Jews around the world will clasp Torah scrolls in their arms, beginning Wednesday evening, as they dance and sing to celebrate the holiday of Simchat Torah, the Rejoicing in the Torah.
In Israel, it also observed as Shemini Atzeret, an "eighth day" that culminates the seven-day festival of Sukkot. Outside the country, the "eighth day" is celebrated Wednesday night and Thursday, followed by the Simchat Torah holiday in the evening and on Friday.
The holiday was preceded Wednesday by Hoshana Raba, the seventh day of Sukkot, considered the final day of Divine Judgment. During the night until dawn Wednesday, it is customary to remain awake and learn Torah. Hundreds of Torah lectures were offered in congregations and centers throughout the Jewish world, with At the Western Wall, filled with worshippers at dawn on Wednesday, silence greeted the morning light, followed by the joyous Hallel prayer, the beating of the willow branches as is traditional at the end of the poetic salvation-seeking Hoshanot prayer said seven times on Hoshana Raba.
On Simchat Torah, congregations traditionally take each Torah scroll out of the Holy Ark, awarding their worshipers with the honor of embracing the Torah while dancing around the bima, or podium, from which the weekly portion is read. The Simchat Torah dances, known as “Hakafot,” or "rounds" due to their circular formation, begin after sundown Wednesday at the evening service. They are repeated on Thursday and again in “Hakafot Shniyot” – a second phase – on Thursday night in Israel, when the holiday is over and non-observant Jews can travel and participate in the celebration.
During the day, it is customary for every man to receive an aliyah, or invitation, to make a blessing on the Torah prior to the reading of a passage. Even children are invited.
During the day, the Priestly Blessing is recited by men who are descended from Aharon, the High Priest. In addition, many congregations have the custom of gathering all the children under a tallit (prayer shawl) to receive the blessing of Yaakov (Jacob): “May the angel who redeemed me from all harm bless the youths, and may they be called by my name and the name of my fathers, Avraham and Yitzchak, and may they multiply abundantly like fish, in the midst of the Land.” (Genesis 48:16)
The final portion of the Torah is read, and a new cycle of reading is immediately begun with the first portion in Bereishit, or Genesis, usually from a second Torah scroll. During the reading of the story of the six days of creation, the reader pauses at the conclusion of each day for the congregation to chant, “There was evening, and there was morning, the ___ day!”
Services generally last most of the day, with a break for a holiday meal in between. Often, congregations hold the meal at the synagogue itself, to make it easier for worshipers and to keep everyone together for the lengthy prayers that take place throughout the day.
On Shemini Atzeret, Jews no longer wave the Four Species that included the etrog (citron) and lulav (palm frond, myrtle and willow branches), and Sukkot is no longer mentioned in the day’s prayers. Outside of Israel, Jews still eat in the Sukkah, (without a blessing) until the evening, when Simchat Torah begins.
Candles are lit with the blessings “Ner Shel Yom Tov” (the candle of the Holiday) and “Shehechiyanu” (who has granted us life). Outside Israel, candles on the second day, Simchat Torah, are lit from an existing flame. Sabbath candles are lit on Friday 18 minutes before sundown, with the usual blessing, “Ner shel Shabbat” (the Sabbath candles).
(Israel news photos: Flash 90)