Insights into Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah

The prayer for rain, the circuits and dancing with the Torah.

Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple,

 Raymond Apple
Raymond Apple
PR


WHY ARE WE WAITING?

Life without rain is unimaginable.

Prayers for rain are essential just before the onset of winter. This makes perfect sense in the northern hemisphere, notably Israel, though it seems somewhat problematical in the southern hemisphere.

Sh’mini Atzeret is the last occasion on the High Holydays for the recital of the rain prayers.

Why are we kept waiting until the end of Sukkot to say these prayers? Surely we should say them at the beginning of Sukkot!

But if we pray for rain at the beginning of Sukkot we might not really mean it since rain would spoil the mitzvah of sitting in the sukkah.

Further, Sh’mini Atzeret is a solemn final opportunity to repent (even though turning away from sins is possible any day of the year). Since rain is a sign of God’s blessing and approval, we need to utilise the final opportunity for repentance in order to deserve the rain.


NOT JUST THE CHASSIDIM

Somehow the hassidim get all the credit for the joyful spirit of Simchat Torah.

It’s true that hassidism was known for its ecstasy in the presence of God and for practices that aroused joy and emotion. But joy in religion began with the Bible.

Not only does the Psalmist say, “In Your presence is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11), but he tells us “Iv’du et HaShem b’simchah”, “Serve the Lord with joy” (Psalm 100:2).

When the annual cycle of Torah readings became the norm in the Middle Ages, the annual arrival of Simchat Torah was greeted with rejoicing and all sorts of Simchat Torah customs developed.

In Spain the Torah crown was placed on the head of the Chatan Torah and the Torah vestments were placed on the people who read the Torah. Torah processions took place everywhere and the children received cakes and sweets.

In some communities the Chatan Torah and Chatan B’reshit were accompanied home with processions, music and dancing.

Jews were subject to so much oppression and persecution that they relished any and every opportunity to rejoice.

The hassidim made their contribution to the history of the festival, but they neither invented or created the occasion.

Of course there were places where the festivities were so structured that they were almost as grave as Tishah B’Av, but on the whole, nothing could restrain the people’s joy.


SEVEN CIRCUITS

On Simchat Torah the seven circuits (“hakafot”) with the Torah are a continuation of the Sukkot motif of carrying the Four Species around the bimah.

There is a view that – like the “Ushpizin” on the evenings of Sukkot – the seven circuits honour seven Biblical ancestors – Abraham (who represents spiritual pioneering), Isaac (stability), Jacob (community), Joseph (courage), Moses (prophecy), Aaron (harmony) and David (emotion).

The seven “hakafot” thus symbolise seven basic Jewish values and ideas.

When Samuel Pepys visited a synagogue in London on Simchat Torah in 1663, all he saw was the exuberance of the congregation and he called it “religion absurdly performed”.

What he missed was the deep symbolism of the Simchat Torah practices.

WOMEN DANCING WITH THE TORAH


On Simchat Torah there are communities which refuse to let women dance with the Torah scrolls, when the dancing is gender separated, not merely because it is not traditional but for halachic reasons.

In a statement made by the halachist Rabbi J. Simcha Cohen in 2010, one of the objections is the analogy of women wearing tefillin (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayyim 38:3), in relation to which the point is made that a woman cannot guarantee to have guf naki, a “clean body”.

When Michal the daughter of Saul put on tefillin she was known to be exceptionally pious and careful. Since the Sefer Torah is holier than tefillin, the argument was raised that the same rule should prohibit women from dancing with the Torah.

However, another opinion says that what is under discussion is not wearing the Torah but holding it, and it is not the Torah parchment which the person touches but the handles or cloak.

In his glosses to the Shulchan Aruch, the Rema states that there is no prohibition on a woman touching a Sefer Torah.

In any case, there is a question as to whether even men’s dancing with the Torah is required, so it is perhaps not worth causing a schism in a shul that is against it.






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