Simchat Torah (“Rejoicing with the Torah”) is a Jewish celebration which signifies the end of the yearly public readings of the Torah, and the start of another cycle. It occurs after the Sukkot festival and will occur primarily within the Synagogue in mornings and evenings. Among Orthodox Jews, this is often the only point of the year when the Torah scrolls will be removed from the ark and studied during the evening. The opening of the ark is considered a special occasion and the worshippers will sing and dance in a celebration that may last for a few hours.
History of Simchat Torah
The name “Simchat Torah” is relatively recent. Within the Talmud this celebration was named Shemini Atzeret (the “Eighth Day of the Assembly) because it occurred following the seven day festival of Sukkot. By the 14th century a reading of the Genesis was incorporated right after the conclusion of Deuteronomy. In some European nations donations would be made and the wealthier members of the synagogue would provide a dinner. In some cases children will take down the sukkahs and burn them during this celebration. By the 20th century Simchat Torah became a holiday which was closely associated with Jewish identity.
Simchat Torah Customs and Practices
The festivities for Simchat Torah begin in the evening. Once the Torah scrolls have been taken from the ark they will be carried around within a collection of seven “Hakafot,” which are processions around the synagogue. While each “Hakafa” only needs to encompass a single circuit throughout the synagogue, the dancing and singing will typically last longer, and may even leave the synagogue and enter nearby streets.
Every circuit will be announced with invocations requesting God to save them. In Orthodox synagogues classical chants are often combined with the hakafot, along with songs and versus which are biblical in nature. The grace of God, as well as prayers, the restoration of David’s House and the Jerusalem Temple are common themes. Other songs may also be sung and children will be provided with candles, treats and flags. Within Orthodox synagogues much of the dancing will be done by men but females may also have their own dancing circles. In more progressive synagogues males and females will dance together.
The morning service for Simchat Torah is akin to other Jewish celebrations in that there will be the saying of Hallel as well as a Mussaf service. In the evening, after the dancing and hakafot has been completed, three Torah scrolls will be read. It is considered a great honor to be given the final aliyah from the Deuteronomy Book, and the member who receives it is referred to as the Hatan Torah. If it’s a female they are referred to as Kallat Torah.
During the morning service every male member of the synagogue will be called up for the aliyah. In some congregations females may also be called up and there is also a special aliyah for children who are under the ages of 12 and 13.