Israel Independence Day and Jerusalem Day are two of the most recent celebrations added to the Hebrew calendar. Holocaust Remembrance Day is another recent addition mandated by the Knesset. But these days are not universally recognized by all Jewry. We have to go back a thousand years to find a holiday added to the calendar and celebrated by all Jews.
Which brings us to Simhat Torah, a holiday not rooted in the Bible. In our 3,500-year history, it is a latecomer. According to scholar Philip Birnbaum, the rejoicing of the Torah was not known in Talmudic times as the name of a special festival marking the annual completion of the Torah readings. In Babylonia, where the one-year cycle for the reading of the Five Books of Moses prevailed, the marking of the completion of the reading emerged in the ninth century.
“The seven processions with the Torah scrolls,” writes Birnbaum, “became customary in the 16th century.” Simhat Torah became one of the most popular of Jewish holidays despite its late appearance.
In A History of Judaism, historian Martin Goodman writes: “The end of Sukkot was marked by a final eighth day (Shmini Atzeret) on which no work was to be undertaken. In the Diaspora, where two days of the festival were observed, the second day in due course took on a character of its own in celebration of the completion of the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah, and the start of the new cycle with the book of Genesis. This celebration, known as Simhat Torah, is not attested until the beginning of the second millennium CE, but it has become a major festival for Diaspora Jews, with much singing and dancing by the congregation.”
In the Land of Israel, Simhat Torah was incorporated into the holiday of Shmini Atzeret, in which the two are celebrated on the same day. It is interesting that the celebration of Simhat Torah had its origins in the Diaspora yet was adopted by the Jews of Israel. It attests to the supremacy of the Babylonian Gaonate and its influence throughout the Jewish world, even in Israel.
Elie Wiesel, in The Jews of Silence, highlighted this joyous celebration as a gathering of protest by those Jewish youth in Moscow who wanted to leave the totalitarian Soviet Union and reclaim their Jewish heritage in Israel. Simhat Torah was not only a religious celebration but a celebration of Jewish identity.
Simhat Torah should embolden us to create a meaningful Jewish calendar. If a holiday can be added to the Hebrew calendar millennia after Revelation, why can we not add holidays that address the issues of our own time and be recognized by all Jews? The modern calendar has been partially successful in accomplishing this. But a religion that fails to respond to the watershed events of our own time is a religion that is bound to ossify, calcify, and fail. Jews have to have the strength of our ancestors and not fear modifying the calendar. If Simhat Torah could be incorporated into the Hebrew calendar 1,000 years ago, we can be bold and expand the Hebrew calendar of today.
The writer is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.