The four faces of Simhat Torah

There are very few peoples in the world who dance with their sacred scriptures.

simchat torah 88 (photo credit: )
simchat torah 88
(photo credit: )
The Jewish people loves Simhat Torah. Even Jews who do not usually come to the synagogue every Shabbat make an effort to come on Simhat Torah to dance and have an aliya. This is not surprising. Simhat Torah is a spiritual and physical delight which allows Jews to rejoice and dance with body and soul. But Simhat Torah is much more than a day of joy and dancing. At second glance, it contains a number of deeper messages which are easy to miss amid the enthusiasm of the holiday.
  • Love of Torah: First and foremost, Simhat Torah symbolizes the love of the Jewish people for its Torah. We are not only commanded to study Torah every day (Deut. 6) and to read the Torah in public on Shabbat, Mondays and Thursdays, but for over a thousand years it has been our custom to dance with the Torah once a year. There are very few peoples in the world who dance with their sacred scriptures. Torah study ties us to the Torah intellectually and reading the Torah in public ties us to the Torah communally, but Simhat Torah ties us to the Torah physically and emotionally and that is a knot which cannot be undone.
  • The cyclical nature of Torah study: Simhat Torah symbolizes that Torah study has no beginning and no end. As we recite in the evening service every night: "for [the words of the Torah] are our lives and the length of our days; day and night shall we meditate upon them." Rabbi David Abudraham explained this aspect of Simhat Torah in 14th-century Spain: "And the reason we start again at Bereishit... just as we have merited to finish the Torah, so may we merit to begin her again."
  • The democratic nature of Torah study: Simhat Torah symbolizes the fact that the Torah belongs to the entire people of Israel: scholars and laypeople; men, women and children. This idea was expressed in a number of Simhat Torah customs. In 12th-century France, they began to read Vezot Habracha (the last Torah portion) many times "until the entire congregation had an aliya." In 14th-century Germany, they invented the kol hane'arim aliya so that all the children in the synagogue could have a collective aliya. In 17th-century Germany, they would honor the wives of the Hatan Torah and Hatan Bereishit - the men who had the last aliya of the Torah and the first of Genesis - with the title kallot ("brides") and say to them: "gut yontiff, kalla!" Indeed, many modern congregations continue this democratic trend on Simhat Torah and the entire congregation receives an aliya: men, women and children.
  • The development of Jewish Law: The Conservative movement likes to emphasize that the Halacha developed from generation to generation and from country to country. There is no better proof of this assertion than the holiday of Simhat Torah. As Avraham Ya'ari showed in his comprehensive monograph Toldot Hag Simhat Torah this holiday began in Babylonia in the 10th century and spread to the entire Jewish world, with each ethnic group contributing new customs which were then absorbed by Klal Yisrael (the collective Jewish people). The Jews of Babylonia invented the holiday and its name and began to dance on Simhat Torah (Rabbi Isaac ibn Giyyat, Sha'arei Simha). In France, they added the Ata Horeita verses in the 12th century (Mahzor Vitry). The Jews of Spain began to recite the beginning of Genesis by heart at the beginning of the 12th century (Rabbi Judah al-Barzeloni) while the Jews of France instituted at that time that a Hatan Bereishit should read the beginning of Bereishit (Mahzor Vitry). In Ashkenaz, in the early 15th century they added a hakafa - parading with the Torah scrolls - in the evening (Rabbi Isaac Tyrna); while the Ari and his students in 16th-century Safed instituted that there should be seven hakafot around the bima (Rabbi Haim Vital). Simhat Torah is thus not just a holiday of joy and dancing, but also symbolizes our love for the Torah, the cyclical nature of Torah study, the democratic nature of Torah study, and the development of Jewish law throughout the generations. The writer is the president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.