Simchat Torah

Simchat Torah is an extra-biblical holiday. Even though it has been celebrated for more than a thousand years, the form of celebration we know today came about in the eleventh century.

Even though it is not a holiday specifically mentioned in the Bible, it is connected to Shemini Azteret, the eighth day celebrated after Sukkot. Shemini means eighth and Atzeret means assembly. The Scriptures declare that a holy convocation or assembly is to be called on the eighth day. In Israel Simchat Torah is celebrated on Shemini Atzeret. Only in the Diaspora is a ninth and separate day added for celebrating this holiday.

Some feel that this holiday brings the seven days of Sukkot to “its state of perfection.” This is based on the fact that the number eight symbolizes perfection or bringing to completion. Thus the brit milah (circumcision) is performed on the eighth day as an act of completion. In the same way Shemini Atzeret brings completion to the celebration of Sukkot. Others have indicated that this is a day for the Jewish people and G-d. Sukkot is a holiday in which all nations will participate. And the offerings of the seventy bulls over the course of the seven days are interpreted to be on behalf of the nations. “But on Shmini Atzeret, G-d says to the Jewish People, ‘All the guests have gone home now. Stay with me yet another day, and we will celebrate together, just you and I’.”

Simchat Torah means rejoicing of the Torah. It is of course a most festive and joyous holiday. This is a holiday that is strictly celebrated in the synagogue. There are not a lot of traditions about home celebration. It is a time for the community to rejoice in the giving of G-d’s word.

Simchat Torah marks the end of the Torah reading cycle. The Torah is ready every Monday, Thursday and Shabbat in the synagogue. It used to take three years to read through the Torah because the portions were much smaller. Some Jewish people still observe this tradition. The current cycle of reading was developed while the Jewish people were in Babylon. Larger portions were read each week so that the Torah could be read through in an entire year.

This holiday is similar to Purim in terms of the joy and atmosphere of the day. The scrolls are taken from the ark and paraded around the synagogue seven times. These processions are called hakafot. After each procession there should be much singing and dancing.

At Ma’ariv (the evening service) on Simchat Torah eve, the congregation recites “Ata Horeita” – a series of verses praising God and the Torah. This prayer means, “You have been shown”. It tells how G-d revealed Himself at Mt. Sinai to the Jewish people, speaks of G-d’s uniqueness, and emphasizes our reliance on Him for our final redemption

The ark is opened and all the Torah scrolls are removed. The service leader holds a Torah and recites a prayer, with the refrain “Hoshia Na” Please Save Us.

The other people holding the Torah scrolls follow the leader as he circles the synagogue. Kids carry flags. People kiss the Torah scrolls as they come by.

After the procession has completed an entire hakafah, there is a song and dance of joy. When the hakafah is complete the Torah scrolls are given to different people and the procession starts again with the recital of “Hoshia Na” until seven hakafot are completed. Some say the seven hakafot represent the seven times Joshua circled the walls of Jericho.

After the final hakafah, all the Torah scrolls except for one put in the ark. Parts of the closing portion, VeZot HaBracha are read, except for the last few lines. The Torah is returned and the service is concluded.

In the morning service, the congregation joins once again in parading the Torah scrolls around. After the seven hakafot three Torah scrolls are left out. From the first Torah Scroll, the last five sections, called aliyot in Hebrew, of VeZot HaBracha, the last portion of the Torah, are read. It is customary for all congregants to read from the Torah. To facilitate this, these aliyot may be read a few times.

In some synagogues children under age thirteen are called up for the fifth aliyah. A large tallit is held high over their heads and they repeat the blessing over the Torah with the Rabbi.

On Simchat Torah the last and the first portions of the Torah are read. This symbolizes that the cycle of learning G-d’s word never ends.

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