At our synagogue, we have a practice that takes place during the Ne’ilah service at the end of Yom Kippur. We line up at the bimah and – individually, in pairs, as families – stand in front of the open ark for a moment of silent reflection in the presence of the Torah scrolls. Many congregants kiss or touch one or more of the sifrei Torah. I found myself stroking the creamy velvet of their mantles, looking forward to Simchat Torah, when I plan to embrace each scroll and dance with it.
Simchat Torah (“joy of Torah”) is, as its name suggests, a holiday of almost unalloyed rejoicing. Simchat Torah isn’t mentioned in the Bible; it’s an extension of the mandate to have an eighth day of assembly and rest at the end of Sukkot. Because it isn’t biblically mandated, I think of Simchat Torah as one of the holidays shaped not by God, but by the people who celebrate it, making it one of the more human-centered observances on the Jewish calendar.
The evolution of Simchat Torah’s rituals has taken place over many centuries. The most important feature of the holiday, reading the end of the book of Deuteronomy and immediately beginning the Torah cycle again with the story of Creation from Genesis, didn’t happen all at once: The Mishnah, in the second century c.e., established the practice of reading the last two chapters of the Torah on the eighth day of Sukkot, but the addition of the reading from Genesis didn’t come until after the 12th century. The tradition of rejoicing on Simchat Torah dates from the early medieval period, and the name of the holiday was attached even later.
The essential, earthy humanity of Simchat Torah is seen in its treatment of the Torah scroll, which is personified as a bride and is still dressed in its white clothes for the High Holy Days. On Simchat Torah, we don’t just touch a tallit fringe to the sefer Torah: We grab it, squeeze it, cradle it, pass it from one set of embracing arms to another, dance with it as we sing and shout. Although the rejoicing is over the wisdom contained within the Torah, a Simchat Torah celebration isn’t about study. On Simchat Torah, the Torah scroll is a shared object of love.
Simchat Torah is also one of the most inclusive Jewish holidays. From the days of the Sages, women were always meant to be part of the assembly hearing the conclusion of the Torah reading. So were children, and traditionally Simchat Torah is the one time of the year that children under 13 are called to the Torah for their own aliyah. Because it isn’t about study, you don’t have to have a lot of Jewish education or background to get everything you can out of the holiday. On Simchat Torah, the Torah scroll symbolizes each one of us even as it symbolizes what ties all of us together as a community.
I encourage you on Simchat Torah (or any other occasion) to get up close and personal with a Torah scroll and experience this holiday with all your senses. Look at the lettering in the scroll: Is it sharp black or faded brown against the parchment? Breathe in the muskiness of the animal skin the words are written on; touch it to feel how different it is from paper. Listen to the words of Torah, the rustle of flags, the joyous songs, the stomp of dancing feet. The only thing you can’t do with the Torah is taste it. That’s what the wine and snacks and schnapps are for. Have fun!