The journey of a Simhat Torah flag

Suddenly, a miracle. The flags appeared.

Child with Israel flag 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Child with Israel flag 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Colonel Jack Wolfson was a career Jewish soldier in the American army who had served for over 30 years. He was my commanding officer when I arrived to be the chaplain at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in 1965. Even though there was not much time before the holidays when we arrived, I was determined to make Simhat Torah, which was on a Saturday night and Sunday, a really thrilling experience. We had only one Torah scroll, but I was sure that we could get flags. Not as easy as I thought.
I told Col. Wolfson about the flags.
“Chaplain, where can you get them?”
“Either Dallas or New York.”
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I got on the phone and worked really hard. Dallas was difficult. Only a limited number in the city. Then I tried New York – it would cost $300 for flags and to fly them in. I had some money which the colonel had authorized, but not enough. Then I got a call – it was a Chabad rabbi from Detroit.
He had heard we needed flags. He and few others would fly down, at their expense. They would bring the the flags and blessings from the Rebbe. They would arrive Thursday night and leave Monday morning.
That Simhat Torah turned out to be very special. We had only 25 children, but 150 soldiers came to dance and enjoy corned-beef sandwiches, and the Chabad rabbis danced with the kids and with the soldiers. They danced especially with Col. Wolfson.
One Chabad visitor said with real enthusiasm, “The Rebbe has blessed us, we have danced with Torah, we have waved the flags, we have been sameah [joyful or happy] – what more could we ask for?”
Wolfson was amazed because he had never seen anything like this.
“Chaplain,” he asked, “how did you get such joyous Jews?”
“Colonel, Fort Sill was privileged on this Simhat Torah.”
THE HEBREW word “degel” is translated as “flag” or “banner” or “standard.” The word is derived from the root “dagal” meaning to flaunt, to raise a flag in a conspicuous fashion and to put banners on show. A college student wrote these lines: “A flag is to worship, to bestow honor, to be a standpoint of faith, a flag is to glisten and shine.”
According to Dr. Haim Grossman, the Simhat Torah flag is 300 years old, and was first created by the Ashkenazi population. Originally, they were painted on paper, but most of the early ones did not survive. In the past few years sizable exhibitions have been held in Israel of major collections of Simhat Torah flags.
One theme of the flags is to demonstrate various aspects of Israeli history. Prior to Jews moving to Israel in larger numbers, all the men and boys depicted on them wore long trousers. Once they got to Israel, they began to be seen wearing shorts. As time passed, the flags reflected the military elements of the country. Recently, a military- oriented flag was offered for sale on eBay. There is a soldier and a tank – a sailor and a ship. Then all the emblems of the Israeli forces. A farmer plowing the earth with his horse. Woven into this are the Ten Commandments, with the line “ki mitzion tetze Torah” (out of Zion, Torah will emerge).
One of the most beautiful descriptions of the marching with the flags is presented both in words and in art. The individual responsible is Mayer Kirshenblatt, a native of Opatow, Poland. He came to Canada after the WWII. For the last 20 years of his life he was a noted artist, painting the scenes of his youth in Poland. Both his artistic and written description of the Simhat Torah service are truly fascinating.
Returning to the Opatow of almost a century ago, we are moved by his description.
“We would follow the adults around with flags. The flags were made of brightly colored shiny paper. Some were rectangular – some had two points. They were decorated with a star of David and an inscription of some kind. We bought them in town and saved them from year to year.”
His father enjoyed making the celebration even more fun.
“Finding the little flags was a big effort. Father pretended that he could not find them. Suddenly, a miracle, the flags appeared!”
Mayer knew that “this was a little game his father played with them.”
They all waited for that special moment when “his father put an apple on the flag and then a candle in the apple... off they went to the beit midrash. Once there we lit the candles and joined the procession.”
In his book Rite and Reason, Shmuel Pinchas Gelbard gives his answer to the use of the Simhat Torah flag: “this rite is based on Isaiah 24:8 ‘lights give honor to Hashem [God].’”
On this Simhat Torah let us all in our marching and waving give honor to Hashem.
The writer has been a resident of Jerusalem for 35 years and has published numerous articles on contemporary and American Jewish history.