Simhat Torah


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Simhat Torah (Festival of Rejoicing in the Law)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Jewish)
Date of Observation: Between September 28 and October 26; twenty-third day of Tishri
Where Celebrated: Europe, Israel, United States, and by Jews all over the world
Symbols and Customs: Candles or Flags, Hakafot, Torah
Related Holidays: Shemini Aztaret, Sukkot

ORIGINS

The holiday Simhat Torah is part of Judaism, one of the oldest continuously observed religions in the world. Its history extends back beyond the advent of the written word. Its people trace their roots to a common ancestor, Abraham, and then back even farther to the very moment of creation.

According to Jewish belief, the law given to the Jewish people by God contained everything they needed to live a holy life, including the ability to be reinterpreted in new historical situations. Judaism, therefore, is the expression of the Jewish people attempting to live holy (set apart) lives in accordance with the instructions given by God. Obedience to the law is central to Judaism, but there is no one central authority. Sources of divine authority are God, the Torah, interpretations of the Torah by respected teachers, and tradition. Religious observances and the study of Jewish law are conducted under the supervision of a teacher called a rabbi.

There are several sects within Judaism. Orthodox Judaism is characterized by an affirmation of the traditional Jewish faith, strict adherence to customs such as keeping the Sabbath, participation in ceremonies and rituals, and the observance of dietary regulations. Conservative Jewish congregations seek to retain many ancient traditions but without the accompanying demand for strict observance. Reform Judaism stresses modern biblical criticism and emphasizes ethical teachings more than ritualistic observance. Hasidism is a mystical sect of Judaism that teaches enthusiastic prayer as a means of communion with God. The Reconstructionist movement began early in the twentieth century in an effort to "reconstruct" Judaism with the community rather than the synagogue as its center.

Simhat Torah, which follows SUKKOT, celebrates the annual completion of the public reading of the Jewish holy book known as the TORAH , which consists of the first five books of the Old Testament. In Hebrew, Simhat Torah means "rejoicing in the law," since the Torah is often referred to as "the Law" of the Jewish faith.

Unlike other major Jewish holidays, Simhat Torah is of relatively recent origin. The observance was established in Western Europe around the eleventh century. In ancient times, the public reading of the Torah took place on a three-year cycle, and it wasn't until the fourteenth century that the custom of reading the beginning of the Torah immediately after its completion was made official. To be chosen as the "Bridegroom of the Law," who reads the final verses of the last book (Deuteronomy), or the "Bridegroom of the Beginning," who reads the opening verses of the first book (Genesis), is considered a great honor. After the final portion has been read and special prayers have been recited, members of the congregation take the scrolls in their arms and dance in circles around the synagogue (see HAKAFOT ).

In Israel and among Reform Jews, this festival is observed on the twenty-second day of Tishri, concurrently with Shemini Aztaret (see SUKKOT). All other Jews celebrate Simhat Torah separately on the twenty-third day. Israelis also hold a second HAKAFOT or procession around the synagogue on the night after Simhat Torah, frequently accompanied by bands and choirs.

Simhat Torah customs have varied from country to country. In Afghanistan, all the scrolls are taken out of their Arks and heaped in a pyramid that reaches almost to the synagogue's roof. In Cochin, China, a carpet was traditionally laid on the courtyard flagstones, coconut oil lamps were stacked up in a pyramid in front of the synagogue entrance, and the Scrolls of the Law were carried around the outside of the synagogue. One synagogue in Calcutta, India, has fifty scrolls, and the women go from scroll to scroll, kissing them. Young Yemeni children are taken to the synagogue for the first time on this holiday.

In southern France, two mourners stand on either side of the reader, crying bitterly as the death of Moses is related. The Bridegroom of the Law in Holland is escorted home in a torchlight parade accompanied by music. A crown was placed on the head of every reader in medieval Spain, and in some places in Eastern Europe the reader wore a large paper hat decorated with bells and feathers.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Candles or Flags

The procession in which the scrolls of the TORAH are carried around the synagogue is usually led by children waving flags and carrying poles topped by scooped-out apples in which candles have been inserted. These candles are considered symbolic of the Law or Torah itself, which is said to "enlighten the eyes." Simhat Torah

In former times, the children leading the procession around the synagogue carried dried willow branches left over from SUKKOT and used them as torches. Concern for their safety prompted rabbis to prohibit this practice and ask children to substitute small candles. But some rabbis considered any form of fire unsafe and replaced the candles with flags topped with apples or beets in which candles have been inserted before being lighted, or flags topped with candles that remain unlit. During the eighteenth century, special Simhat Torah flags were introduced for the purpose of making the holiday more fun for children and encouraging their participation. These flags often display the Hebrew words meaning "Flag of the camp of Judah."

Hakafot

The highlight of the evening service held on Simhat Torah is the series of seven ceremonial processions around the synagogue in which people take turns carrying the Torah scrolls. Known as hakafot or "encirclements," the custom is designed to be an expression of joy. A similar custom characterizes the traditional Jewish wedding, which includes walking seven times around the bridal couple in order to "close the circle" and protect the bride and groom from the demons believed to be hovering around them. The service held in the synagogue on Simhat Torah is really an imitation of the Jewish wedding service, symbolizing the "marriage" of Israel to the Law.

