Simhat Torah in the corona age

The holiday's celebratory dancing is a custom which is not required to fulfill any of the core obligations.

YEMENITE TORAH scrolls (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
YEMENITE TORAH scrolls
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Simhat Torah is one of the most beloved holidays on the Jewish calendar, but it is also an anomaly. The festival, which celebrates the completion of the yearly cycle of public Torah reading, doesn’t appear in the Bible or even the Talmud. Instead, the holiday that appears on this date is Shmini Atzeret, a one-day festival that immediately follows Sukkot and completes the holiday season.
As such, all of the rituals that commemorate Simhat Torah are customs that, however beloved they might be, may be altered in light of corona restrictions on public gatherings.
The Talmud deems it unfathomable that the Jews had a period without public Torah reading. It asserts that Moses established the public reading of the Torah on Shabbat mornings and on the festivals, with Ezra subsequently adding readings on Mondays, Thursdays and Shabbat afternoons.
By late antiquity, an order was established for the weekly public readings, yet the two major centers of Judaism differed on how to apportion them. Communities in Israel divided the Torah into over 150 sections. As such, the idea of an annual holiday to celebrate the Torah’s completion was impossible, since it took three to three-and-a-half years to complete the reading! Instead, each community, reading at a different pace, would hold its own celebration upon completing its local cycle.
Seeking to complete the Torah each year, Babylonian communities uniformly divided the Torah into 54 portions (parashot in Hebrew), the maximum number of non-festival Shabbatot that can occur in a Jewish leap year. (Non-leap years include the reading of “double parashot,” with two portions read in one week.) By completing the cycle after Sukkot, as opposed to before Rosh Hashanah, these communities were able to time Deuteronomy’s major speeches of admonition to be read before the High Holy Days. Additionally, Moses’s concluding blessing to the nation provided a fitting conclusion to the Tishrei holiday season. While the custom from the Land of Israel survived until the early Middle Ages, the Babylonian practice, as with many matters, ultimately won the day.
The completion of the Torah cycle on Shmini Atzeret, however, was potentially problematic, since each holiday demands its own thematically appropriate reading.
Like all Diaspora communities, Babylonian congregations observed two days of each festival, providing an easy solution. On the first day of Shmini Atzeret, the holiday portion is read, while on the second day (colloquially known today as Simhat Torah), the congregation reads the last portion of Deuteronomy, called Vezot Habracha.
With only one day in Israel, priority has amazingly been given to the Simhat Torah reading, with recognition of Shmini Atzeret – the biblical holiday! – relegated to the brief maftir reading and the Amida prayer.
Combining two days of rituals into one also means that the festive dancing in honor of the Torah is followed by two prayers customarily recited on Shmini Atzeret – the somber Yizkor memorial service and the solemn Prayer for Rain.
Another distinctive element of Simhat Torah is that in addition to reading the day’s portion and its maftir, we take out a third Torah scroll to begin Genesis. As Avraham Yaari’s chronicle of Simhat Torah documents, this was not the practice in Babylonia. Rather, 12th-century European communities began reciting the first verses of Genesis (frequently orally or from a Bible, not a Torah scroll) to display their love of the Torah and eagerness to study it afresh. The unique reading arrangement and the day’s joyful occasion gave rise to honoring communal figures to chant the major readings and to repeating Vezot Habracha continually until every male community member receives an aliyah.
Another feature of Simhat Torah is joyful dancing which is normally forbidden on the festivals but was permitted by the earlier medieval authorities in commemoration of this celebration. Originally the custom was to circle the Torah scrolls on the reader platform, known as hakafot, copying the hoshanot ritual of circling the ark with lulavim on Sukkot. In later generations, Jews came to dance with the Torah scrolls in their hands.
WHAT ARE our options, given the requirements of social distancing as well as the need to avoid lengthy services?
As always, priority must be given to the core requirements of the day, including the public recitation of the Amida prayers and the Torah reading. Cantorial singing of the prayers – including the Yizkor memorial rite, the Prayer for Rain, and the special blessings offered to the recipients of special aliyot such as hatan Torah – should be significantly curtailed.
As we’ve seen, the celebratory dancing is a custom which is not required to fulfill any of the core obligations. While spacious, outdoor prayer spaces might allow for separation between worshipers, it’s not clear that the necessary distancing will be maintained over a long period of dancing. Accordingly, the dancing may be eliminated, if absolutely necessary, or significantly curtailed in its duration, with short, stationary singing the preferred option.
Similarly, the number of extra aliyot should be eliminated or significantly curtailed. Groups of worshipers may receive an aliyah together, so to speak, by listening to the oleh and replying together with an amen (Mishna Berurah 669:12).
While for some people this abridged service may take away from the joy of the day, we should look for other ways to celebrate the Torah in our homes. Most importantly, we should remember that the point of all these festivities is to give honor to the Torah. This year, that entails fulfilling our ritual requirements in a way that gives honor to the Torah’s prioritization of public health.

The author is the co-dean of the Tikvah Online Academy and directs the Jewish Law Live Facebook group and YouTube channel.