This article is based on a dvar torah which appeared in Iyunei Shabbat, Shemini Atzeret-Simhat Torah 5761.
The Jewish people loves Simhat Torah. Even Jews who do not usually come to the synagogue every Shabbat, make an effort to come on Simhat Torah in order to dance and have an aliyah . This is not surprising. Simhat Torah is a spiritual and physical delight which allows Jews to rejoice and dance with body and soul. But Simhat Torah is much more than a day of joy and dancing. At second glance, it contains a number of deeper messages which are easy to miss amidst the enthusiasm of the holiday.
Love of Torah: First and foremost, Simhat Torah symbolizes the love of the Jewish people for its Torah. We are not only commanded to study Torah every day (Deut. 6) and to read the Torah in public on Shabbat, Mondays and Thursdays ( Mekhilta B’shalah , ed. Horowitz-Rabin, p. 154 and parallels), but for over one thousand years it has been our custom to dance with the Torah once a year. There are very few peoples in the world who dance with their sacred scriptures. (Similarly, Christians kiss St. Peter’s statue in St. Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican and Muslims kiss the Ka’ba at Mecca but Jews kiss a book, the Torah – cf. James Hastings, ed., Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics , Volume VII, p. 743, s.v. Kissing). Torah study ties us to the Torah intellectually and reading the Torah in public ties us to the Torah communally, but Simhat Torah ties us to the Torah physically and emotionally and that is a knot which cannot be undone.
The Cyclical Nature of Torah Study: Secondly, Simhat Torah symbolizes that Torah study has no beginning and no end. As we recite in the Arvit (evening) service every night: “for [the words of the Torah] are our lives and the length of our days; day and night shall we meditate upon them”. Rabbi David Abudraham explained this aspect of Simhat Torah in fourteenth-century Spain:
“And the reason we start again at Bereishit … just as we have merited to finish the Torah, so may we merit to begin her again”. (Abudraham Hashalem , p. 300 quoted by Avraham Ya’ari, Toledot Hag Simhat Torah , Jerusalem, 1964, p. 40).
The Democratic Nature of Torah Study: In addition, Simhat Torah symbolizes the fact that the Torah belongs to the entire people of Israel: scholars and laypeople; men, women and children. This idea was expressed in a number of Simhat Torah customs. In twelfth-century France, they began to read V’zot Haberakhah (the last Torah portion) many times “until the entire congregation had an aliyah “. (Mahzor Vitri p. 457 and Seder Trois p. 36 = Ya’ari, p. 92). In fourteenth-century Germany, they invented the kol hanearim aliyah so that all the children in the synagogue could have a collective aliyah. (Minhagei Maharil , ed. Shpitzer, p. 389 = Ya’ari, p. 161). In seventeenth-century Germany, they would honor the wives of the Hattan Torah and Hattan Bereishit – the men who had the last aliyah of the Torah and the first of Bereishit – with the title kallot and say to them: gut yontiff , kallah ! (Akiva Ben Ezra, Minhagei Haggim, Jerusalem-Tel Aviv, 1963, pp. 122-123 and cf. Ya’ari, p. 126). Indeed, many modern congregations continue this democratic trend on Simhat Torah and the entire congregation receives an Aliyah : men, women and children. (For a Hebrew responsum permitting aliyot for women, see David Golinkin, The Status of Women in Jewish Law : Responsa , Jerusalem, 2001, pp. 83-107 and the English summary, ibid. , pp. xxvi-xxxi. For a popular version of that responsum, see To Learn and To Teach , No. 2, The Schechter Institute, Jerusalem, December 2004, 27 pp. which lists some new bibliography on the subject. Interestingly enough, in many Modern Orthodox congregations’ women now receive aliyot on Simhat Torah in separate Torah readings for women).
The Development of Jewish Law: Finally, the Conservative Movement likes to emphasize that the halakhah developed from generation to generation and from country to country. (See David Golinkin, Halakhah for Our Time: A Conservative Approach to Jewish Law, New York, 1991, pp. 21-28). There is no better proof of this assertion than the holiday of Simhat Torah . A holiday which began in Babylonia in the tenth century spread to the entire Jewish world, with each ethnic group contributing new customs which were then absorbed by Kelal Yisrael (the collective Jewish people). The Jews of Babylonia invented the holiday and its name and began to dance on Simhat Torah. (See the responsa quoted by Rabbi Isaac Ibn Giyyat, Sha’arei Simhah , Part I, Furth, 1861, p. 117 = second edition, Jerusalem, 1998, pp. 159-160). In France, they added the Attah Horeita verses in the twelfth century. (Mahzor Vitri , p. 456 = Ya’ari, pp. 261-262). The Jews of Spain began to recite the beginning of Bereishit by heart at the beginning of the twelfth century (Rabbi Judah al-Barzeloni, Peirush L’sefer Yetzirah , Berlin, 1885, p. 166 = Ya’ari, p. 37). while the Jews of France instituted at that time that a Hattan Bereishit should read the beginning of Bereishit. (Mahzor Vitri , p. 458 = Ya’ari, p. 38). In Ashkenaz, they added a hakafah in the evening in the early fifteenth century (Minhagei R. Isaac Tyrna , ed. Shpitzer, p. 138 = Ya’ari, p. 263). while the Ari and his students in sixteenth-century Safed instituted that there should be seven hakafot around the bimah (R. Hayyim Vital, Sefer Hakavanot, Sha’ar 6 = Ya’ari, pp. 266-267).
In summary, Simhat Torah is not just a holiday of joy and dancing, but also symbolizes our love for the Torah, the cyclical nature of Torah study, the democratic nature of Torah study, and the development of Jewish law throughout the generations.
Prof. David Golinkin is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate the article, please contact Rabbi Golinkin at:firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.