Dancing with the Torah: Simchat Torah

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

CHAPTER V: From Seasons of Our Joy

(Beacon, 1990)

S h'mini Atzeret teaches us to put seeds of Yod, of new life, quietly underground, there to hibernate until the spring. But it is hard to wait. We need some proof of new life now. So Sh'mini Atzeret also carries within itself the proof of the flowering. On the second day of the festival we turn from the natural world to the Torah — and behold, its end leads at once to its beginning!

About ten centuries ago, the second day of Sh'mini Atzeret was turned into Simchat Torah — a special holy day of joy in the Torah. It celebrates the completion of the annual cycle for reading the Torah — the Five Books of Moses — and it is when we start afresh to read the beginning of the Torah.

If this were all there was to it, it would be enough to see Simchat Torah as the festival of end-and-beginning. But there is more: the content of this end and this beginning underscore the lesson. For at the end of the Five Books is the death of Moses our Teacher; and at the beginning is the Creation of the World. So Simchat Torah acts out by public proclamation what Sh'mini Atzeret preaches as an underlying fact of life: that from seeming death comes profound new energy for birth.

There is also a sense in which the emphasis on Torah underscores the Sh'mini Atzeret lesson of the uses of contraction, inwardness. The rabbis saw that the ceremonial expansiveness of Sukkot was suddenly reduced: no sukkah, no lulav, no water pouring, no beating of the willows-only students reading the black ink on white parchment. No resplendent Temple, no pomp of sacrifices, no widespread Land of Israel. Only the portable Torah and the tiny territory of self-determination that clings tightly around each observant Jewish body-the four ells of the halachic process-remain as God's contact with us. And this is enough-for inwardness can flower.

In mood as well, Simchat Torah is a way of proving what Sh'mini Atzeret preaches: that profound meditation, inwardness, even tears, lead not to depression but to jubilation. We dance with the Torah scrolls, children are called to the Torah and carry flags and banners, there is exalted frenzy in the synagogue.


In Talmudic times, the second day of Sh'mini Atzeret was treated much like the first. The Torah reading for the day, however, was the last two chapters of Deuteronomy — embracing the death of Moses. But this was not because the Torah reading cycle ended then — for at that time a great part of the Jewish people read the Five Books of Moses in a three-year cycle ending in the third year just before the month of spring and Passover.

Instead, the passage of Moses' death was evidently chosen because it was felt appropriate to the wintry spirit of Sh'mini Atzeret. There may even have been a hint that if in the history of the first years of freedom for the people of Israel, Pesach represented the Exodus from Egypt, Shavuot the giving of the Torah at Sinai, and Sukkot the period of sojourning in the wilderness, then Sh'mini Atzeret represented the time of Moses' death.

As for the Prophetic haftarah assigned by the Talmud for the second day of Sh'mini Atzeret, it was a passage from I Kings 8, close to the passages read on Sukkot and the first day of Sh'mini Atzeret. In it Solomon prays during the dedication of the Temple. Among other prayers, he asks God to forgive the people and send rain even if they should sin and God be inclined to shut up the founts of heaven.

It is perhaps this passage that seemed especially appropriate for Sh'mini Atzeret.

But during the next period of Jewish history, the second day of Sh'mini Atzeret became Simchat Torah, a distinctive holy day. That happened while the geonim — leading rabbinic scholars of the Babylonian Diaspora, from the 6th to the 11th century — were respected and followed by the whole Jewish world. Under the leadership of the geonim, an annual cycle for reading the Torah became the custom of almost all Jews.

The geonim developed the special celebration of Simchat Torah, defining it as the end of reading the Torah in the new one-year cycle. They also redefined the haftarah as the first portion of the Book of Joshua, which in an historical sense continues the story from Moses' death. And later they decided that the cycle should not only end on Simchat Torah but begin there as well, with the reading of Genesis I.

In mood, Simchat Torah has become the modem equivalent of the joy of the water pouring celebration that in Temple days characterized the first day of Sukkot. The children of Israel dance and sing, and create special ceremonials for honoring and reading the Torah.


The special celebration of Torah begins in the evening after the first day of Sh'mini Atzeret. In many congregations there have been celebrations all afternoon, in which the various circles of the burial society, the tzedakah collective, the Talmud-study group, etc., have all had meals and parties. Everyone is brimful of good spirits — and many, of real schnapps. So by the time of evening and the Maariv service, the congregation is often a little tipsy.

