Category Archives: Simchat Torah Teachings
Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah
Significance: A follow-up to Sukkot;
the completion of the annual cycle of Torah readings
Length: 2 days (Some: 1 day)
Customs: Limited “dwelling” in the sukkah;
dancing and rejoicing with Torah scrolls
…On the fifteenth day of this seventh month is the Festival of Sukkot, seven days for the L-RD… on the eighth day, there shall be a holy convocation for you. -Leviticus 23:34
Tishri 22, the day after the seventh day of Sukkot, is the holiday Shemini Atzeret. In Israel, Shemini Atzeret is also the holiday of Simchat Torah. Outside of Israel, where extra days of holidays are held, only the second day of Shemini Atzeret is Simchat Torah: Shemini Atzeret is Tishri 22 and 23, while Simchat Torah is Tishri 23.
These two holidays are commonly thought of as part of Sukkot, but that is technically incorrect; Shemini Atzeret is a holiday in its own right and does not involve some of the special observances of Sukkot. We do not take up the lulav and etrog on these days, and our dwelling in the sukkah is more limited, and performed without reciting a blessing.
Shemini Atzeret literally means “the assembly of the eighth (day).” Rabbinic literature explains the holiday this way: our Creator is like a host, who invites us as visitors for a limited time, but when the time comes for us to leave, He has enjoyed himself so much that He asks us to stay another day. Another related explanation: Sukkot is a holiday intended for all of mankind, but when Sukkot is over, the Creator invites the Jewish people to stay for an extra day, for a more intimate celebration.
Simchat Torah means “Rejoicing in the Torah.” This holiday marks the completion of the annual cycle of weekly Torah readings. Each week in synagogue we publicly read a few chapters from the Torah, starting with Genesis Ch. 1 and working our way around to Deuteronomy 34. On Simchat Torah, we read the last Torah portion, then proceed immediately to the first chapter of Genesis, reminding us that the Torah is a circle, and never ends.
This completion of the readings is a time of great celebration. There are processions around the synagogue carrying Torah scrolls and plenty of high-spirited singing and dancing in the synagogue with the Torahs. Drinking is also common during this time; in fact, a traditional source recommends performing the priestly blessing earlier than usual in the service, to make sure the kohanim are not drunk when the time comes! As many people as possible are given the honor of an aliyah (reciting a blessing over the Torah reading); in fact, even children are called for an aliyah blessing on Simchat Torah. In addition, as many people as possible are given the honor of carrying a Torah scroll in these processions. Children do not carry the scrolls (they are much too heavy!), but often follow the procession around the synagogue, sometimes carrying small toy Torahs (stuffed plush toys or paper scrolls).
“THE DANCE OF FORGIVENESS”
(from Ascent Quarterly)
The cycle of the year begins with Rosh HaShanah, and is followed by Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, all within the same month. The concluding celebrations are characterized by dancing in a circle, the Hebrew term for which is “machol.” This word has the same grammatical root as the world “mechilah,” meaning “pardon,” which is the theme of the preceding Holy Days of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. This double entendre is not at all coincidental.
Dance consists of movements that alternately separate the dancing partners and then draw them towards each other again. This process is evocative of the ebb and flow – the “yearning and returning” that characterizes our spiritual lives. There are times when we feel a sense of distance from G-d, and other times when the distance is bridged and we feel a great closeness. Were it not for this periodic distancing, the moments of closeness would not be so appreciated.
Throughout history the Jewish nation has experienced a collective ebb and flow in its relationship with G-d. Positively viewed, the periods of distancing are only for the purpose of experiencing the joy of closeness over and over again. Man, by nature, is not static, but keeps oscillating in this manner.
The Divine attributes of “Kindness” and “Severity” generate the “right” and “left” dimensions of existence respectively. Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are colored by the severity of the left side. They epitomize the first half of the verse from the love sonnet of Song of Songs [2:6], “His left hand under my head, His right hand embraces me.” The theme of this verse is similar to the rabbinic expression: “The left hand pushes away while the right hand draws close.”
As the verse indicates, a Jew’s service begins with the left side. Accordingly, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the days of awe and judgment (both of which are aspects of severity), come first in the cycle of Holy Days. On these days and the seven days in between we are introspective, analyzing the distance that has ensued as a result of poor judgment and inappropriate actions on our part. Subsequently, on Yom Kippur, we become more involved in regret for these shortcomings. Seeking purification from (hopefully) the very depths of our hearts, we make a firm resolution that from now on our sole aim and main endeavor will be to conduct our lives in a way that G-d would approve.
This period then gives way to the days of Sukkot when the closeness between man and G-d is re-established (“His right hand embraces me”)–the s’kach “hugs” us!. Pulling the lulav towards the heart after each waving–the same spot we tapped on the High Holy days during the Confessional prayers!–draws G-dliness into our hearts.
“Mechilah” (pardon) reaches its culmination in the act of “machol” (dancing) that is the highlight of Simchat Torah. The two together comprise a cycle and process whereby the Left Side of existence fuses with the Right Side, where the ebb and flow of distance and closeness meld in the mystical bond between G-d and His people.