Sh’mini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are celebrated and offer a fun-filled day marking the completion of the annual reading of the Torah which reaffirms the Torah as a pillar that we build our lives on. This celebration takes place immediately after the end of Sukkot. Taken from the ark, the Torah scrolls are carried or even danced seven times around the synagogue as part of the celebration.
During this procession, also known as hakafot, those who are not carrying Torahs may sing Hebrew songs and wave brightly colored flags which show a commitment to lifelong Jewish learning as well as the collective joy that comes with the study of the Torah. At this service, two sections of the Torah are read, the ending section of the fifth book, D’varim more commonly known as Deuteronomy and the beginning section of Genesis, or as it is known in Hebrew, B’reishit is read immediately after. The Jewish people’s relationship with the Torah is represented in this recurrent practice.
History of Sh’mini Atzeret and Simchat Torah
With the ending of Sukkot, days in the Jewish calendar become special days. These days are known as Sh’mini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.
Defined as, “eighth-day convocation” in Hebrew, Sh’mini Atzeret is the name of the eighth day during Sukkot. In biblical times, the Jewish people would observe Sukkot for seven days. In Leviticus 23:26, we are told: “On the eighth day you shall observe a holy convocation.” To those ancient Jews, this eight-day came after Simchat Torah. This is similar to how Othrodox, Conservative, and many Reform Jews view the eighth day as it occurs on the last day of the Simchat Torah festival.
Originally used as a time for reflection after the holy days of Sukkot had just ended, Sh’mini Atzeret allowed those Jewish people who had occupied booths during Sukkot to be part of a final day to pray before returning to their regular lives. In keeping with the agricultural design of the Simchat Torah, this final day also allowed a special prayer for rain to occur in the coming year and was made part of Sh’mini Atzeret over time. While it is traditionally a festival all its own known as the “Rejoicing in the Torah”, the eighth day of Sukkot is observed at the same time as Simchat Torah as one day of the holiday instead of two in Reform congregations.
Celebrating both the beginning and the end of the yearly reading of the Torah, the Simchat Torah begins with the reading of the fifth book of the Torah, known as Deuteronomy. As we come to the end, the first book of the Torah, Genesis is read as we start over again.
The 9th day following the start of Sukkot didn’t have the associated name or festival that is now known as Simchat Torah until the 11th century and it was not always associated with the one-year cycle of reading the Torah. The Jewish people would practice the reading of the Torah on a three-year cycle, more commonly known as triennially in ancient Palestine. Customary to the Jewish community in Babylon, they would follow a one-year cycle and variations would continue till about the 8th century when the majority of the Jewish people started to practice the annual system. The annual observance of Simchat Torah didn’t begin until the different practices of the Torah reading were resolved.
Only one day during Sh’mini Atzeret is there observance of Simchat Torah in Israel, for most Israelis, it is considered to just be another day of the Sukkot vacation. On the night after Simchat Torah, many public celebrations are held in many tows. These events, which are known as hakafot shniyot, or second processions, are full of dancing and singing meant to be simulations of the Simchat Torah using electronic equipment and professional musicians. These “reruns” of Simchat Torah lift any restrictions or wardrobe that are associated with the Jewish religion and make it accessible to the public so that the festival, which can be quite popular and can draw a crowd can be enjoyed by everyone.
Customs and Rituals of Simchat Torah
The customs typically associated with Simchat Torah present a symbolic message that emphasizes how much of a prized possession the Torah is for the Jewish people. It not only links the Jewish people across generations but also is a physical representation of our heritage and history. At the end of reading each book of the Torah, words recited help to inspire us and also help represent this history: Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik. This translates to “Be strong, be strong, and we will strengthen each other”. This helps the living Judaism continue to build through the practices of study, action, and commitment.
During hakafot, those not involved with carrying the Torah will traditionally wave brightly colored flags and sings songs in Hebrew. The history behind this practice and how it began is not clear. There are some scholars who feel that the practice of marching with the flags represents the 12 ancient tribes of Israel, each of which had their own banner. Others that this practice has Christian tones to it and began in the Middle Ages.
The focal point of the celebration of the Simchat Torah is the Torah service itself. The Torah is opened by either a rabbi, cantor, or member of the congregation and the last section of the fifth book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, will be read. After that has been completed, the opening section from the first book of the Torah, Genesis will then be read by a second person. The ending of the fifth book tells about the death and the legacy of Moses, who was a prophet and leader of the Jewish people. Genesis, or B’reishit, are the first words of the Torah and tells the story of the creation of the world by God.
On Simchat Torah, a practice that occurs in many synagogues is to have each member of the congregation to recite a blessing before and after the Torah is read. This is known as an aliyah and some may choose to call the children who have not reached their bar or bar mitzvah ages as of yet to the Torah to receive a blessing from the rabbi while a tallit or prayer shawl is spread above their heads and they stand in front of the rest of the congregation. Simchat Torah can also be a time that children who are just entering religious school receive a blessing in Reform synagogues. This practice is known as consecration.