Simchat Torah 5777

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah, 24 October 2016


The biblical festival calendar set out in the Torah in Leviticus 23, details the festivals from Pesach in the spring, through Shemini Atzeret, following the seven days of Sukkot in the autumn. Shemini Atzeret, literally, ‘the eighth day of retention’ (i.e. conclusion), concluded the festival cycle in biblical times.

The first reference to an additional day after Sh’mini Atzeret is found in the Babylonian Talmud (M’gillah 31a), edited around the year 500 CE, where the sages allocated the last portion of the Torah (V’zot ha-b’rachah – Deuteronomy 33 to 34) to ‘the second day’ of Shemini Atzeret, without giving the day a separate name. The first prayer book, Seder Rav Amram (c. 860, Babylonia) mentions the reading of Joshua as the Haftarah. Later it became customary to read the first portion of the Torah, B’reishit, after the last portion. According to the law code produced by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (Arba’ah Turim, 14th century), this practice was only instituted in order ‘to refute Satan’ from claiming that the Jews were happy to have completed the Torah, but were unwilling to begin it again (Tur, Orach Chayyim, 669).

A major factor in the development of a separate annual festival celebrating the completion of the Torah and the commencement of a new Torah reading cycle was the institution of an annual calendar of Torah readings. The triennial calendar practiced in the land of Israel, was superseded over time as the Babylonian Jewish community became more dominant and its teachers assumed the mantle of scholarly authority. So, the Torah was divided into 54 weekly portions – allowing for occasions when a festival would fall on Shabbat and the festival reading would take precedence.

The various practices associated with Simchat Torah developed through the Middle Ages, chief among them, the honouring of a chatan Torah and a chatan B’reishit, a ‘bridegroom’ of the Torah and the ‘beginning’ respectively, who would preside over the Torah readings, and the practice of taking out all the scrolls and making seven hakafot – circuits – around the synagogue.

While Simchat Torah continues to be practised as an additional day after Shemini Atzeret in orthodox and masorti denominations, within Progressive Judaism (i.e. Liberal and Reform congregations) Simchat Torah is celebrated on Shemini Atzeret. This makes sense from a logistical point of view, but can be challenging for those congregations that attempt to combine the more solemn tone of Sh’mini Atzeret, where morning services traditionally include Yizkor, Memorial prayers, with the joyous spirit associated with the celebration of the Torah.

This dilemma raises another issue: to what extent do we celebrate the Torah with joy? When I was young, my maternal grandmother lived with us for a year, between leaving her house and moving into a flat. A devout orthodox Jew, who had been a member of Edgware United Synagogue, while she lived with us, Booba attended the Federation synagogue at the top of our road every Shabbes (Shabbat), and I usually went with her. I recall her being treated with enormous respect because during the 1940s, the new young Rabbi of Edgware United had lived in her home. Apart from my Shabbat visits, I remember attending with her on what she called Simchas Toirah. Apart from the sweets, I’ll never forget the noisy tumult and the delight of dancing and singing with the scrolls.

In my experience, Liberal and Reform synagogues vary widely in the extent to which Simchat Torah is a joyous occasion – and some congregations do make an effort to get into the spirit of revelry, with song sheets and singers to lead the congregation. I’ve never experienced anything like that Simchas Toirah at the Federation synagogue when I was a child. I wonder if the lack of abandon has got something to do with the formal way in which some Liberal synagogues tend to treat the weekly Torah reading and, perhaps, a discomfort with congregants relating personally to the Torah scroll. When, as a rabbinic student visiting ULPS congregations, I asked why the scroll was not paraded on Shabbat, I was told that carrying the scroll around the congregation, touching it with one’s tzitzit, or with a Siddur, represented a kind of idolatry. I don’t agree with this indictment. When people touch the Torah scroll, they are not worshipping it as an object. Rather, they are expressing a profound awareness of the sacred heritage of cherished teaching that has been transmitted for millennia through the generations, so that they can receive it now. As we say, at the conclusion of the Torah service when we return the scroll to the Ark: ‘It is a tree of life to those who hold it fast, and all who cling to it, find happiness’ (Proverbs 3:19). That sense of holding fast to the Torah, of clinging to our people’s ‘tree of life’, is not engendered so readily when the Torah scroll remains on the bimah, remote from the congregation, inspiring only reverence and awe. Perhaps, genuine ‘rejoicing in the Torah’ on Simchat Torah, would be more likely if congregants had the opportunity to connect with the Torah scroll during the rest of the year.

One last thought. On Simchat Torah at my shul, Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue – and I’m sure at other LJ congregations, too – after completing the reading of the last portion, we unwind the scroll back to the beginning. This involves a large circle of people helping to hold up the scroll – which, finally, is displayed for all to see – as I go round book by book, and we summarise together the content. The experience is joyful – and also, deeply spiritual, as everyone grasps, both, literally, and intellectually, the wonder that is the Torah.

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