Evolving Traditions: Simchat Torah

Older Traditions | Newer Traditions

Older Traditions

Simchat Torah Customs
After ‘ma’ariv’ all the Torah scrolls are taken out of the ark. Seven ‘hakafot’ (encirclings) are made with them around the ‘bimah’ (synagogue pulpit), and all the people dance before the Torah scrolls with intense joy. They pray that God may remember unto us the merit of the Seven Loyal Shepherds and that our prayers may pierce all the heavens to rise before the Throne of Glory. The same is done the following morning after Shacharit. And in many Sephardi communities it is customary to hold ‘hakafot’ also during minchah and ma’ariv at the departure of the festival.

Some have the custom of placing a lighted candle in the Ark after the Torah scrolls are removed, so that the Ark might not completely lack light; and so that the light of the candle might symbolize the light of the Torah which is constantly found there. In many Jewish communities, it is customary to read the Torah on the night of Simchat Torah which is not done on any other night. Customs vary with reference to the portion read, and each community follows its own tradition.

The Torah-Reading of shacharit consists of the last Sidra in the Torah, 'vezot habrachah.' Since everybody is called to the Torah on this day, the portion is repeated many times so that it might suffice for the entire congregation. The Reading concludes with the calling of three persons to the Torah for 'aliyot' which are unique to Simchat Torah. One goes up to the Torah for 'kol hane'arim' ('all the children'), which is one reading before the conclusion of the Torah. An adult (over Bar-Mitzvah) recites the blessings over the torah, with all the boys under Bar-Mitzvah in the Synagogue standing by his side, and a covering stretched over their heads. They recite the blessings word by word, in unison with the adult called. After the concluding blessing, all the adults say together: 'hamalach hago'el...'

For the last ‘aliyah’ the Rabbi or the most distinguished person in the Synagogue is called. The person called to this concluding portion of the Torah is called, ‘Chatan Torah’ (the groom of the Torah), as if the Torah were betrothed to him and he were its groom. The entire congregation proclaims aloud in response to him: ‘Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen ourselves.’ After him the ‘Chatan Bereishit’ (the groom of the beginning of the Torah) is called to a Reading in another scroll, which consists of the first passage in the Torah, from the beginning till, ‘which God created and made.’ After him the ‘maftir’ is called, and it is customary to call him also the ‘Chatan Maftir.’ His portion is read from Pinchas in a third Torah scroll, and it recounts the special sacrifice for the day.

It is customary for the ‘Chatan Torah’ to invite the entire congregation to a feast on Simchat Torah.

Source: Kitov, Eliyahu. The Book of Our Heritage. New York. New York: Feldheim Publishers, 1978.

Simchat Torah: Minhag and L’Maaseh
Every Yom Tov has its corpus of halachic guidance originating in the Torah and expounded upon throughout the Torah Sheh b’al Peh: Mishna, Gemara, and Shulchan Aruch. Each occasion additionally has its accumulation of minhag usually inspired by regional perspective and culture. Most of the Yom Tov observances, however, are matters of halacha, universally mandated by the Torah as expounded by our rabbinic luminaries throughout the ages.

The case is entirely different when studying the origins of Simchat Torah. It alone is a Yom Tov which is entirely rooted in minhag, the product of localized expressions of joy upon reaching the year’s end of the cycle of the Torah reading.

There is no masechta that deals with Simchat Torah, as in the case of Shabbat, Pesach, Purim, Rosh haShanah and Sukkot (Chanuka is included in masechet Shabbat). Rambam concludes his exposition on the laws of Sukkot by briefly referring to the essential feature of "simcha" in the Sukkot observances, but no direct mention is made of Simchat Torah. The Shulchan Aruch has no more than 15 lines about Simchat Torah wherein the Rama states: "Each community follows its own custom."

Each generation has contributed to the aggregate of what came to be the accepted observance of the holiday. As is the case with all minhag that stands up to the test of time, these practices became halacha: viewed with equal validity and sanctity as a law derived from Sinai.

The task of systematically assembling the totality of Simchat Torah observances was done by a reputed Israeli scholar of our times, Avraham Yaari whose ‘Toldot Chag Simchat Torah’ gathers all that is known to have been written about the practices of this Yom Tov. Published twenty years ago, it is a good resource which deserves much greater circulation than it has received.

Let us focus attention once more on the dimensions of minhag as viewed on Simchat Torah.

