A Creative Religion

What especially commended Simchat Torah to the Jewish mind and heart was its democratic character.

Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple

Judaism  Raymond Apple
Raymond Apple

Some of the most popular Jewish observances are creations of Jewish history. Solemn occasions like Yizkor and Yahrzeit are deeply embedded in Jewish practice, but are not ordained in the Torah. Nor are celebrations like Simchat Torah and Tu BiSh’vat.

Within the parameters of Jewish law, these and other traditions have come into being at different stages of Jewish history and have seized the imagination of our people to such an extent that you cannot imagine Jewish life without them.

What especially commended Simchat Torah to the Jewish mind and heart was its democratic character. The fact that the scholars and the ordinary people alike responded to the opportunity to show their love for the Torah truly made it possible for Judaism to be, as the Torah itself puts it, morashah k’hillat Yaakov – “an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” (Deut. 33:4).

Judaism always set its face against any suggestion that it was interested only in the spiritual or intellectual elite. Hence the Talmud, in listing the six questions that will be put to each of us at the moment we seek to enter the World to Come, includes among them, “Did you set aside time for Torah?” – not, “Were you a great scholar?, but “Did you give time to your Judaism and make an effort?” (Shabbat 31a).

Even more pointedly, the Jewish folk saying is, “Nine rabbis cannot make a minyan – but ten cobblers can”.


Q. Why all the emphasis on rain in the prayers on Sh’mini Atzeret?

A. Sh’mini Atzeret, the eighth-day festival of assembly at the end of Sukkot, is marked by t’fillat geshem, the prayer for rain. The officiant wears the white robe used on the High Holydays, the prayer is full of pathos and meaning, and it is clear that rain is a most serious subject of discussion with the Divine Creator.

In ancient times the lack of rain in the rainy season was an unmitigated disaster, which is why the Mishnah records the solemnity with which people would fast and pray in time of drought. The first page of the Talmudic tractate Ta’anit notes that rain is one of three key things which remain in God’s possession; the others are the miracles of childbirth and the resurrection of the dead.

Praying for rain therefore acknowledges that there are some things which only God controls, and it is thanks to Him that we enjoy life and all its blessings. For all that there is what the philosophers call the problem of evil (do we deserve the evil we see in the world?), there is also a problem of good (what have we done to merit so much beauty and blessing?).


Q. Where does the name Simchat Torah come from?

A. Simchat Torah is really the second day of Sh’mini Atzeret (the day after Sukkot), which is why the Kiddush and other prayers refer to it as “this eighth-day festival of assembly”.

Developing an idea from the Sefer HaManhig of Rabbi Abraham Ibn Yar’chi (13th century), one might say that Rosh HaShanah helps us to make peace with God, Yom Kippur with our own soul, Sukkot with our home, Sh’mini Atzeret with nature and Simchat Torah with the Torah.

Each occasion is a simchah. The one that concludes the series equips us to know how to maintain each of the treaties. When we study the Torah and live by its precepts, we remain on good terms with God, keep our soul in good shape, have a firm basis of family and community, have good relations with nature, and cherish the Torah that gives our life meaning.

Historically, the Simchah part of the name probably comes from the ancient Sukkot traditions, especially Simchat Bet HaSho’evah, “The Festivity of the Water-Drawing” of ancient times (Mishnah Sukkah 5:1). As our ancestors encircled the altar on Sukkot, so do we encircle the bimah carrying the Torah scrolls.

We rejoice in and with them, happy that we have concluded the yearly readings and can at once re-commence the cycle. It is thus Simchat Torah, our rejoicing over the Torah – or possibly it is the Torah’s rejoicing over the Jewish people, who remain faithful to their tradition despite every temptation to weaken in and even, God forbid, abandon it.

The name Simchat Torah was probably unknown before the Middle Ages. It is first mentioned by Rav Hai Gaon in the 11th century. Alternative names were Yom HaB’rachah (Day of Blessing, because on it we read the final blessing which Moses gave Israel before he died), and Chag HaSiyyum (Festival of Conclusion – either the conclusion of the Torah or that of the festival of Sukkot).


Q. Wouldn’t it make sense to celebrate the completion of our reading of the Torah on Shavu’ot, when the Torah was given on Sinai?

A. This is an often asked question. The prosaic answer is that the two festivals celebrate different things – Shavu’ot marks the giving of the Torah, whilst Simchat Torah celebrates the end (and beginning) of the annual cycle of readings.

A well-known theory adds that even if we had thought of combining the two occasions, it would not have worked. It is like a couple who get married; on their wedding day their instinct tells them that they are right for each other, but it takes time to find that this is really the case.

Likewise, when on Shavu’ot Israel and the Torah became, as it were, wedded to each other, neither was completely sure of the other. It took time for them to get to know one another and to feel able to rejoice without any lingering doubts. Hence, by Simchat Torah, several months on from Shavu’ot, we know we and the Torah were made for each other and we can rejoice with heart, soul and might.


Q. Why do some synagogues read the Torah on Simchat Torah evening, as well as in the morning?

A. Strictly speaking the Torah should be read only in the daytime. But since the scrolls have already been removed from the Ark for the processions, some argue that there ought to be a reading so that the Torahs have not been taken out in vain. The Rema says in his glosses to the Shulchan Aruch, “Each place follows its own custom”.

Where the reading does take place, it is of the first five portions read on Simchat Torah morning and it is customary to use the Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur melody.