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Simchat Torah 5767-2006

“The Evolving Holiday”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

The festival of Simchat Torah is one of the most joyous of the Jewish calendar. In Israel, following the conclusion of the festival of Sukkot, Simchat Torah and Shemini Atzeret are celebrated together on a single day. Outside of Israel, Shemini Atzeret is celebrated for two days, with the second day known as Simchat Torah.

Simchat Torah, as it is celebrated today, is a relatively new holiday that did not become popular until the 14th century. In the diaspora, Simchat Torah is the day on which the reading of the Five Books of Moses is completed. It is a day of hakafot–where the Torah scrolls are carried around the synagogue in circuits, and a day of great celebration, with feasts of eating and drinking. It is hard to believe that this festival of dancing with the Torahs and the many celebratory rituals of Simchat Torah are of relatively recent vintage.

Classical Jewish sources (Talmud Shabbat 118 and Kohellet Rabbah, beginning of Chapter 1) speak of the joy of completing the reading of the Torah and the study of a Mishnaic or Talmudic tractate. Residents of ancient Israel would complete the reading of the Torah only once every three years (Talmud Megillah 29b). Outside of Israel, however, the Torah was completed annually, and the 54 weekly Torah portions were calendared into the number of Shabbatot of the annual lunar year. The reading of the final portion always took place on Simchat Torah.

Maimonides (the Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204) records in the Laws of Prayer 13:1 that in his time there were still communities that read the Torah on a tri-annual basis.

In Talmudic times, what we refer to today as Simchat Torah was known as Yom Tov Acharon–simply, the last day of the holiday (Megillah 31a). Only at the end of the Gaonic period (approximately the year 1000) was the last day of the festival occasionally referred to as Simchat Torah. Even during the Middle Ages the name Simchat Torah was not universally adopted. The last day of the holiday was either called Yom Shaynee--meaning the second day of Shemini Atzeret, or simply Yom Tov Shaynee–the second day of the holiday.

Why and how did the custom develop to start reading the book of Genesis on Simchat Torah? The Code of Jewish Law authored by the Tur (R. Yaakov ben Asher, 1270ca-1340, Germany and Spain, author of the Arbah Turim, one of the early codes of Jewish law) notes that the custom to read the beginning of the Torah, parashat Bereishith, Genesis, was instituted so that the “negative forces” would not be able to accuse the Jews of having concluded the Torah reading cycle, and not being interested in reading anymore. This new practice beginning the Torah from Genesis, resulted in a double celebration on Simchat Torah–the completion of the Five Books of Moses and celebrating the start of a new Torah reading cycle.

Among the various affectionate names for the Torah is the appellation kallah–bride. In fact, the Jewish people are regarded as betrothed to the Torah (Jerusalem Talmud, Taanit chapter 3), a betrothal that took place at Mount Sinai when the Torah was given. Therefore, the day when the Torah reading is completed is regarded as equivalent to a wedding celebration. Because of the Jewish legal principle that one who completes a mitzvah gets all the credit for the mitzvah, the person who is called up for the final reading of the Torah is known as a chattan–a groom, or Chattan HaTorah–the groom of the Torah.

In ancient times there was a custom not to take two Torah scrolls out from the ark to read at the same service, so as not to leave the incorrect impression that the first Torah scroll was invalid. Therefore, the Chattan HaTorah read the last portion of Deuteronomy from a Torah scroll, while the first portion of Genesis was recited by heart or read from another kind of book. Eventually, the format of the celebration was changed and a second person was honored to read from the Book of Genesis. This second honoree became known as the Chattan Bereishith–the groom of Genesis. Normally, great scholars were selected to serve as the grooms. However, eventually, honors were sold to the highest bidder. Jewish communities around the world still contend over this seemingly mercenary practice, which appears to be losing popularity as synagogues frequently choose to honor those who provide exceptional service and not only those who provide financial support.

In many communities, the grooms were accorded extraordinary honor. A chuppah or bridal canopy was held over the heads of the grooms and they were accompanied to and from the synagogue by torch-bearing attendants. In some instances, non-Jewish musicians were hired to accompany the retinue. Candy was thrown before them, and their wives were honored as kallot--brides of the Torah. On occasion, huge banquets were thrown in honor of the Chattanim, which led to not infrequent decrees from local rabbis to protest the unseemly opulence.

Of recent vintage is the celebration in more modern synagogues of the Chattan Maftir–the groom who is honored with reading the final portion of the Torah reading. The maftir reading on Simchat Torah records the special sacrificial offerings that were brought on the final day of the holiday. The Chattan Maftir is also given the honor of publicly chanting the prophetic message that parallels the Torah portion.

While today we often blame lavish Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations on the skillful marketing of caterers, we see that even in the Middle Ages there was no paucity of sumptuous celebration with food, wine and drink. Is this a reflection of an attempt by those who were often terribly impoverished and subject to arbitrary attacks by their enemies to add a little extra joy and happiness to their lives? Or were the great Simchat Torah celebrations due to the fervent and abiding love that the Jewish people have for their Torah? With no way of knowing the full truth, it is quite likely that elements of both these factors account for the popularity of Simchat Torah.

It is nice to think that at least today, when most Jewish communities live in relatively affluence and security, it can be assumed that the festival of Simchat Torah is celebrated purely lishmah–for the sake of heaven. After all, we know only too well the words of the great psalmist, who wrote (Psalm 119:92): “Loo’lay Torat’cha sha’ah’shoo’ai, ahz ah’vad’tee b’ahn’yee,” Had Your Torah not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction. Let us hope it is so!

This year, the joyous festivals of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are celebrated on Friday evening, October 13, through Sunday night, October 15, 2006. Chag Samayach!

May you be blessed.