Ask the Rabbi: Where is it written?

A history of the evolution and expansion of Simhat Torah into a major celebration.

October 16, 2008 12:36
4 minute read.
Ask the Rabbi: Where is it written?

simhat torah 88. (photo credit: )


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Q Simhat Torah seems like such an important holiday - how come the Torah never mentions it? - J.B., Netanya Although I find it annoying when people respond to me this way, allow me (just once) to answer your question with a more basic question: Where in the first place are we told to regularly read the Torah? To understand the development of this holiday that celebrates the Torah's completion, we must first appreciate the history of public Torah recitation. While the Torah never mentions it, the sages asserted that Moses established the weekly reading of the Torah on Shabbat morning and the festivals, while Ezra ordained it to be read on Monday, Thursday and Saturday afternoon (Yerushalmi Megila 4:1). Based on passages in Philo and the Talmud, Prof. Yitzhak Gilat has conjectured that ancient readings did not follow a set order, but rather were chosen based on timely topics and the preacher's inclinations. (Public prayer always came with a rabbi's speech!) By late antiquity, a set order was established for the weekly public readings, with the two major centers of Judaism differing on how to arrange the weekly portions. Israeli communities divided the Torah into more than 150 sections. As such, the idea of a yearly holiday celebrating the Torah's completion was unfathomable, since it took anywhere from three (Megila 29b) to three and a half years (Hilukim Bein Anshei Mizrah U'bnei Eretz Yisrael) to complete its public reading. Each community, reading at a different pace, would make its own celebration when it completed its local cycle. Seeking to complete the Torah each year, Babylonian communities uniformly divided the Torah into 54 portions (sidrot or parshiot in Hebrew), the maximum number of non-festival Saturdays that can occur in a Jewish leap year. Non-leap years include "double-parshiot" in which two portions are read on one week. (5768, the Jewish year just completed, was rare in that it did not have any double-parsha readings.) By completing the cycle after Succot, as opposed to before Rosh Hashana, they were able to place the Torah's major speeches of admonition before major holidays (Megila 31b). Additionally, it embellished the joyful Shmini Atzeret holiday with reading Moses' concluding blessing to the people (Mahzor Vitri), and provided a fitting conclusion to the Tishrei holiday season. While the Jerusalem custom survived until the early Middle Ages, the Babylonian ritual, as with many matters, ultimately won the day. The completion of the Torah cycle on Shmini Atzeret, a one-day festival that immediately follows Succot, was potentially problematic, since the holiday demands its own readings. Babylonian congregations, which, like all Diaspora communities, observed two days of each festival, chanted the regular holiday reading on the first day of Shmini Atzeret, while on the second day (colloquially known today as Simhat Torah), they read Vezot Habracha, the last section of Deuteronomy. With only one day in Israel, however, we read Vezot Habracha, giving priority to Simhat Torah and relegating recognition of Shmini Atzeret to the maftir reading. Another distinctive element of Simhat Torah is that in addition to the reading of the day's portion and its maftir, we take out a third Torah scroll to read from the beginning of Genesis. As Avraham Ya'ari's chronicle of Simhat Torah documents, this was not the practice in Babylonia. Different 12th-century European communities began reciting the first verses of Genesis (frequently orally or from a Bible, not a Torah scroll) to display their cherishing of Torah and interest in starting to learn it anew (Sefer Eshkol). Another important change that stemmed from Simhat Torah's promulgation was the reading of the haftara. According to the Talmud (Megila 31a), the haftara reading for Shmini Atzeret draws from I Kings 8, where King Solomon blesses the people on Shmini Atzeret upon the completion of building the Temple. (This remains the Diaspora's haftara on the first day of Shmini Atzeret.) In the early Middle Ages, however, congregations began to chant the beginning of Joshua to continue the Torah's narrative and highlight the importance of the rest of Scripture. The unique reading arrangement and the day's joyful occasion gave rise to honoring communal figures to chant the major readings, and in Ashkenazi communities, to repeating Vezot Habracha continually until each male community member receives an aliya (OC 669). While joyful dancing has been a feature from the beginning, other modes of celebration varied, including special poems and meals, games for children and, on a few controversial occasions, the use of musical instruments. Unfortunately, this joyfulness has sometimes turned into frivolousness, and today select communities face problems of drinking and licentiousness. Such behavior reflects a digression in the evolution of this holiday, which has sought to instill a love for Torah and its values. One hopes that a greater understanding of the day's history will help people appreciate the genuine joy of Torah. The writer, editor of, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University.

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