Judaism: The Origins of Simchat Torah
The Torah commands that the day after the seven-day Festival of Sukkot finishes, “on the eighth day you shall have a gathering; you shall do no laborious work…” (Numbers 29:35). The Hebrew wording (“ba-yom ha-sh’mini atzeret tihyeh…”) gives us the name Sh’mini Atzeret, often rendered “the Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly”.
Sh’mini Atzeret is often, though erroneously, thought of as the eighth day of Sukkot; however, the Talmud (Rosh ha-Shanah 4b, Sukkah 47a, Chagigah 17a et. al.) and the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 100:7 et. al.) are unequivocal that Sh’mini Atzeret is “a Pilgrim Festival of itself”. This is, indeed, the halachah in practice (Rambam, Laws of Mourning 10:4). This is the reason that when we mention the Festival in our prayers (Kiddush, Ya’aleh ve-Yavo, Mussaf, and so on), for the seven days of Sukkot we refer to “chag ha-Sukkot ha-zeh” (“this Festival of Sukkot”), while on Sh’mini Atzeret the wording changes to “yom ha-shmini chag ha-Atzeret ha-zeh” (“the eighth day, this Festival of Assembly”), with minor variations in the wording in Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Sfard, Eastern, and Yemenite Rites.
A time there was when Sh’mini Atzeret was only Sh’mini Atzeret. But during the late Second Temple period, Sh’mini Atzeret took on the additional aspect of Simchat Torah. And it is worth giving a brief historical background to explain how Sh’mini Atzeret became Simchat Torah.
The Talmud records that the weekly Torah-reading goes back to our earliest history: “Moshe established for Israel that they would read from the Torah on Shabbat, on the Festivals, on New Moons, and on Chol ha-Mo’ed… Ezra added to this that Israel would also read from the Torah on Mondays and Thursdays, and on Shabbat afternoon” (Sofrim 10:1).
Originally, the rule was that on Shabbat, a minimum of seven men would be called up to the Torah, each of whom would read a minimum of three verses (Sofrim 11:4; Yerushalmi Megillah 4:3; Tosafot, Megillah 23a s.v. chad amar). Hence on any given Shabbat, any given synagogue would read a minimum of 21 verses from the Torah, but there was no maximum. Then the following Shabbat, they would continue reading from wherever they had left off the previous Shabbat. And whenever that individual synagogue would complete the Torah, they would celebrate their own Simchat Torah.
Then, during the late Second Temple period, with the Land of Israel under increasingly vicious Roman persecution, the Sages standardised the Torah-readings. In a milieu when no Jew could be sure that his synagogue would still be standing next Shabbat, when the very existence of every community was under constant threat, it became necessary to unify the Torah-readings. This was the only way to ensure the continuity of Torah-readings from week to week, from Shabbat to Shabbat.
And thus began the weekly Parashot with which we are so familiar today. Until then, there was no concept of Shabbat Parashat Bereishit, Shabbat Parashat Noach, Shabbat Parashat Lech Lecha, and so on.
And the Sages of those generations decreed that the universally-celebrated Simchat Torah would be Sh’mini Atzeret. This Festival is the climax of the festivities of Tishrei; it is also the end of the annual cycle of Festivals, which begins with Pesach in the springtime.
And since Tishrei is the month of beginnings, it is especially apposite that we conclude the annual Torah-reading and then begin it again immediately afterwards on this day.
And thus Sh’mini Atzeret took on the additional aspect of Simchat Torah.
Since our Sages saw fit to place Simchat Torah on the day of Sh’mini Atzeret, at the culmination of the holy days of Tishrei, it is appropriate for us to ask: What are the lessons that they wanted us to absorb?
First of all – we are all beginners! Every Jew, from the humblest unschooled and unlearned ignoramus to the greatest sage of the generation, begins the Torah simultaneously. There is no Jew, from the greatest to the smallest, who can say: I have completed the Torah! Every Jew, upon finishing the Torah, immediately goes back to the beginning to start over afresh.
There is no Jew who knows nothing. Even the most ignorant and unlearned Jew embarks on the very first word of Torah immediately after completing the final words. Even the rawest beginner has already completed at least one cycle!
(This recalls the universal custom that Talmudic tractates invariably begin on daf bet, page 2. There is no beginning to Torah, hence no daf alef, page 1. Even the beginner is not really a beginner.)