After Maariv, the congregation takes all the Torah scrolls it owns out of the Ark, in order to do seven hakkafot, or circlings with them. (Some communities then light a candle in the empty Ark so that the light of Torah should not go dark there.) In the hakkafot, the scrolls are carried by dancing congregants around the raised pulpit area or around the prayer hall — or even around the building itself, with excursions into the streets.

The actual carrying of the scrolls is shared among all the congregants. Even in synagogues where women are traditionally segregated, on Simchat Torah they are welcomed into the main sanctuary, there to touch and kiss the Torah scrolls. And children join in the processions — often carrying flags with an apple impaled on the flagpole and a candle burning in the apple. (Perhaps this is a displaced version of the burning torches the Levites used to juggle at the water pouring celebrations in Jerusalem?)

The seven hakkafot provided Kabbalists with an opportunity to see in Simchat Torah a microcosm and a unification of the seven days of Sukkot. We have described in Chapter III how seven guests came day by day to the Sukkah to represent the seven S'phirot or aspects, emanations, of God. On Simchat Torah, these seven turn into the seven circlings of the Torah. And since these circlings take place not on seven different days but within one day, Simchat Torah is the time when the seven S'phirot fuse into Unity, show that they are in fact emanations of the Holy One.

For this reason, the seven hakkafot have long been associated with the seven lower S'phirot, those emanations from God that make tangible contact with the world. In recent years some congregations have been developing a practice whereby the forms and rhythms of the seven dances, the melodies used for each one, the stories to be told, colors of banners — all are differentiated, each tuning in to one of the S'phirot so that in the very bones and muscles of the Torah-dancers the various aspects of God are acted out. Thus the gentle and flowing rhythms of Chesed, Loving-kindness, are quite different from the strong and stately rhythms of Gevurah, Power. (For more details on the S'phirot, see Chapters III and XI.)

For this to work, grouplets of the congregation have to be asked in advance to wrestle with each of the S'phirot and to plan a dance, a melody, a color for each one.

While the differences from hakkafah to hakkafah are acted out, the hakkafot are also tied together with a continuing thread of prayer. As each one is danced, the dancers sing:

Ana Adonai, hoshi-a-na; ana Adonai, hatzlicha-na, ana Adonai, aneynu-b'yom kareynu.

Lord, please save us! Lord, please prosper us! Lord, please answer on the day that we cry out.

Between the repetitions of this pleading chorus there march in alphabetic procession the verses that address God, from aleph to tof, as Aid of the desperate, Bearer of righteousness, Cleanser of hearts, Defender of the fallen.

So not only the Torah as a whole but the letters that comprise her, not only the Holy One as a Unity but the S'phirot that emanate from Him — the whole of the Creation and the whole of the Creator-are brought together for redemption.

After the dancing, all but one of the Torah scrolls are returned to the Ark, and the congregation reads the last two chapters of Deuteronomy, dealing with the death of Moses. It is the only Torah passage that is read at night, and the only one never read on Shabbos. Aside from the practicalities, perhaps this has to do with the relationship between night, sleep, and death — and with an unwillingness to recount the death of Moses on Shabbos.

Next morning that passage is reread and the first chapter of Genesis, dealing with the seven days of Creation, is added. In many modem American congregations, both passages — the whole end-and-beginning — are read in the evening, probably out of the experience that many fewer congregants will come in the morning if Simchat Torah falls on a workday.

The haftarah from the Book of Joshua describes Joshua's accession to the leadership of Israel, after Moses' death, and his preparations for crossing over the River Jordan into the Land of Israel.

Thus the readings reassert the cycle of death-into-life at two levels: the cosmic level in which Moses' death leads straight to the creation of the world, and the historical level in which it leads straight to new leadership and the beginning of a new task. We are being taught, as it were: "The building of a new society is like the creation of a new world."

On Simchat Torah, the Torah dancing begins with the physical dance with physical scrolls; but the dancing mood is then extended into the process of reading the Torah. The reading takes a playful turn, one in which the text itself is tossed from reader to reader as ballet dancers might toss one of themselves. The whole congregation — even those usually left on the fringes — gets involved.

Not just a few people, as on any normal festival, are called up to read from the Torah — but every eligible adult. This is usually accomplished by having the first two-thirds of the Deuteronomy passage read over and over, as many times as necessary; but in some congregations, all the adults are called up together, as a kahal, and in still others, zany subgroups — all firstborns and then all others, for instance — are called up.

