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Simchat Torah: Dances with the Torah

by Rabbi Yeruchem Eilfort

  

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Sukkot is known as the "Season of Our Joy." The joyousness of the holiday works up to a crescendo as the final days approach. Finally, the holiday of Sukkot culminates with the dual holiday of Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. While they are connected to Sukkot they have their own separate status as an independent holiday as well.

The Torah says that, "For seven days you shall dwell in a Sukkah, and the eighth day shall be for you Atzeret (an ending)." Since we are in Diaspora we celebrate Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah over the course of two days, as opposed to Israel where they are celebrated on the same day.

The Torah goes into great detail regarding the sacrifices that were brought in the Tabernacle and later in the Holy Temple. Sukkot was interesting in that sacrifices were offered in behalf of all the nations of the world. Each day a different number were brought until at the end special sacrifices were offered exclusively for the Jewish people.

A story is given to illustrate this interesting system. A king once had a vast banquet for many days for all of the different peoples who populated his many lands. At the end of the banquet he invited his closest friend to stay on one more day so they could celebrate together, just the two of them. The same is the situation on Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. G-d celebrates exclusively with the Jewish people, as it were. And that is part of the reason why it is such an incredibly joyous occasion.

...the holiness of the time [Simchat Torah] pervades the atmosphere to such a degree that we do not even have to open the Torah to celebrate it. We merely dance with it to show how much we love it. When dancing with the Torah everyone is equal whether he is the greatest scholar or the simplest layman
On Simchat Torah we conclude our annual cycle of reading the Torah and immediately begin it again anew. Completing the Torah is a source of great joy! To demonstrate our extreme happiness we dance with the Torah and encircle the Bimah for seven Hakafot (circuits). We sing, we dance, and we wish one another L'Chaim (to life), as we whoop it up. There is no happiness greater than our happiness in having the Torah.

Many wonder why we do not do this type of celebration on the holiday of Shavuot, which after all is the holiday on which we actually received the Torah?

Our sages reply that only after the people had the Torah for some amount of time were they able to appreciate the greatness of the gift. That is why the celebration becomes so completely and overwhelmingly happy on Simchat Torah. Furthermore our Rabbis point out that the holiness of the time pervades the atmosphere to such a degree that we do not even have to open the Torah to celebrate it. We merely dance with it to show how much we love it. When dancing with the Torah everyone is equal whether he is the greatest scholar or the simplest layman. It does not matter on Simchat Torah, for the Torah is the inheritance of every Jew.

It is on Simchat Torah that we have the custom to call up the children to the Torah for a blessing and so that they may bless the Torah. During the day of Simchat Torah we dance with the Torah again and make further Hakafot. Many congregations change their typical custom and make Kiddush in the middle of the prayers so that they may insure that everyone is in the "proper frame of mind" when the Torah is completed, started again, and danced with. The Priestly blessing takes place earlier in the service than it normally would to preclude the possibility that our holy Cohanim (priests) may imbibe too much during the celebration and not be able to properly bless the flock.

All in all, there is no holiday more joyous. It is considered a tremendous Mitzvah for each and every Jew to attend a Simchat Torah celebration!


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Mitzvah
(pl. Mitzvot). A commandment from G-d. Mitzvah also means a connection, for a Jew connects with G–d through fulfilling His commandments.
Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Sukkot
A seven day autumn festival commemorating the miracle of the Heavenly Clouds which enveloped the Jews while traveling in the desert for forty years. On this holiday we dwell in makeshift booths and shake the Four Species.
Sukkah
The temporary structure in which we are required to dwell for the duration of the holiday of Sukkot. The Sukkah must have at least three walls and its roof consists of unsecured branches, twigs or wooden slats.
Hakafot
Literally means "circling." On the holiday of Simchat Torah we take the Torah scrolls and encircle the synagogue's reading table seven times. This ceremony is done by night and repeated next day, and is customarily accompanied by dancing, singing and great joy.
Simchat Torah
An extremely joyous one-day autumn festival following the holiday of Sukkot. In Israel it is the eighth day of Sukkot, outside of Israel it is celebrated the next day, the day after Shmini Atzeret. Every Sabbath we read a portion of the Torah. On this holiday we celebrate the completion of the yearly cycle.
Kiddush
Prayer recited at the beginning of the Sabbath or Holiday meal--both the evening and afternoon meals. This prayer, acknowledging the sanctity of the day, is recited over a cup of wine or grape juice.
Shavuot
Early summer festival marking the day when the Jews received the Torah at Mount Sinai in the year 2448 (1312 BCE).
Shmini Atzeret
A joyous one-day autumn festival immediately following the holiday of Sukkot. Outside Israel this holiday is celebrated for two days, the second day is known as Simchat Torah.
Bimah
Table at the center of the synagogue upon which the Torah is placed when it is being read.
Tabernacle
Mobile sanctuary which traveled with the Jews in the desert, containing the Ark with the Tablets, and the sacrificial altars. When the Jews entered Israel, it was erected in the city of Shiloh where it remained for more than 300 years. It was buried when the permanent Holy Temple was erected in Jerusalem.
Temple
1. Usually a reference to the Holy Temple which was/will be situated in Jerusalem. 1st Temple was built in 825 BCE and was destroyed in 423 BCE. The 2nd Temple was built in 350 BCE and was destroyed in 70 CE. The 3rd Temple will be built by the Messiah. 2. A synagogue.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.