by Arlene Berg
SIMCHAT TORAH, SIMCHAS TORAH
“Simchat,” “Simchas” are both pronounced with a short “i” and a short “a”. The accent is on the first syllable for “Simchas,” and on the second syllable for “Simchat.” “Torah” in Hebrew means “Law,” and is pronounced with a long “o” and a short “a”. The accent is on the first syllable.
Sephardic Jewish people (those from Israel and Western Europe) say “SimchaT,” and Ashkenazic Jewish people (those from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe) say “SimchaS.” In Hebrew, the last letter in “Simchat,” “Simchas” can be pronounced as either a “t” or “s”.
SIMCHAT TORAH, SIMCHAS TORAH – Hebrew for “REJOICING OVER THE LAW,” or “JOY OF THE LAW.”
In Judaism, Succot, or the Feast of Tabernacles, is spoken of as having eight or nine days. Leviticus 23:39 states that Succos was to be kept for seven days and that the eighth day was to be a sabbath. The eighth day of Succos is called “Shemini Atzeret” – “Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly.” In addition to meaning “assembly,” “atzeret” can also mean “stopping and waiting” or “holding back.” Since God commanded his people, Israel, to live in the booths, or succos, for seven days (Lev. 23:42), Jewish law states that a person, on the eighth day, should just eat in the succah, but should not make the blessing that accompanies the meal or meals. One is not permitted to sleep in the succah on Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day. In the diaspora (Greek for “scattering”), or those countries into which the Jewish people have been dispersed from Israel, Shemini Atzeret is two days. In Israel it is one day. Jewish people believe that those in the diaspora are given two holidays to compensate them for not being fortunate enough to live in their Holy Land. It was sometime after the 11th century A.D. (or, in Judaism – 11th century “C.E.”- “Common Era” – due to their rejection of Messiah Jesus and not using “A.D.”), that Shemini Atzeret also came to be known as Simchat Torah. Thus, in Israel, Simchat Torah is the same day as Shemini Atzeret. In the United States and those countries outside of Israel, Simchat Torah is the day after Shemini Atzeret, since Shemini Atzeret is observed for two days outside of Israel. Some Jewish people view Succot as having eight or nine days, while others believe that Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are separate holidays from Succot.
During the cycle of a year, the entire Torah, or the first five books of Moses, are read in the synagogue. A portion, called a sedra or parasha, is read each Shabbat (Shabbes), or Sabbath. Along with this sedra, a selection from the Prophets, called the Haftara, is also read. IT IS VERY INTERESTING THAT ISAIAH 53 IS NEVER SELECTED TO BE READ AS THE HAFTARA!
To honor the completion of the reading of the Torah, a very joyous celebration is observed – Simchat Torah, or Rejoicing Over The Law! This holiday is not Biblically commanded. The basis for it is found in the Midrash, one of the great Jewish commentaries. The Midrash describes Shlomo, or Solomon, as having made a special feast after he was granted wisdom. Because of this, the ancient Rabbis felt it was only proper to also celebrate the completion of the reading of the Torah.
Simchat Torah is celebrated in 2017 from sundown Thursday, October 12 – sundown Friday, October 13. This is the happiest and most exuberant holiday! All the Scrolls, or Torahs, are taken out of the Ark, the beautiful cabinet in the front of the synagogue in which they are kept. They are carried first around the bima (the raised platform and table from which the Torah is read) and then around the inside of the synagogue. This is done seven times (taken from the seven circuits around the walls of Jericho), a process that can take several hours to complete. Each circuit is called a “hakafa,” and different people are given the honor of carrying the Torahs during the seven circuits. The Torahs are so heavy that usually the men carry them! During the hakafot (plural for “hakafa”), the following Hoshana prayers are sung in a loud and cheerful voice to a traditional melody. “Please, O Lord, save us; Please, O Lord, make us succeed.” This is taken from Psalm 118:25! Special songs are sung in honor of the Torah – “Be glad and rejoice with the joy of the Law!” These songs are generally verses from the Scriptures or the prayerbook that have been put to music. Children carry decorative flags or miniature scrolls as they follow the Torah scrolls in the hakafot. In past years, sometimes older children would carry a flag that had a lighted candle placed into an apple inplanted on the flag. This custom is derived from the lighted torches that men used to carry in the processions in past centuries. As the Torah scrolls pass by, people are given the opportunity and honor to kiss them by kissing their fingers and then touching the scrolls.
It is the custom in the more religious congregations for the worshipers to join in a circle and dance in between each hakafa. Those holding the Torahs also dance! The singing and dancing that accompany the hakafot can last for many hours. It is sometimes even carried outdoors where the men of the congregation, as well as others, will dance with the Torah scrolls for hours! What an impressive, thought- provoking sight it is to see all the joy and exuberance as the Torah scrolls are carried around! The following is a quote from a Lubavitch (Ultra-Orthodox) announcement for Simchas Torah. “THE PARTY OF THE YEAR. You’ve heard the stories…Now come and experience it yourself! SIMCHAT TORAH! Dance the night away!”
The seven hakafot will take place on October 15, after sundown, and also the next morning on October 16. On October 17, after the seven hakafot are completed, the last sedra, or portion, of the Torah will be read for the year. The man who reads this has one of the most important honors of the year. He is called the “Chatan Torah” – the “Bridegroom of the Torah.” (“Chatan” has the guttural “ch” and two short “a’s”). As soon as this last parasha, or sedra, is read, a part of the first sedra of Bereshit, or Genesis, is immediately read to begin the reading cycle for the new year. The remainder of the first sedra is then read on the following Shabbat – called “Shabbat B’reshit” (“Genesis Sabbath”) – since the sedra is normally read each Shabbat. The man who, on Simchat Torah, has this great honor and reads this first parasha of the year is called the “Chatan B’reshit” – the “Bridegroom of Genesis.”
How our hearts ache for Israel as they observe Simchas Torah! The following quote from a Lubavitch (ultra-orthodox) magazine is heart rending. “We have stood in awe before the King of the Universe (on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur); we have been forgiven and cleansed by His mercy. . .Now, we rejoice with His Torah. We take the sacred scrolls in our arms and dance together, scholar and novice alike.”
How we long for God’s chosen people, Israel, to come to the One who exclaimed in Psalm 40:7,8 – “Lo, I come; in the scroll of the book (it is) written of me. I delight to do thy will, O my God; and thy Torah (“Law”) is within my heart.”