Rabbi Danny Rich- 7th October 2020
Simchat Torah: Rejoicing of/with the Torah is a post-Biblical festival which occurs just at the end of Sukkot.
According to the Torah the seven days of Sukkot are followed by Shemini Atzeret: the eighth day of assembly (Leviticus 23:26). The meaning and purpose of Shemini Atzeret is not clear. Despite being called an ‘eighth’ day the Torah does not indicate whether it is considered to be a part of Sukkot although the matter was decided in the Talmud (Yoma 2b-3a). The absence of a requirement to be in the sukkah or wave the arba’ah minim coupled with changes in Temple ritual (sacrifices, psalm and priestly duty rota) indicates that certainly by the Second Temple period shemini atzeret was not considered a part of Sukkot.
The origin of the word ‘atzeret’ is also unclear. It may come from a root meaning ‘to hold back’ which might explain why the suggestion arose that pilgrims might remain in Jerusalem for an extra day, either to be in God’ s presence for a little longer or perhaps to complete an extensive Tishri holiday period which had included Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.
The absence of an identifiable purpose for shemini atzeret may explain why Simchat Torah is sometimes referred to in the Talmud as the second day of shemini atzeret (Megillah 31a) and why in Liberal Judaism communities and the State of Israel Simchat Torah is marked on shemini atzeret.
Public reading of the Torah (on Shabbat and the former market days of Monday and Thursday) are attributed to Ezra who led the return of the Jewish people to Israel from Babylon in the fifth century BCE. It is not known the order, substance or length of these public readings until the rabbinic leadership in Israel divided the text into 155 portions which were read over three years, known as the triennial cycle (Megillah 29b). By this period there was, of course, a well-established Babylonian Jewish community who instituted the 54 portions of the Torah (the annual cycle) to be read in a calendar year – a custom which eventually prevailed throughout the Jewish world during the period (c500-1000CE) when the Babylonian Academy heads, known as Gaonim, came to dominate Jewish decision-making.
The only major practice of Simchat Torah was the completion of the annual cycle of Torah readings by the reading of the final parashah (chapters 33 and 34) of the Book of Deuteronomy. At some stage it became the custom to also read the first parashah of Genesis to thwart Satan’s attempt to persuade God that the Jews had finished reading the Torah and were reluctant to start again!
Simchat Torah has an association with marriage because of the midrashic idea that God and Israel are as a groom and bride with the Torah as their ketubbah. The reading of the last chapter of Deuteronomy and the first chapter of the Book of Genesis is considered an honour and the persons chosen are known as chatan/kallat Torah or Bereshit: groom or bride of the Torah or Genesis.
This particular Simchat Torah is an important one for Liberal Judaism as its Conference of Rabbis and Cantors (CoLRaC) has just reviewed and made alterations to its marriage practices in cases where a Jew is partnered with a person who does not identify as Jewish.
The most significant change is that, at the rabbi’s discretion and where the couple intend to maintain a Jewish home, a ceremony may take place under a chuppah.
Liberal Judaism prides itself on responding within a Jewish context to the needs and desires of an increasing diverse Jewish community, practicing its Judaism in a modern environment.
It seems proper that, where a couple indicate their wish to maintain a Jewish home, the ceremony marking that could take place under a chuppah.
As we learned (above) about the reading of Torah, Jewish customs including the nature and meaning of the chuppah itself has changed over time. Since the chuppah is now more often than not perceived as a symbol of a Jewish home, the change appears logical and decent, and, most importantly, as a sign of welcome to a couple in such a situation.
The Torah is a remarkable work of human hands. Traditionally it was considered the word of God which was perfectly recorded by Moses. Modern scholarship has proved that the Torah was created over many generations by our spiritual ancestors who sought to understand what God required of them in their time. Modern Liberal Jews are undertaking the same task but in a vastly changed world. Simchat Torah enables Liberal Jews to rejoice both in the gift of Torah which has been bequeathed to them but also in a further gift, that of the freedom to re-interpret the Torah for the modern age.
As we read on Yom Kippur (Deuteronomy 30:12-14):
It is not in the …it is not beyond the sea…it is close to you, in your mouth and in your heart…
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