Simḥat Torah

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SIMḤAT TORAH (Heb. שִׂמְחַת תּוֹרָה; lit. "rejoicing of the Torah"), the last day of the holy days begun by *Sukkot. In the Diaspora Simḥat Torah falls on the 23rd of Tishri, the second day of Shemini Aẓeret, the festival which concludes Sukkot. In Israel, it coincides with Shemini Aẓeret (22nd of Tishri; see *Festivals). On this festival, the annual reading of the Torah scroll is completed and immediately begun again. Simḥat Torah, as a separate festival, was not known during the talmudic period. In designating the haftarah for this day, the Talmud refers to it simply as the second day of Shemini Aẓeret (Meg. 31a). Similarly it is termed Shemini Aẓeret in the prayers and the Kiddush recited on this day. Its unique celebrations began to develop during the geonic period, when the one-year cycle for the reading of the Torah (as opposed to the *triennial cycle) gained wide acceptance.

The Talmud already specified the conclusion of the Torah as the portion for this day (i.e., Deut. 33–34; see Meg. 31a). The assignment of a new haftarah, Joshua, is mentioned in a ninth-century prayer book (Seder Rav Amram, 1 (Warsaw, 1865), 52a, but see Tos. to Meg. 31a). Later it also became customary to begin to read the Book of Genesis again on Simḥat Torah. This was done in order "to refute Satan" who might otherwise have claimed that the Jews were happy only to have finished the Torah, but were unwilling to begin anew (Tur, oh 669; cf. Sif. Deut. 33).

During the celebrations, as they continue to be observed by Orthodox and Conservative congregations, all the Torah scrolls are removed from the Ark and the bimah ("pulpit") is circled seven times (*hakkafot). All the men present are called to the Torah reading (aliyyot); for this purpose, Deuteronomy 33:1–29 is repeated as many times as necessary. All the children under the age of bar mitzvah are called for the concluding portion of the chapter; this aliyah is referred to as kol ha-ne'arim ("all the youngsters"). A tallit is spread above the heads of the youngsters, and the congregation blesses them with Jacob's benediction to Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen. 48:16). Those who are honored with the aliyyot which conclude and start the Torah readings are popularly designated as the ḥatan Torah and ḥatan Bereshit; they often pledge contributions to the synagogue and sponsor banquets for their acquaintances in honor of the event (see *Bridegrooms of the Law). In many communities similar ceremonies are held on Simḥat Torah eve: all the scrolls are removed from the Ark and the bimah is circled seven times. Some communities even read from the concluding portion of Deuteronomy during the evening service, the only time during the year when the Torah scroll is read at night (Sh. Ar., oh 669:1).

The Simḥat Torah festivities are accompanied by the recitation of special liturgical compositions, some of which were written in the late geonic period. The ḥatan Torah is called up by the prayer Me-Reshut ha-El ha-Gadol, and the ḥatan Bereshit by Me-Reshut Meromam. The return of the Torah scrolls to the Ark is accompanied by the joyful hymns "Sisu ve-Simḥu be-Simḥat Torah" and "Hitkabbeẓu Malakhim Zeh el Zeh." A central role in the festivities is allotted to children. In addition to the aliyah to the Torah, the children also participate in the Torah processions: they carry flags adorned with apples in which burning candles are placed. There have even been communities where children dismantled sukkot on Simḥat Torah and burned them (Darkhei Moshe to oh 669 n. 3 quoting Maharil).

Ḥasidim also hold Torah processions on Shemini Aẓeret eve. Reform synagogues observe these customs, in a modified form, on Shemini Aẓeret, which is observed as the final festival day. In Israel, where the second day of the festival is not celebrated, the liturgy and celebration of both days are combined. It has also become customary there for public hakkafot to be held on the night following Simḥat Torah, which coincides with its celebration in the Diaspora: in many cities, communities, and army bases, seven hakkafot are held with religious, military, and political personnel being honored with the carrying of the Torah scrolls.

[Aaron Rothkoff]

In the U.S.S.R.

Among Soviet Jewish youth seeking forms of expressing their Jewish identification, Simḥat Torah gradually became, during the 1960s, the occasion of mass gatherings in and around the synagogues, mainly in the great cities Moscow, Leningrad, Riga, and others. At these gatherings large groups of Jewish youth, many of them students, sang Hebrew and Yiddish songs, danced the hora, congregated and discussed the latest events in Israel, etc. In the beginning, the Soviet authorities tried to disperse these "unauthorized meetings," but when Jewish and western public opinion began to follow them, and press correspondents as well as observers from various foreign embassies began attending them, the authorities largely reverted their attitude and even instructed the militia to cordon off the synagogue areas and redirect traffic, so as not to cause clashes with the Jewish youngsters, whose numbers swelled rapidly in Moscow into the tens of thousands. In many cities in the West, notably in Israel, England, the United States, and Canada, Simḥat Torah was declared by Jewish youth as the day of "solidarity with Soviet Jewish youth," and mass demonstrations were staged voicing demands to the Soviet authorities for freedom of Jewish life and the right of migration to Israel.

The Simḥat Torah Flag

Among the customs of Simḥat Torah, the object associated most with the holiday, at least in the world of children, is undoubtedly the ornamental flag known in Hebrew as degel Simḥat Torah, made of paper or cardboard, printed with rich and colorful pictures reflecting the meaning of the holiday. Until some years ago flags were customarily attached to coarse wooden sticks topped by apples, hollowed out and filled with a burning candle.

While it is not known when and where this custom originated, it is certainly an Ashkenazi minhag, especially popular in eastern Europe. The earliest known source mentioning such a flag is found in the enactments (Takkanot) issued in 1672 by Polish Jews who settled in Amsterdam. From this document it is evident that the custom originated earlier. The German Hebraist Johann *Bodenschatz describes the custom in his book Kirchliche Verfassung der heutigen Juden (Erlang, 1748): "They [the children] hold onto their flags upon which is inscribed 'standard of the camp' and the names of the tribes. They march as if they were soldiers."

Extant Torah flags from 19th-century eastern Europe are decorated by representations of Ḥasidim dancing with Torah scrolls, sukkah building, and biblical scenes and figures, and the deer and lion with the saying, "Be swift as a deer and strong as a lion" (Pirkei Avot 5:20). Later, the images included Zionist heroes and slogans. The custom has continued to the present day, adopting new symbols and heroes associated with the State of Israel but keeping the more traditional designs as well.

[Shalom Sabar (2nd ed.)]


aa. Yaari, Toledot Hag Simḥat Torah (1964); S. Zevin, Ha-Mo'adim ba-Halakhah (19597), 135–41; E. Wiesel, The Jews of Silence (1966). add. bibliography: R. Arbel (ed.), Blue and White in Color: Visual Images of Zionism, 18971947 (1997); P. Goodman (ed.), The Simhat Torah Anthology (1973), 127–28; A. Kanof, Jewish Ceremonial Art and Religious Observance (1969?), 156–57; A. Ya'ari, Toledot Ḥag Simḥat Torah: Hishtalshelut Minhagav bi-Tefuẓot Yisrael le-Dorotehen (1964); R. Wischnitzer-Bernstein, Gestalten und Symbole der jüdischen Kunst (1935), 112.

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