One group of minhagim seemingly contradict halachic norms, but nonetheless, are central to the observance of the holiday. For example never on Yom Tov do we read an entire sedrah as we do on Shabbat; only sections relating to the Yom Tov are chosen for reading. Not so on Simchat Torah when an entire sedra is read where there is no connection between the Yom Tov and the reading.

Then again, taking out a Torah and reading from it at night is unknown in the year’s cycle of Torah reading. Nonetheless, the predominant minhag today is to conclude the evening Hakafot with the reading of the first part of V’zot haBracha, calling three or five people - depending on the minhag - to recite the brachot as they would at any other time during kriat haTorah.

Furthermore, halacha restricts the repetition of a section of Torah already read while the minhag on Simchat Torah is to repeatedly reread V’zot haB’racha until everyone has been called to the Torah.

And dancing during Hakafot, no less indigenous to the festivites than the Torah reading, also violates a law of the Mishna. The mystics in Tzefat who gathered around the Ari in the 16th century argued a case for the permissiblity of dancing on Yom Tov despite the restrictions desired by the Mishna.

In each of these cases, minhag contravened the halachic practice and was considered legitimate because of the sanction of Torah authorities who saw that the minhag enhanced the observances of the Yom Tov.

Further investigation turns up a second group of minhagim that in time became very popular and widespread.

In Germany and elsewhere fireworks and firecrackers were used on Simchat Torah to intensify the festivities during and after the Hakafot. While some rabbis sanctioned the practice, many more protested the minhag since it led to wild and uncontrollable behavior of the crowds.

Similarly, throwing of fruits and nuts to the assembled children, having them wildly scramble to collect as much as possible was a minhag originally intended to heighten the joyousness of the occasion. The melee and the resultant disorder obviously involved more than just the children; therefore, in time, the minhag was restricted despite the ancient sources that supported such a practice.

Today’s Simchat Torah celebrations are characterised by several so-called minhagim which are relished by a handful as being their personal practice and who claim to have a "chazakah" on these matters.

Some will argue that drinking to the point of drunkenness is a mitzvah, a manifestation of simcha that is required on Simchat Torah just as on Purim. Rambam calls this an abomination. Some will relish their ingenuity as they soak the chazan with a pail of water as he says "Mashiv HaRuach u’Morid Hageshem." Then there is the sophisticated celebrant who will get up on the bimah as the Kohanim do, put a tallit over his head, raise his hands holding a cup of whiskey, recite the appropriate bracha over the booze and then return to his seat amidst the accolades of the congregation, something he’d never even consider on the morning of Purim while in shul. The more timid will tie knots into tzitzit connecting one’s tallit to his unwitting neighbor. Connecting or knotting violates Shabbat and Yom Tov.

Any of these practices do not express inner simcha; they represent a series of lowly pranks which have no place during davening. The height of chutzpa is when someone will claim that these things are inviolable minhagim of Simchat Torah.

It was no less a personality than Rabbeinu Bachya who vigorously protested the practice of throwing fruit to the children because of the attendant turmoil. Whereupon Rabbi Hayyim Sofer of Bagdhad, author of the monumental "KafhaChayim" wrote unequivocally that Rabbeinu Bachya’s ruling comes to teach that all frivolity must vigorously be resisted and should be extinguished.

It was Rav Yosef Dov of Brisk (great-grandfather of today’s Soloveichik family) who was reputed to have exhorted his students and followers that on Simchat Torah we are happy with the Torah. But, he cautioned, is the Torah happy with us?

If I had to venture to guess as to what motivates these Simchat Torah pranks, aside from notorious exhibitionism, I would opine that such actions are a painful expression of personal frustration with the learning and living of Torah. I would guess that these people are confronted by the reality that another year has passed where they haven’t progressed one iota in insight, commitment or faith. Perhaps their growth in Torah is arrested at a pediatric stage of understanding though they are now adults. Personally, I have immense compassion for such people. But why should those who want to express genuine simcha have to be hindered by the problems of just a few?

Some conduct deserves as much resistance on the part of sensitive Jews as does any other deviation from halacha and accepted minhag.

Of one thing I am certain as I join the congregation at the end of the Torah reading in proclaiming: "Chazak, chazak ve’nitchazeik." Fervently I pray that dear G-d give me the fortitude to resist and extinguish these all-too-often desecrations of the holy Torah, and that He give me the energy and resolve to teach all who would come to learn that pranks are not expression of joy with the Torah.

Source: National Council of Young Israel.

