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Daily Israel Report

Judaism: About Simchat Torah

Attached to the Sukkot holiday are the holidays of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. In Israel they are celebrated on the same day, in the Diaspora as two days. This is when we read the end of the Torah and begin reading it once again.
Published: Tuesday, September 24, 2013 11:39 PM



The end of the Torah is sad but proud. It describes Moses’ death and burial. From the time of the Talmud (BB 15a) or even earlier, people have asked, “How could Moses possibly describe his own death?”

One view is that it was not Moses himself but Joshua who added the final verses in order to complete the Torah. Another opinion is that the story was actually written by Moses with tears in his eyes, at God’s dictation.

The commentator Ibn Ezra criticises the second view as these verses describe Moses going up the mountain to die. Thereafter could he have descended the mountain again to write the story? How could he have said of himself, “There has never risen since in Israel a prophet like Moses”?

This issue raises the important problem of how much control anyone has over what will happen after they die. Most people want to live on in some way, and there seem to be two ways in which this is possible – in our family and friends, and in our deeds. In both respects we have to try to leave our affairs in the best possible shape.


CHATAN OR CHOTEM TORAH?


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The moment we end the Torah on Simchat Torah, we start it all over again. This cyclical tradition is behind the idea of having both a Chatan Torah who finishes the reading and a Chatan B’reshit who recommences it.

There is a view that the term Chatan (“Bridegroom of the”) Torah was originally Chotem (“Concluder of the”) Torah. If this is true, the term Chotem was extended to the Chatan B‘reshit, though in his case it is quite inappropriate.

If the conventional Chatan is correct, it suggests that whoever has either of these festival roles embraces it with all his heart.

Applying the idea of a marital embrace is a well-known metaphor in many areas of Jewish life. God and Israel embrace each other at Mount Sinai. Male and female cherubim embrace on the Ark cover of the Tabernacle. Everything a Jew does ought to show deep and genuine love for Jewish identity and duty.

Whenever there is a temporary estrangement from Judaism, it is always possible to find one’s way back.


CALLING UP EVERYBODY

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According to Rabbi Moses Isserles whose Ashkenazi glosses adorn the Shulchan Aruch, it is “the custom in these countries” for many people to be called to the Torah on Simchat Torah (Orach Chayyim 669). Some synagogues call up every male worshipper. Other congregations call people up in groups – all the Kohanim, all the Levi’im, and then the Yisra’elim in groups.

The principle behind the multiplicity of call-ups is that the Torah is morashah kehillat Ya’akov – "the inheritance of the (whole) Congregation of Jacob". One of the group Aliyot is reserved for Kol HaNe’arim – "all the children", a phrase from II Sam. 13:22. Generally the call-ups are in the morning, but some congregations read the first portions of V’zot HaB’rachah on Simchat Torah evening, using the Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur melody. There is a custom in some places of giving these evening call-ups to boys who have become Bar-Mitzvah during the year.