On Simchat Torah every Jew dances with the Sefer Torah, though the Sefer Torah remains closed and bound. Indeed, the usual custom is that on the night of Simchat Torah, though we dance with the Sefer Torah, there is no Torah-reading at all (though some congregations read Deuteronomy 33:1-26). Thus every Jew is equal: the greatest sage, the most learned rabbi, has the identical share in the Torah to the illiterate ignoramus. Though the understanding of the learned sage is so far superior when the Torah is being read, all are equal when dancing with the Torah.
And this reinforces the motif of the whole of Tishrei. The highlight of Rosh Hashanah, the experience that everyone carries away in his heart, is the wordless cry of the Shofar-blast. Whether a learned scholar or an unschooled illiterate, the Shofar speaks directly to every Jew’s heart without words, without training, without scholarship, without wisdom. When listening to the unarticulated, primordial wail of the Shofar at the beginning of Tishrei, the beginning of the year, every Jew, from the humblest unschooled and unlearned ignoramus to the greatest sage of the generation is equal. In the non-word of the Shofar-blast, all are equal.
And then comes Yom Kippur. Our greatest act of worship and devotion on Yom Kippur, the service that the Torah commands, is not prayer or reading the Torah. Rather, it is fasting. Again, every single Jew, from the greatest to the least, can fast on the same level of holiness and purity and spirituality. When fasting, it makes no difference how many tractates of Talmud you have learned, how many Mishnayot you know by heart, how many commentaries on the Torah you have studied. What matters is what you feel and believe, not what you know.
Fasting, like the wordless Shofar-blast, is a great equaliser. The scholar and the ignoramus can both experience the fast on the same level; how meaningful the fast is depends upon how much you believe, how much you feel, how close to G-d you are, and not upon how learned you are.
And then comes Sukkot. The experience of dwelling in the Sukkah needs no scholarship to make it meaningful: whether scholar or ignoramus, whether sage or illiterate, every Jew can appreciate the meaning and the feeling of the delicate walls and leafy roof of the Sukkah. Like hearing the Shofar-blast, like fasting, the Sukkah is a sensuous experience.
And finally comes Sh’mini Atzeret which, ever since the late Second Temple period has had the additional identity of Simchat Torah. Dancing and rejoicing with the Sefer Torah, like hearing the Shofar-blast, like fasting, and like dwelling in the Sukkah, is a sensuous experience.
After the Torah commanded us to celebrate Sh’mini Atzeret, the Tanach records two occasions when the entire nation celebrated this Festival. The first was when King Solomon completed building the First Temple: the inaugural celebrations lasted for seven days, followed by another seven days of festivities for Sukkot, culminating with the festivities to celebrate Sh’mini Atzeret. Only on the day after Sh’mini Atzeret, the 23rd of Tishrei, did King Solomon send the people back to their homes (1 Kings 8; 2 Chronicles 7:9-10).
Almost half a millennium later – during which period the Israelite monarchy flourished under King Solomon, split into two separate kingdoms immediately after he died, the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by Assyria and a century and a third later the southern kingdom of Judah was conquered by Babylon – the exiles returned from their 70-year sojourn in the Babylonian Empire, led back to Israel by Zerubavel and later by Ezra and Nehemiah.
Ezra inaugurated the sacrificial sacrifice on the Temple Mount in time for Rosh ha-Shanah (Ezra 8:2). The people, confronted with their past sins, began weeping; whereupon Ezra and Nehemiah and the Levites admonished the people: “Today is holy to HaShem your God; do not mourn and do not weep… Go and eat rich foods and sweet drinks, and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, because today is holy to our Lord. And do not be sad, because HaShem’s delight is your strength” (Ezra 8:9-10).
Ezra and Nehemiah infused the nation with this same concept: worship of HaShem is something sensuous. Rosh Hashanah is a time to rejoice, because spiritual joy results from devotion to G-d (see the commentary of Malbim to Nehemiah 8:9). Though the people had scant learning after two generations in exile, nevertheless Ezra and Nehemiah admonished them to feast and rejoice – and this was their celebration.
Two weeks later they celebrated Sukkot when they studied the Torah and read the commandment to dwell in Sukkot (Nehemiah 8:13-17). Then, too, the massive national celebrations climaxed with Sh’mini Atzeret (Nehemiah 8:18).
When the Sages of the Talmud instituted Simchat Torah on the day of Sh’mini Atzeret they brought the festivities of Tishrei to an appropriately resounding crescendo. Tishrei is the month when, more than any time of the year, all Jews are to unite as equals. This is the month whose mitzvot are more sensuous than intellectual, more experiential than scholarly.
The Jew who has been studying Torah for decades and the neophyte both complete the Torah-reading together, and both immediately begin it anew together. And both dance and rejoice with the Torah as equals.