The joy of the Torah

On this holiday, we embrace and celebrate the centrality of Torah to Jewish communal life, commemorate the euphoria of Temple libations and pray for the autumn rains to fall.

Former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek takes part in Simhat Torah celebrations in the city’s Liberty Bell Park in 1988. (photo credit: JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVE)
Former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek takes part in Simhat Torah celebrations in the city’s Liberty Bell Park in 1988.
One of the most popular Jewish festivals is Simhat Torah, an addendum to the Succot holiday. As its name suggests, Simhat Torah means the Joy of the Torah. There is no record of this holiday before the 11th century, and it seems to have originated in Western Europe.
The highlight is when all the scrolls are removed from the ark and there is a joyful procession of 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, where the bride circles the groom (possibly to prevent the assault of evil spirits), symbolizing the marriage of Israel to the Law. It even has a bridegroom of the Law (Hatan Torah) and a bridegroom of the first portion to be read (Hatan Bereishit). They hold the sacred scrolls in their arms until they are summoned to read their portions.
A special feature of the service is calling all children below bar/bat-mitzva age 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 (Genesis 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.
At a designated time, all four local synagogues meet carrying their Torah scrolls to Denya Square in front of the supermarket.
There, with singing and dancing, they invite all the passersby – secular and religious alike, and particularly the children – to join in the merriment.
For me, this is 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 all return to their own synagogues to continue with the service.
The prayer for rain in Israel is an important part of Simhat Torah liturgy. “When do Jews and Gentiles rejoice together? Only when it rains!” No, this is not a recent quotation in response to a severe drought.
It was written by Joshua ben Levi in the Midrash (Genesis Raba 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 Twelve Tribes. “For a blessing and not a curse; for life and not for death; for plenty and not for famine.”
The Mishna tells us that “the world is judged through water.” To this day we recite a prayer for rain on the last day of Succot, 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 Succot ceremony emphasizing the value of water. It is known as the Simhat Beit Hashoeva, or the Joy of the Drawing of the Waters. In Temple times, it was practiced with great enthusiasm and zest. No one is certain how it started, but it was mentioned in the Book of Isaiah.
Beginning on the second evening of Succot, it lasted for six nights (with the exception of Shabbat). Jerusalemites and pilgrims flocked to the outer court of the Temple. Young priests fed an enormous golden candelabra with vessels of oil, 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 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.
It is a long prayer which begins with the words: “Thou causest the wind to blow and the rain to descend.
From the heavenly source Thou 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 festivals of Succot and Simhat Torah, in which three times we are commanded to rejoice. After solemn festivals like Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, this gives us its blessings: “May you have nothing but joy!”
Dvora Waysman is the author of 13 books, one of which, The Pomegranate Pendant, has been made into a movie titled The Golden Pomegranate. She is a teacher of creative writing, and a syndicated journalist. She can be contacted at [email protected])