Insights on Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah

Prayers for rain. Flags, dancing and love of Torah.

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Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple,

 Raymond Apple
Raymond Apple
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THE RABBI’S RETREAT



 

The Rabbi of Sassov, Rav Moshe Leib, used to ask why Sukkot, Sh’mini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are so different from Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.

He said he had found an answer when he saw that the Torah said that Sh’mini Atzeret was “a time of retreat (atzeret) for you” (Num. 29:35).

The Days of Awe, he explained, were times for God, when human beings directed their thoughts to what God wanted of them.

With Sukkot, however, the emphasis was on “you”, on human needs and desires. What humans want is rain, good crops, health and prosperity, material blessings.

That’s why Sh’mini Atzeret does not deal so much with rarefied spiritual matters like atonement and repentance but homely, earthly concerns.


THE WEDDING PARODY



The historian Cecil Roth had a theory that Simchat Torah was modelled on a wedding.

Writing in the London Jewish Chronicle in 1934, Roth described the customs that Jewish communities developed for wedding celebrations and showed how Simchat Torah became a communal parody of a wedding.

The real-time bridegroom was a king for a day. His arrival under the chuppah was accompanied by hymns in his honour, he was showered with sweetmeats, his head was garlanded and when he was called to the reading of the Torah the chapter in the Book of Genesis about the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah was read from a special scroll.

Step by step the celebratory procedure was followed in honour of the Chatan Torah and Chatan B’reshit on Simchat Torah.

The only difference was the identity of the bride. At a wedding there was of course a real-life bride decked in festive garments; on Simchat Torah the bride was the Torah itself.
 

The whole occasion celebrated Israel’s love affair with its Torah. Where Scripture said that the Torah was Israel’s heritage (Morashah K’hillat Ya’akov), the sages had a play on words whereby they read, not morashah but me’orasah, “betrothed”.

The Jewish people and the Torah were betrothed to one another, their destinies intertwined with God looking on benignly and in joy.


CANDIES & CANDLES

Simchat Torah customs concentrate on children.

In most places the children get candies and chocolates, and often the children’s parade includes flags on sticks topped with apples, candles or even fireworks – not very safe of course, and often bitterly criticised by the spiritual leaders.

The Magen Avraham opposed burning aromatic herbs on Simchat Torah and all the more the use of fire crackers.

Those who opposed the opposers agreed that the candles should not be lit on the festival itself but thought that if they were lit from a light kindled before yom-tov there could be a way of letting the candle burn down to let the flame ignite the fireworks. Probably fun, but highly dangerous.

Carrying flags on sticks is also dangerous: the sticks can cause damage to people and even to the synagogue seats.

One of the questions that hardly anyone asks is why flags were part of the processions. Maybe it is to let the children feel part of the army of the Almighty, carrying the message of the Torah wherever they go.