The aliyot are extended not only to all the adults who might usually be bypassed, but even to all the children — kol ha-n'arim — under the age of bar and bat mitzvah. They are called up with a prayer shawl spread above them so as to encompass all at once, and a token adult with them to represent and fulfill the congregation's formal obligation. Once again part of Deuteronomy is read, and when the children are finished the whole congregation recites Jacob's blessing over Menashe and Ephraim (Gen. 48:16-20): "May the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless these children . . ."

When this congregation-wide reaffirmation of the Torah has been fulfilled, the community focuses itself around two highly respected members — one who is called up as chatan Torah or kallat Torah — -bridegroom or bride of the Torah — to complete the reading, from Deuteronomy 33:27 to the end; and the other, as chatan B'reshit or kallat B'reshit, bridegroom or bride of "In the Beginning," to begin the reading all over again.

In some congregations, the Torah scroll is unrolled the whole way and held by the congregants in a huge circle around the room. Thus the end and the beginning stand next to each other, ready to be read from one parchment panel to the next; and the congregation is encircled not only figuratively but literally — letter by letter — by the Torah.

Cecil Roth has pointed out that the chatan Torah tradition was built upon the custom of the congregation's rejoicing with every newly married bridegroom on the Shabbos after the first seven days of his marriage — a celebration in which he was called to the Torah with a flowery introduction, showered with candies while he arose, and handed back to his seat with a Torah scroll to hold for the rest of the service. Much of this panoply is or was part of the ceremonial for Simchat Torah in many traditional congregations.

The special formulas for calling up the two special readers on Simchat Torah read like unutterably solemn requests for permission from God to read the Torah. In the celebratory atmosphere of the evening, however, the Mereshut Ha'eyl and Mereshut Haromam take on a humorous tone as well, as praise after praise is twirled in spiral after spiral upon God and the Torah:

With the permission of God, the great, powerful and awe-inspiring,
and with the permission of the precious Torah which is richer than fine gold
and precious pearls,
and with the permission of the holy and pure Sanhedrin,
and with the permission of the learned heads and leaders of academies of the Torah,
and with the permission of the elders and the young there assembled,
I would open my lips in lauding hymn to sing the praise of God who dwells in light. He has given us life and sustained us in purifying reverence of Him, and has brought us to the happiness of this rejoicing in His Torah which gladdens the heart and enlightens the eyes. The Torah gives life with riches, honor, and glory. It makes happy those who walk in its ways of goodness and right. By adding to their strength it lengthens the days of those who love it and keep it with all its guiding commands, who occupying themselves with it cling to it with reverence and love.

May it be Thy will, Almighty God, to give life with Thy loving kindness and crowning glory to who has been chosen to complete the reading of the Torah. May he be singled out for a life with honor and happy companionship. Guide him in purity as he follows Thy light.

Mayest Thou direct him and crown him by teaching him with Thy instruction of right. Keep him from all harm as Thou wilt give him Thy support, clearly sustaining him and bearing him ever forward.

Give him delight and maintain him in that which is right among the people Thou hast created. Draw him near to Thee in Thy love and keep him from all trouble and distress. Strengthen him, uphold him and be his support in his humility of spirit.

Arise, arise, chatan Torah, and give glory to God the great and awesome.

From the God of awe may there come to you the reward of seeing children and children's children occupied with the Torah and carrying out its commandments among their cleansed and purified people. May you be privileged to share in the joy of rebuilding the Holy Temple, and may your countenance reflecting glory shine with righteousness.

May we see the realization of the prophecy of Isaiah who was filled with the spirit of counsel and insight and who said "Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad in her. Rejoice with her in joy all you who are mourning for her" in grief and sorrow.

Arise, arise, chatan Torah, with the permission of all this holy congregation, and complete the reading of the Torah. Arise chatan Torah.

With the permission of God who is exalted above all blessing and hymns, who is awesome above all praise and song, who is wisdom of the heart and might, power and strength, and who as Lord of all creation rules the world,

And with the permission of the Torah preciously preserved and honored, which is His foremost thousandfold treasured possession, that Torah which in its perfect purity revives and restores the soul, that Torah which was given to Israel as a heritage to be realized and preserved, that Torah studied by us from beginning to end, that Torah which is the crown of glory of Him who holds back strife and who gives power to those in authority, to the heads of the academies of Torah and the heads of far-flung scattered Israel,

And with the permission of this holy and joyous community, both young and old of every group gathered here this day for the rejoicing of the Torah, closing and then reopening its reading with reverent joy, cherishing it as on the day when it was given in its glory, esteeming it as a new experience and not as something past and finished, thirsting to draw from it radiant glory with rejoicing as it brings happiness to the heart, removes care and gives its comfort to delight the soul of those who glory in it and pore over it in its Scriptural text with interpretations in Mishnah, Talmud, and rabbinic story.

