Simchat Torah, which translates into “the Joys of the Torah,” is a jovial, extremely happy holiday filled with lots of singing, dancing, and overall merriment, making it a favorite among children and the young at heart. Introduced sometime in late antiquity, the holiday went through many developments and changes before ultimately becoming the popular celebration we all know and love today. Interestingly, one thing that sets Simchat Torah apart from other traditional Jewish holidays, such as Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, and Passover, is that there are no references to it in either the Bible or the Talmud. Rather, Simchat Torah began as a communal celebration to mark the completion of one Torah reading cycle and the beginning of the next one, evolving into a universally accepted festival replete with exciting original customs and liturgy. With Simchat Torah just around the corner, we thought it might be nice to learn all about this vibrant, thrilling Jewish holiday so hang on tight because here we go!
What is Simchat Torah and why is it celebrated?
Before we get into the juicy details, let’s get the ball rolling with some background, starting with a short explanation on what Simchat Torah is: Throughout the year, Jews around the world read aloud small, specific portions of the Torah each week, beginning with the Book of Bereishit (Genesis) and working their way through each of the Five Books until finally, they reach the last portion from the Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), which concludes a year-long campaign of reading the entire Torah. As reading the entire Torah from beginning to end is no small feat, each year on Simchat Torah, we observe a special holiday commemorating the momentous achievement of completing a whole year’s public Torah reading cycle and commencing a brand new cycle where we start reading the Torah again from the very beginning.
What are the origins of Simchat Torah?
Now that we know why Simchat Torah is celebrated, let’s discuss its origins. It is traditionally believed that Moshe was the first to institute the practice of public Torah readings on Shabbat and festival mornings and that many centuries later, the famous Jewish priest Ezra established additional public Torah readings on Mondays, Thursdays, and Shabbat afternoons. However, there were supposedly problems with this because these public readings did not follow any particular order or schedule, so ultimately, it became the responsibility of each community’s rabbi to decide which Torah portion would be read that day. Sometime later, a fixed calendar for public Torah readings was eventually developed and introduced in both the Land of Israel and Babylonia. Those in Israel would complete a full reading cycle once every three years, while those in Babylonia would complete theirs annually. The Babylonian Jewish community organized their cycle so it would end/begin again on the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, a Biblical festival that falls out towards the end of Sukkot to mark the conclusion of the late summer/early autumn Jewish holiday season. In time, though, Jewish communities surviving in Israel would come to embrace the Babylonian reading schedule and adopt the celebration of Simchat Torah.
Is Simchat Torah a Yom Tov?
Yes! Both Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are Yom Tov holidays. This means that like Shabbat, most forms of work are not permissible, although cooking food using a pre-existing flame is allowed. Additionally, lighting holiday candles, performing special prayers in the synagogue, eating festive meals, and reciting Kiddush are all things we do on Simchat Torah.
When is Simchat Torah celebrated?
Traditionally, Simchat Torah is celebrated immediately after Sukkot. That is why each year, it seems like Sukkot concludes in a dizzying, indistinguishable blur of festivities. Although Sukkot itself is celebrated from the 15th of Tishrei until the 21st of Tishrei, on the 22nd of the month, we celebrate the holiday known as Shemini Atzeret. Partly connected to Sukkot but also independent of it, Shemini Atzeret, or the “Eighth Day of Assembly,” is often regarded as the unofficial eighth day of Sukkot. In Israel, where Sukkot lasts for seven days instead of eight, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are both celebrated together on the 22nd of Tishrei. Outside of Israel, where Sukkot is observed for a full eight days, the last day of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret are celebrated together, leaving Simchat Torah to be celebrated on the following day, the 23rd of Tishrei. This rapid transition from one holiday to the next can be disorienting for some, but if you ask us, the non-stop revels are just part of the fun!
How do you celebrate Simchat Torah?
Simchat Torah is easily one of the most exciting and thrilling days to visit your local synagogue. Between the enthusiastic singing and dancing, the high-spirited marching with Torah scrolls, and all the delighted congregants becoming increasingly so immersed in the revelries that they flow out of the Synagogue and spill out onto the surrounding streets, Simchat Torah is as popular as it is for a good reason. That said, these revelries are only part of the celebrations. Some of the other prominent customs associated with Simchat Torah are:
- A special Torah reading, where the Book of Deuteronomy is completed and the Book of Genesis is started anew. It is customary to ‘bid’ over who will become the Hatan Torah and the Hatan Bereishit. The winner of these auctions will get called to the Torah for the Aliyah accompanying the concluding portion of the Torah and the Aliyah for the beginning portion, respectively. This is considered to be a great honor, as receiving an Aliyah means that the recipient gets to recite a special prayer over the Torah in front of the congregation. After the holiday, all proceeds from the auction will be collected and given to charity.
- Unique from all other festivals on the Jewish calendar, on Simchat Torah, it is customary to read the Torah both at night and during the day.
- It is also customary for every man in the synagogue to be given the opportunity to receive an Aliyah so they may be called to the Torah).
- In many synagogues, there is a tradition to take out all the Torah scrolls from within the Ark and dance with them around the synagogue while singing festive songs. This is a rare sight as generally, no more than one or two Torah scrolls are removed from a synagogue’s Ark at any given time.
- Additionally, in many synagogues, it is traditional for young children to join the person called to the Torah, where they will huddle together underneath an outstretched Tallit for the Aliyah known as Kol HaNearim (All the Children.)
Well, friends, although there are many other fascinating facts to discover with this remarkable holiday, unfortunately, those will need to wait for another day and be written in another blog! For now, we must end here, but before we do, we’d like to thank you for taking the time to read our article. We hope you found it informative and pleasurable, and if reading this has inspired you in any way, please be sure to check out our lovely selection of Torah Scroll Replicas, Siddur Prayer Books, Bibles, and Tallit Prayer Shawls to enrich your festive celebrations with outstanding Jewish Judaica from the Land of Israel!
Happy holidays and goodbye!