Simhat Torah, which translates to "rejoicing in the Torah," is a joyous and important Jewish Holiday. However, few people know that it is not a biblical one. It was originally established by the Babylonian Jews, who developed the practice of reading the weekly Torah portion so that it would not be forgotten while in exile. Simhat Torah begins immediately after the festival of Sukkot, on the 23rd day of the Hebrew month of Tishri. This year it falls on October 8th.
An even lesser known biblical holiday, Shemini Atzeret (also known as the "Eighth Day of Assembly"), falls on the eighth day of Sukkot, which is the day before Simhat Torah. During biblical times, farmers concerned about their land, added blessings for rain to their daily prayers. The prayer, known in Hebrew as Tefilat Hageshem, would continue until Passover season and is still practiced in services today.
During the Simhat Torah service, the concluding section of Deuteronomy is read, marking the completion of the yearly cycle of weekly Torah readings. The new Torah reading cycle begins with the opening section of Genesis, or “B'reisheet,” which is of course the first book of the Torah.
If you happen to visit any synagogue on this day, you will be sure to see the Torah scrolls taken out of the Ark and carried or danced with jubilantly around the synagogue seven times. These processions are called seven “Hakafot”. The “Hakafot” commemorate the seven times the ancient Israelites marched around Jericho prior to the walls around the city tumbling down. It is a joyous commemoration because, consequently, the Israelites were able to enter the Promised Land. These processions are often accompanied with cheerful dancing, sweet treats and festive songs as the Torah is proudly carried around the synagogue.
In some communities it is even common that the celebration will be brought to the streets, ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to take part of the celebration. During the Torah service, many more people than customary are invited to chant the before and after Torah blessings. Even children under the age of Bar Mitzvah are given this honor known as “Aliyah”.
Simhat Torah closes the important Hebrew month of Tishri, setting the tone for the whole year both spiritually and physically. During Rosh Ha’Shanah we make new resolutions and get in touch with our souls. On Yom Kippur we are urged to correct our wrongdoings and ask for forgiveness, as we too learn to forgive. On Sukkot we are reminded to appreciate what we have by celebrating agriculture/harvest seasons, the presence of G-D and the freedom we were granted during the Exodus from Egypt.
Now you know why Jewish people are referred to as “people of the book.” The Torah is the main pillar that keeps the Jewish faith together from generation to generation. Studying the Torah is viewed as an essential, never-ending process. Thus, the central message of Simhat Torah is to continue observing the laws given to us in the Torah. Part of this includes a continuance of our yearly commitment to weekly readings and the study of Torah as well doing good deeds.
At JSN this week, have no doubt that there was plenty of dancing and singing going on! Of course, we took the pleasure to rewind all of the Torah scrolls from last portion of the Torah to the first one, and we even made our own Torah scrolls!
Happy 5th holiday of Tishri.