Simhat Torah: The joy of the Torah

A special feature of the service is calling all children under 13 years to the Reading of the Law.

THE VALUE of water: After the rain in a Golan Heights vineyard. (photo credit: MAOR KINSBURSKY/FLASH90)
THE VALUE of water: After the rain in a Golan Heights vineyard.
(photo credit: MAOR KINSBURSKY/FLASH90)
One of the most popular Jewish festivals is Simhat Torah, which falls on the last day of Sukkot. As its name suggests, Simhat Torah means “The Joy of the Torah.” There is no record of this holiday before the 11th century, and its origin seems to have been in Western Europe.

The highlight is when all the scrolls are removed from the Ark and there is a joyful procession with them around the synagogue. This circling of the synagogue with the Torah scrolls is called hakafot and it is necessary to make seven circuits. It is a mystical imitation of a wedding, symbolizing the marriage of Israel to the Law. It even has a Bridegroom of the Law (Chatan Torah) and a bridegroom of the first portion to be read (Chatan Bereshit). They hold the sacred scrolls in their arms until they are summoned to read their portions. The procession with the scrolls resembles the wedding custom of the bride walking seven times around the groom to form a closed circle (possibly to prevent the assault of evil spirits.) A special feature of the service is calling all children under 13 years to the Reading of the Law. The final verses are read while the children stand under a large tallit (prayer shawl) spread above them like a canopy. The children are blessed with the words Jacob used to bless Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen.48:16). “The angel who hath redeemed me from all evil, bless these children.” There is a lovely Simhat Torah custom in Jerusalem’s Beit Hakerem, where I live that takes place every year, but of course in this terrible time of the pandemic, it will probably be canceled. At a certain designated time, all the local synagogues would meet (there are four of them in the area) carrying their Torah scrolls in Kikar Denya, in the square in front of the supermarket. There, with singing and dancing, they invited all passersby – secular and religious alike, and particularly the children – to join in the merriment. For me, this was the highlight of the day, with toddlers being carried on their fathers’ shoulders and many people, possibly for the first time ever, joining in to dance with the Torah scrolls, before eventually everyone returned to their own synagogues to continue with the service. However this year, most of the synagogues are closed, although there are several minyanim in various parks.

The prayer for rain in Israel is an important part of the Simhat Torah liturgy.

“When do Jews and gentiles rejoice together? Only when it rains!”

No this is not a recent quotation; it was written by Joshua b. Levi in the Midrash (Gen. Rabbah 13:6). “For drought is the scourge of the earth, and rain its greatest blessing.”

Tishrei, the seventh month, is linked to the start of Israel’s winter rains, and crops will fail without it. We plead for rain in the merit of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses, Aaron and the 12 tribes “for a blessing and not a curse; for life and not for death; for plenty and not for famine.” The Mishnah tells us, “The world is judged through water.” To this day we recite a prayer for rain on the last day of Sukkot, as rain is Israel’s life-blood. Good rains mean prosperity, drought means ruin for the country’s kibbutzim, moshavim and agricultural settlements.

LINKED TO the prayer for rain is another Sukkot ceremony emphasizing the value of water. It is known as the Simhat Beit Hashoeva, the Joy of the Drawing of the Waters. In Temple times, it was practiced with great enthusiasm and zest. No one is certain of how it started, but it was mentioned in the Book of Isaiah. Beginning on the second evening of Sukkot, it lasted for six nights. Jerusalemites and pilgrims flocked to the outer court of the Temple. An enormous golden candelabra was fed with vessels of oil by young priests until flames leapt toward the sky.

The most pious men led a torch dance, and the Levites led the people in chanting hymns and Psalms to the music of flutes, harps and cymbals. They danced and sang until dawn, when the long procession wended its way to the pool of Shiloah. This pool was formed by the overflow of water in Hezekiah’s Tunnel, which led from the Gihon spring into the city.

At the pool, a golden ewer was filled with water and brought back to the Temple, where the High Priest poured it over the altar. Today there is no Temple, no altar and no water in the pool at Shiloah, but the “Drawing of the Waters” is symbolically recaptured every year (until this year, with all its restrictions) with singing, dancing and rejoicing in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, near the pool of Shiloah at the base of the City of David.

And today, on Simhat Torah, Jews all over the world remember Israel’s need for rain on the last day of the festival. It is a long prayer that begins with the words:

“Thou causest the wind to blow and the rain to descend. From the heavenly source

He sendest down rains softening the earth with their crystal drops. Water Thou hast

Called the symbol of Thy power. It refresheth with its drops all breathing

Creatures and it will someday quicken those who exalt the power of rain.”

After six more verses, the prayer for rain concludes with the reader chanting, and the congregation responding:

“For Thou art the Lord our God who causest the wind to blow and the rain to fall.

For a blessing and not for a curse. Amen.

For life and not for death. Amen.

For plenty and not for famine.”

It is a fitting benediction to end the festival of Simhat Torah and Sukkot, in which three times we are commanded to rejoice. After so many solemn festivals like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, this gives us its blessings: “May you have nothing but joy!"
The writer, who has lived in Jerusalem for 49 years, is the author of 14 books.