As a part of the Simhat Torah celebration, the hakafot custom began in the late sixteenth century, probably as an adaptation of the procession that already took place on SUKKOT with palm and willow branches. In Israel, where the celebration of Simhat Torah often continues well into the night, there is often a public hakafot with bands, singing, and dancing in public squares.

Torah

The Jewish holy book is divided into three parts: (1) the Torah (The Law); (2) the Nevi'im (The Prophets); and (3) the Ketuvim (The Writings). While all three are considered sacred, it is the Torah that receives the most reverence. It consists of the first five books of the Old Testament in the Christian Bible, written by Moses and often referred to as the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

The essential element and symbol of Simhat Torah, the Torah scroll is made of parchment (from the hides of kosher animals) attached at each end to a wooden roller. The scribe who copies the Torah onto the parchment, using a quill from a kosher bird and special black ink, cannot make a mistake when writing any words that refer to God or he must throw away the entire sheet. Mistakes in any other words can be erased with a pumice stone. After he has finished writing on the parchment, the sheets are sewn together with special threads made from the foottendons of a kosher animal.

The rollers are usually topped with silver ornaments called rimonim, which is Hebrew for "pomegranates"-perhaps a reference to their original form. When the Torah is rolled up, it is put inside an embroidered silk or velvet cover for protection, usually topped by an ornamental silver crown. A silver breastplate or hoshen is hung by chains on the cover of the Torah and decorated with pictures of various Jewish motifs. A silver pointer (yad), usually in the shape of a hand with one finger extended, is used while reading the Torah because the parchment may not be touched.

FURTHER READING

Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Cashman, Greer Fay. Jewish Days and Holidays. New York: SBS Pub., 1979. Christianson, Stephen G., and Jane M. Hatch. The American Book of Days. 4th ed. New York: H.W. Wilson, 2000. Cohen, Hennig, and Tristram Potter Coffin. The Folklore of American Holidays. 3rd ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1999. Crim, Keith R. The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989. Gaer, Joseph. Holidays Around the World. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953. Gaster, Theodor H. Festivals of the Jewish Year. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1953. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Renberg, Dalia Hardof. The Complete Family Guide to Jewish Holidays. New York: Adama Books, 1985.

WEB SITE

Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America www.ou.org/chagim/shmini-simchat Simhat Torah

Simhat Torah

Between September 28 and October 26; Tishri 22 or 23
This Jewish holiday, which follows Sukkot, celebrates the annual completion of the public reading of the Torah, or the first five books of the Bible, and the beginning of a new reading cycle. The hand-lettered scrolls of the Torah are removed from the Ark (a box-like container) and paraded around the synagogue—and sometimes through the streets—amidst singing and dancing. Simhat Torah means "rejoicing in the law," which is as good a description as any of what takes place on this day. To be chosen as the Bridegroom of the Law—to read the final verses of the last book, Deuteronomy—or the Bridegroom of the Beginning—to read the opening verses of the first book, Genesis—is considered a great honor.
In Israel and among Reform Jews, this festival is observed on the 22nd day of Tishri, concurrently with Shemini Atzeret; all other Jews celebrate it separately on the 23rd day. Israelis also hold a second hakkafot ("procession around the synagogue") on the night after Simhat Torah, frequently accompanied by bands and choirs.
Simhat Torah customs have varied from country to country. In Afghanistan all the scrolls are taken out of their Arks and heaped in a pyramid almost to the synagogue's roof. In Cochin, China, a carpet was laid on the courtyard flagstones, coconut oil lamps were heaped in a pyramid in front of the synagogue entrance, and the scrolls of the Law carried around the outside of the synagogue. One synagogue in Calcutta, India, has 50 scrolls, and the women go from scroll to scroll, kissing them. At the end of the holiday a Simhat Torah ball is held and a beauty queen chosen. Young Yemeni children are taken to the synagogue for the first time on this holiday.
In southern France, two mourners stand on either side of the reader, crying bitterly as the death of Moses is related. The Bridegrooms of the Law in Holland are escorted home in a torchlight parade accompanied by music. A crown from one of the Torah scrolls was placed on the head of every reader in medieval Spain, and in some places in eastern Europe, the reader wore a large paper hat decorated with bells and feathers.
CONTACTS:
Union for Reform Judaism
633 Third Ave.
New York, NY 10017
212-650-4000; fax: 212-650-4169
www.urj.org
Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America
11 Broadway
New York, NY 10004
212-563-4000; fax: 212-564-9058
www.ou.org
SOURCES:
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 710
BkFest-1937, p. 204
BkHolWrld-1986, Oct 11
DictWrldRel-1989, pp. 155, 693
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 407
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 592
HolSymbols-2009, p. 834
OxYear-1999, p. 726
References in periodicals archive ?
Simhat Torah, known as "Rejoicing in the Torah," is a lively celebration in which the Torah is paraded around the synagogue seven times.
A friend of his had encountered it in a prayer book for Sukkot and Simhat Torah.
4) This custom probably echoes the way the Torah was read during the ministry of Ezra throughout the festival of Sukkoth (Nehemiah 7: 73; 8: 14-18), perhaps also echoing the way that the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish was recited during the course of the akitu or New Year Festival, and certainly foreshadowing the way that in the Annual Cycle the Torah reading is concluded on Simhat Torah, Rejoicing of the Torah, the last day of this festival.