Newer Traditions

Tots Hakafot
On Shmini Atzeret afternoon, about 90 minutes before Mincha, plan a Tot's Hakafot for real little ones - nursery through first grade - and their parents. Have a responsible and strong teenager holding one Torah sitting with it in the center of a circle as the tots and parents dance around. They can learn the traditional "Ana HaShem hoshia na....Aneinu, Aneinu" from Hakafot and then go on to some popular niggun they know such as David Melech Yisrael, V'karev p'zureinu, Torah tziva lanu Moshe, Achat sha'alti, U'faratzta. Be certain that you have teens and parents helping you with the singing and dancing as well as with scared or shy little ones.

Each hakafa should have only one song sung and each hakafa ought to start off with "Ana HaShem..." and the chorus, Aneinu. ("Let's go, everyone, as we start once again with the Simchat Torah song!!)

The tots are given flags (make them safe ones) and/or mini-torahs (printed on paper or foam stuffed) to dance with. At the end you can serve a light "Simchat Torah Kiddush" of soda, cookies and candy bags. Their parents and grandparents are satisfied that the tots have had Hakafot even though they will be asleep later in the evening, and the tots love the experience because they are not trampled by the big people.

Kiddush / Seuda
If you have the resources (manpower and financial) an after-Hakafot full Simchat Torah Seuda can be planned either in the evening or after musaf. At this time the individuals who were honored with Kol HaNearim, Chatan Torah, Chatan Breishit and Maftir can be honored. (Make certain that you have reserved tables for the families of the honorees.)

If this is too hefty a project for your congregation, then a special Kiddush should be planned. By special, I mean, that what is served is different. If it will be herring that is usually served make it a different kind (matjes herring instead of or in additional to the regular tidbits in wine sauce). If gefilte fish, have fresh rolls instead of the jars you get in the supermarket. The cake ought to be different. All this for the sake of kavod v'simchat haTorah.

New Americans
Where you have a large contingent of New Americans, one Hakafa can be set aside to honor those individuals who arrive. Of course that Hakafa needs a special introduction and, perhaps, a few words in Russian that would encourage their participation not only at Simchat Torah. At the Kiddush or Simchat Torah Seuda which follows these families are introduced as the congreation's honored guests. (Congregation Shaarei Torah, Pittsburgh)

Each congregation will formulate its criteria for honoring chatanim. At Young Israel of Passaic-Clifton, NJ for instance, there has been a decades long tradition whereby a Yissachar-type and a Zevulun-model are honored throughout the four last aliyot: Kol HaN'arim, the two chatanim and Maftir.

Thinking about whom to honor should begin long before Simchat Torah and should be considered as important as who will be honored with Maftir Yona on Yom Kippur or the p'ticha on Rosh HaShana at U'n'taneh Tokef. With the chatanim decided upon, the congregation ought to send a letter to each of them, way in advance of Simchat Torah, to inform them of the honor being bestowed.

As a result of all of this advanced planning, short biographical announcements can be circulated in the congregation's newsletter and a press release to the general media can also be sent in time for publication. All in honor of the Torah.

K'ria Cadry
The skill of being a ba'al korei is formidable, especially when done properly. Simchat Torah may be a time when a group that would not be motivated to do so otherwise be gathered to commit to learning the skill.

Those who volunteer for the K'ria Cadry will start by learning parts of V'zot HaBracha alternating with their co-members of the "club". After Yom Tov members go on to the reading for Rosh Chodesh and then their individual bar mitzva sidra.

In congregations with a professional ba'al korei, the K'ria Cadry can be ready to take over on several Shabbatot throughout the year.

While it is wonderful to have this focus on the youth of your congregation, there may be many adults who, if they had been encouraged earlier in life, would have learned how to read the Torah. A K'ria Cadry may just be the motivator to get late starters going to learn this skill. (How to teach k'riat haTorah properly will be the subject of an article in the next issue of The Rabbi's Letter.)

Kol HaN'arim Chupa
If your congregation has the practice of holding several tallitot over the heads of the children at Kol HaN'arim or the chatanim, you may have had the experience where there weren't enough efficient tallit-holders who could be asked to keep their hands in the air for so long a period of time. This can be the case especially where you have older members.

A solution to the problem is to before Yom Tov have sewn a chupa of white satin large enough for the area you need covered and affix this to the top of 8-foot-long round dowels about 2 inches in diameter. Of course, the issue of ohel can be taught at the time to the congregation. (For this see especially Dovid Ribiat, The 39 Melochos, p. 1075, notes 129 and 129a.)

Source: National Council of Young Israel.