The eight days of Sukkot/Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah came to an end Thursday night with tens of thousands of people singing and dancing in Hakafot Shniyot celebrations in honor of the Torah.
With the Sukkot holiday marking the last of three pilgrimage festivals to Jerusalem and the Holy Temple - preceded by Pesach and Shavuot - a final "encore" holiday was celebrated Thursday on the day immediately following Sukkot. Known as Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, it is celebrated for two days outside of Israel - Shmini Atzeret on the first day, and Simchat Torah on the second.
This final holiday marks the conclusion - and starting again - of the annual public weekly readings of the Five Books of Moses, and commemorates the supreme Jewish idea of Torah study in general. Hours-long dancing with the Torah (known as hakafot) in synagogues, yeshivot, and even in the streets marks the day in Jewish communities around the world.
It has become customary of late for large groups of youths to spend the holiday in towns where the Jewish community is in need of "strengthening," to extend the Simchat Torah joy as far and wide as possible.
In Kassam-barraged Sderot, for instance, large contingents from Kiryat Arba and Raanana spent the holiday, dancing together with the local Hesder Yeshiva students from one synagogue to the next. Though the streets and even the synagogues were less full than usual because of the fear of rockets, the worshippers anxiously awaited the visitors, greeting them with cakes, drink - and singing and dancing. The day's festivities culminated with an afternoon of singing and dancing outside the local Ethiopian synagogue.
In Tel Aviv, Ramle, Lod and other cities, dozens of high school students from Beit El, Kfar Etzion and elsewhere merged with the locals to help celebrate an unforgettable Simchat Torah.
As the holiday ended Thursday evening, Hakafot Shniyot ("Second Hakafot") celebrations began in the central squares of most Israeli cities, including Dimona, Ramat Gan, Jaffa, Nazareth Illit, the new outpost of Shvut Ami near Kedumim, and elsewhere. The official Hakafot Shniyot for Gush Katif expellees were held at Yad Binyamin, the high-school-village-turned-budding-city that now houses the community of Ganei Tal, dozens of other families from various destroyed Gush Katif towns, Yeshivat Torat HaChaim from N'vei Dekalim, and many new families from around the country and abroad that have moved in to newly-built apartments there.
Several Hakafot Shniyot celebrations were held in Jerusalem as well, but markedly absent were two of the larger ones: The annual event at Sabbath Square in Meah She'arim was canceled by order of leading rabbis not to hold such events outdoors where males and females might mingle. In addition, at Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav all was quiet, following the Sukkot-holiday passing of the Rosh HaYeshiva, Rabbi Avraham Shapira. The mourning period for the rabbi began Thursday night.