Why observe Simchat Torah?
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Why observe Simchat Torah?

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Simchat Torah is finally 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.

Sadly, most people who will not be celebrating probably will not even know that it is Simchat Torah, much less realize that there is a 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.

Keeping the faith – On religious perspective on issues of the day 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 it 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 weekend is a siyyum, a formal completion of a course of study of a Jewish text, which has been seen as a cause for celebration since talmudic times. In this case, the completed text is the Torah itself. On this day (whatever day that is), we complete the annual cycle of Torah readings and immediately begin a new cycle.

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 is also the last day of the festival (although not necessarily of Sukkot, which probably was over the day before). This is in keeping with the Torah’s commandment: “On the fifteenth 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 celebration until then. We call it Simchat Torah because it is somewhat awkward to call something the eighth day of anything when the eighth day was here and gone. (What we call Simchat Torah is nevertheless referred to as Sh’mini Atzeret in the liturgy for the day.)

Okay, so back to my 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 weekend are to be applauded, and participation in them encouraged – especially among our youth. 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 Shavuot. 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.

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 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, a commandment he passes on to all future generations of leaders.

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 would read a verse or two from the scroll in a clear voice and proper trope. 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. (See the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Megillah 31b.)

The meturgaman is long gone, as is the requirement that the person getting the aliyah must 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 will happen to David Letterman. The Torah reading is nothing more than background noise that one does not even hear after a while.

In too many non-Orthodox shuls, the importance of the Torah reading is further diminished by the adoption of a triennial cycle that really is not anything of the kind 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 at least partially expendable.

God willing and events permitting, in my next column I will review some new books that will help readers study the weekly Torah portions on their own. Meanwhile, dance up a storm this weekend. Torah study deserves a party.

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