And with the permission of those who hasten to bring their children to the house of prayer and who follow its guiding preceptsgreat be their reward from Him who is the source of all strength and may abiding joy rest on their head-and who are yearning to see the rebuilding of His chosen Temple in the Holy City.

Now by us unitedly the choice has been made, and from this congregation one has been selected to be accorded high honor. He is one who is true-hearted, who walks in the true paths following right and kindness. His heart has uplifted him and his spirit has stirred him to be the first to begin the reading of the Torah. Therefore, arise and gird yourself with strength. Come forward, take your stand beside me and read the story glorifying God for His creation of the world.

May we all continue to read on daily, steadily, uninterruptedly, from beginning to end so that we may ever remain true to this Torah.

You have been chosen for the privilege of publicly beginning the fulfillment of this religious duty. How good is this for you and may your reward be overflowing.

May your blessing from your Creator be generous and be bountifully spread, and may all who honor the Torah as a diadem of light be themselves honored and growing in strength and happiness.

Arise, arise, , chatan B'reshit, at the call of all this holy congregation to bless the great and awesome God, and we all will seal your blessing with a fervent Amen. Arise, chatan B'reshit.

As the reader approaches the last verses of the Torah, the whole congregation stands, and when the last words are completed — "which Moses had done before the eyes of all Israel, asher asah Moshe 1'eynai kol Yisrael" — the whole congregation heralds the end of the Book of Deuteronomy and of the Torah by chanting together: "Chazak chazak, v'nitchazeyk. Be strong, be strong; let us strengthen each other."

Then as the reading shifts to the beginning of the Torah and the Seven Days of creation are read, many congregations respond in a good-humored, joyful way: with a "bom-ba-bom, bom bom bom bom bom-bom!" after the completion of "And there was evening and morning. . ." when each day has been created.

When the Torah scrolls are returned to the Ark, several special songs are sung, among them "Sisu v'simchu, Be glad and rejoice in Simchat Torah and give honor to the Torah . . . -for she is our strength and our light."

Sisu v'simchoo b'simchat Torah oo-t'nu kavod la Torah. Ki tov sachra mikol s'chora, mi paz oomifninim y'karah. Nagil v'nasis nagil v'nasis b'zot haTorah haTorah. Ki hi lanu oz, ki hi lanu oz, oz, oz Vora.

Since Simchat Torah is the only second day of a festival that has its own liturgy and practice quite distinct from that of the day before, there are certain peculiarities in its celebration in communities that do not celebrate second days of the holidays. In Reform synagogues and in Israel, Simchat Torah is combined with Sh'mini Atzeret. In Israel, however, it has become the custom to dance hakkafot with the Torah in the public streets on the night after Sh'mini Atzeret, in order to coincide with the public dancing in the Diaspora.

Three developments in recent years have given a new dimension to Simchat Torah. One of these is that some congregations have focused on the traditional involvement of children, and have introduced a special ceremony in which all the children who have just begun their Jewish studies rise to affirm their intention to study Torah. They receive the congregation's blessing, perhaps a small prayerbook, and some honey or honeycake.

The second is that during the 1960s, young Jews in the Soviet Union began to use the public hakkafot as an opportunity to affirm and celebrate their Jewishness in public-even if they defined it in secular rather than Torah-centered ways. As the crowds dancing near the Moscow and Leningrad synagogues each Simchat Torah grew into tens of thousands, the Western press and Western Jewish visitors began to attend the celebrations, and they became a symbol of the insistence of Soviet Jews on their desire and right to live Jewishly or to leave the Soviet Union.

As a result, the movement in Israel and the West to assert solidarity with Soviet Jews in their pursuit of these rights began to dedicate public hakkafot on Simchat Torah to freedom for Soviet Jewry, or to hold mass rallies on or near Simchat Torah.

Finally, in some chavurot during the 1970s there emerged a strong interest in new forms of Jewish dance and body movement as an expression of Jewish spirituality, and because of the traditional dancing orientation of Simchat Torah there began to grow up a custom of celebrating the new dance forms at Simchat Torah time.

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