Celebrating Simchat Torah

Celebrating Simchat Torah

The day that isn't really a day...

Simchat Torah is almost here.

Perhaps, though, because of the frivolity associated with it (vigorous dancing, singing, some horsing around, and in some shuls, even some drinking), most people who celebrate the day will know only in a vague way what it is they are celebrating. Or how the various parts of what they are doing on that day came about.

Sadly, though, most Jews will not be celebrating and probably will not even know that it is Simchat Torah, much less realize that there is a very important reason for it not to be ignored. That is a Jewish tragedy of epic proportions that, in a sense, Simchat Torah was meant to avoid.

So what is this
Simchat Torah?

Before the letter writers take to their keyboards, let me acknowledge that “Simchat Torah” does not actually exist as a separate festival on the Jewish calendar. This makes it difficult for Simchat Torah to be an important day of any kind. The words “simchat torah” (there are no capital letters in Hebrew) mean “celebration of the Torah.” In a sense, the “simchat torah” this Tuesday is a siyyum, a formal “completion” of a course of study of a Jewish text, a custom that goes back to talmudic times (the siyyum, not Simchat Torah, or the study of Jewish texts). In this case, the completed text is the Torah itself. On this day (whatever you choose to call it), we complete the annual cycle of Torah readings and immediately begin a new cycle (that last part for a reason that may surprise you, but more on that further down).

In Israel and in many Reform communities in the diaspora, this “simchat torah” takes place on Sh’mini Atzeret, or “Eighth Day of Assembly,” which for them also is the last day of the festival (although not necessarily of Sukkot, which probably ended on the seventh day, which we know today as Hoshanah Rabbah). This is in keeping with the Torah’s commandment:

“On the 15th day of this seventh month, there shall be the Festival of Sukkot…[to last] seven days. The first day shall be a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations….On the eighth day, you shall observe a sacred occasion….It is a solemn gathering [an atzeret], you shall not work at your occupations.” (See Leviticus 23:34-36.)

The rest of us observe a rabbinic-ordained ninth day and defer our Torah celebration until then. The day is referred to as Simchat Torah because it is somewhat awkward to call something the eighth day of anything, much less assembly, when the eighth day came and went the day before.

For the record, what we call Simchat Torah is referred to officially as Sh’mini Atzeret in the liturgy even though it is the ninth day; Simchat Torah is not the name of a day, but the name of an observance that is part of Sh’mini Atzeret.

The Talmud offers little help here. Its only reference to the day – not to the observance, about which it seems completely ignorant – is as “the next day,” which it says comes after the “last day of the festival,” which, of course, is not the last day of the festival because the next day is. That is clear, is it not? (Sure, I can hear you say, just as clear as how the “first day of the seventh month” can be called “the head of the year” [Rosh Hashanah]. See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Megillah 31a, where this is discussed.)

Party hearty –
but also know why

Okay, back to my original point: The meaning of the day and its importance are lost on almost everyone, probably because of the raucous nature of the celebration. So many are so intent on the hearty party that they give no thought to the why of it all.

Do not misunderstand me. The passionate celebrations of the Torah this coming Monday evening and Tuesday morning are to be applauded and participation in them encouraged, especially among our children and grandchildren, because Torah is the greatest inheritance we can pass on to them. It is vital, though, that people know what it is they are celebrating. Despite its name, Simchat Torah is not a celebration of the Torah; that is what Shavuot is about. Simchat Torah is a celebration of Jewish learning. It is a celebration of the study of Torah.

To understand this requires understanding why we read the Torah in public in the first place. It all begins with Deuteronomy 31:10-12, which mandates a public reading in front of the entire nation once every seven years during Sukkot. (The ceremony is known as the Hakhel, or “Gathering.”)

If ever an assemblage within the Temple precincts of every Israelite, regardless of gender and age, was possible, it became impossible once the First Temple was destroyed and the people of Judah (now including many former residents of the long-gone Kingdom of Israel) were dispersed to Babylon, Egypt, and elsewhere. After the exile ended, however, Ezra the Scribe (according to tradition, at least) mandated weekly public Torah readings, but with a twist.

The Torah emphasizes the need for the constant study of its text by the people (see, for example, Exodus 18:20, or Leviticus 10:11). In Deuteronomy 4:14, Moses reveals that God commanded him to do the teaching (he already told us he was doing just that in Chapter 1). This becomes a commandment he passes on to all future generations of leaders.

Teach Torah, not just read Torah; that is what Moses commanded and what Ezra apparently prescribed.

Meet the meturgaman

The weekly mandated public readings were accompanied by a consecutive translation done by a meturgaman, which means a translator. The person who was called up for an aliyah (person, not man; the Talmud makes clear that women were entitled to aliyot, although it recommends arbitrarily denying it to them so as not to embarrass the men in the pews; this would suggest that women indeed did get aliyot prior to that recommendation) would chant a verse or two from the scroll in a clear voice and proper cantillation. The meturgaman would listen to that reading (he was not permitted to have a written text of his own) and translate what he heard into the vernacular. This practice almost certainly can be traced to Ezra: As Nechemiah 8:8 reports, “So they read in the book in the Torah of God clearly, and gave the interpretation, so that they understood the reading.”

That last phrase is crucial here. It means that the public reading of the Torah was instituted as a way of teaching Torah each week to people who otherwise had little or no opportunity to study it. As such, the edict requiring the weekly readings served to fulfill both the Torah’s requirement of a public reading and its insistence on continuous study.

