of maftir is read, which is the same that was read on the day before ( Sh'mini ‘Atzeret ). The haftorah is taken from the first chapter of Joshua. The connection is obvious. Joshua was the successor of Moses, and the Book of Joshua, the first of the collection of the Books of the Prophets, is the continuation of the Torah. Thus the Tradition was handed down from Moses to Joshua, and from Joshua to the Elders, and from the Elders to the Prophets, and so on, in an unbroken chain, to this very day (www.Chabad.org).

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Artifact

Torah

One of the central symbols involved in Simchat Torah--the Torah.

http://collections.ic.gc.ca/art_context/torah.htm

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Interpretation

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Prognosis for Simchat Torah

The celebration is neither increasing nor decreasing in popularity, but is rather remaining relatively consistent in its popularity. If anything the popularity of Simchat Torah is declining due to a strong rate of assimilation. However, the rate of celebrating Simchat Torah remains fairly constant among the orthodox community, who are more stringent in their observance of the Mitzvos (Commandments) of the Torah. Most American Jews have “two religions, Judaism and Americanism, and you can't have two religions any more than you can have two hearts or two heads." So writes Adam Garfinkle, executive editor of the National Interest, in the Winter 1996 issue of Conservative Judaism. While “Americanism” is not technically a religion, the point Garfinkle seems to be drawing upon is that it once one has assimilated into American culture it is as if one has removed ones Jewishness and adopted this new set of beliefs called Americanism—one has become so engulfed in American culture and life that one is more American than one is Jewish, when in fact the opposite ought to be the case, according to Garfinkle. The other two sects of Judaism, Conservative and Reform, are less observant and I have found often times that many Conservative and Reform Jews are unaware of the holiday in question until reminded. And even at that time, many have to be reminded as to what the holiday is about. This is a direct result of the incredible rate of assimilation into American culture—many Jews are raised Jewish by heritage but not by practice.

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Conclusion

In light of this, we can appreciate the place of Simchat Torah in the sequence of holidays beginning with Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur . All of these holidays focus our attention on the inner core of our relationship with G-d. Simchat Torah , as their climax, is the point of transition between the intense spiritual experience of the month of Tishrei (the first month on the Hebrew calendar) and our daily, down-to-earth circumstances. This “safe landing” is navigated, so to speak, by means of the rejoicing of Simchat Torah . These celebrations enhance the bond with G-d and the Torah that is unconfined by the limits of intellect, in every aspect of ones conduct throughout the year. Simchat Torah seems to have a unique significance to it in that it extends outside of the synagogue and to everyday life—serving as a “final” reminder that everything is cyclical and that one should never be content with where one is in ones life—one should always be striving to be productive and to improve. The importance that Simchat Torah stresses, even outside of the shul itself, is that one should always strive for ones best. Regardless, Simchat Torah provides a perspective look into the roles of men and women in Jewish life as well as a unique insight into the immense feelings of communitas present within the religion itself.

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Internet References Cited

  • Chabad. www.Chabad.org

    A useful site which acts as somewhat of a database for Judaic information.

  • The History of the State of Israel http://ms.essortment.com/palestineislam_rkev.htm

    A site dedicated to giving a brief overview of the history of the State of Israel.

  • The World Factbook. http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/is.html

    The United States' government website containing information about other countries world-wide.

  • www.kabbalah.com

  • A resource for mystical theology within Judaism.

  • www.aish.com
  • A useful site which acts as somewhat of a database for Judaic information.

    http://www.uspoliticsonline.com/sacred/bib/tan/psa002.htm

    A useful site to find the Hebrew text of the Psalms

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Peer-Reviewed References Cited

    Davies, M. (2002). Introducing Anthropology. UK Icon Books.

  • Podwal, M. (2003). A Sweet Year: A Taste of the Jewish Holidays . Doubleday Books for Young Readers

  • Schneerson, S. (1925). Sefer HaMaamarim , p. 55. Kehot Publication Society.

    Schneerson, M. (1943) . Sefer HaSichos , p. 36

  • Yaari, A. (1989). Toledot Hag Simhat Torah . Jerusalem , Mosad Harav Kook

  • Zohar I, 24a; II, p. 60a; see also Tanya, chs. 4 and 23.

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Contact Jim Aimers | ©2004 Miami University