It is because of this dual mission that the reading of the Torah was meant to be done consecutively. How that was achieved over the course of each week was the subject of some debate. (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Megillah 31b.)

The meturgaman is long gone, as is the requirement that the person getting the aliyah also chant the aliyah. In most shuls across the streams, also gone is the notion that the Torah reading has anything to do with Torah study. The segment of the Shabbat morning service during which the Torah is read is considered “down time” by most congregants of every stream. It is time they use to discuss business matters with friends, or how a local sports franchise is doing, or what Jon Stewart or Steven Colbert said the other night. The Torah reading is nothing more than background noise that congregants do not even hear after a while.

Why the triennial cycle
isn’t a good idea

In too many non-Orthodox shuls, the importance of the Torah reading is diminished further by the adoption of a triennial cycle that is nothing of the kind really, and that violates the consecutive reading rule laid down in BT Megillah 31b. In the current system, the first third of every parashah is read the first year; the middle third in year two; and the final third in the final year. This was done to “save time” and to “streamline” the service, which only reinforced the notion that the Torah reading is less important, say, than the president’s announcements or the rabbi’s sermon.

The system prefers convenience over continuity. Thus, for example, in the first year of the cycle, Noah and his family are still on board the ark when God sends Abram off to Canaan. Here are the final verses of the triennial Year One reading for Noah and the opening verse for Lech L’cha, which theoretically is supposed to pick up from where the last parashah left off:

“In the 601st year, in the first month, on the first of the month, the waters began to dry from the earth; and when Noah removed the covering of the ark, he saw that the surface of the ground was drying. And in the second month, on the 27th day of the month, the earth was dry.

“The Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”

The disconnect is glaringly obvious. Compare that to the traditional end of Noah and beginning of Lech L’cha:

“Terach took his son Abram, his grandson Lot, the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Charan, they settled there. The days of Terah came to 205 years; and Terah died in Charan.

“The Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”

The ancient version of the triennial system, by the way, worked differently: The Torah readings began at Genesis 1 and was read straight through for the next three years – or even more desirable in those days, three and a half years (so that every seventh year, there would be a “simchat torah” to accompany the Hakhel). Continuity was maintained, but obviously there would have been no point to a yearly celebration of the simchat torah variety.

In fact, there likely was no such celebration until the sages of Babylonia won out over their Land of Israel counterparts and reduced the weekly Torah readings from three years to one. (The sages in Israel opposed such efforts mainly because they feared the longer readings on Shabbat would prove to be too burdensome for congregants. They opposed all kinds of accretions to services for that reason.) Certainly, there is no mention of a “simchat torah” celebration anywhere in the Babylonian Talmud, which also would suggest that the celebration came late even to Babylon.

What is certain is that the idea of starting all over again on the same day by returning to Genesis 1 came long after Simchat Torah began. Exactly when it made its debut (or where) is unknown, but the reason for it is known. It was designed to stop Satan (yes, that Satan) from maligning us.

Satan in our tradition is not some fallen angel out to destroy souls, and he is not ruler in some mythical hell. Rather, he is God’s appointed prosecutor. His job is to test people’s faith and report back to God. In this Simchat Torah iteration, he is either somewhat mean-spirited or clueless, to give him the benefit of the doubt.

If we just sang and danced our way through the end of the Torah – a bizarre thing to do in any case, since Moses’ death is recorded there and the book concludes without our reaching our goal of entering Canaan – Satan would be able to go up to God and accuse us of celebrating the fact that we never again would read from the Torah. (“Look how happy they are now that they are finally done with it.”) To thwart Satan, we end at the end and begin at the beginning, and only then do we dance and sing.

It is not the only pagan influence in Judaism. There are many examples – Tashlich, for example, or Yizkor (which will be recited in Ashkenazic synagogues on Monday, but not in Sephardi or Mizrachi congregations), or bowing to the Torah scrolls remaining in the ark so they will not be too upset that they were not chosen to be read.

Carrying the flag

Not pagan in origin are the flags children carry during the Simchat Torah circuits, known as hakafot. There are seven hakafot in all (they are either meant to remind us of the seven circuits Joshua made around Jericho before the walls came tumbling down, or they are meant to ward off evil spirits from interfering with the Torah in some way, which would make this another example of pagan influence). Each hakafah finds people carrying scrolls around in circles, and dancing with them as well. The children wanted to get involved as well, but they could not carry heavy scrolls. In the Ashkenaz of the early Middle Ages, therefore, someone got the idea that the children should carry “Simchat Torah flags,” which would be vicarious reminders of the standards that proceeded each of the 12 tribes when they were on the march. The children used to make and decorate their own flags. Some still do, but the ready-made ones are available in Judaica shops.

How jelly apples found their way into all of this is way beyond my pay grade. A wiser head will have to tackle that one.

Seriously, though, Simchat Torah is not about dancing and singing and jelly apples. It is about the one document that has kept the Jewish people alive and ever vital: the Torah.

It is not a day to ignore, or to go to work, or go shopping.

It is a day for all of us to dance with joy that a 3,500-year-old text that has been studied over and again from then until now still has secrets to share and lessons to teach, and that we are still interested in discovering those secrets and learning those lessons.

Chag sameach, even if Simchat Torah does not really exist as a day of its own, and may the devil take Satan!

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