What is Simchat Torah and When Do We Celebrate It?
Simchat Torah is the holyday where we finish reading the Torah and start again from the beginning. Its name means ‘Happiness (or rejoicing) of the Torah’.
Simchat Torah falls at the end of Sukkot. In Israel it is celebrated on the same day as Shemini Atzeret, and outside Israel it is celebrated on the day immediately following Shemini Atzeret.
How Do We Celebrate Simchat Torah?
Hakafot and Dancing with the Torahs
As during the seven days of Sukkot and on Shemini Atzeret, on Simchat Torah hakafot (circuits) are performed around the bimah of the synagogue.
On Simchat Torah the hakafot incorporate special dancing, with the Sifrei Torah held aloft and children balanced on the adults’ shoulders.
Honouring Members of the Congregation: Chatan Bereishit and Chatan Torah
Each Shabbat and festival, members of the congregation are honoured with aliyot (call-ups) to the Torah.
On Simchat Torah the aliyot are even more special. Two members of the congregation are chosen to be chatanim (bridegrooms): one is Chatan Torah (Bridegroom of the Torah/Law) and the other is Chatan Bereshit (Bridegroom of Bereshit/Genesis).
Chatan Torah reads the last portion of the old year’s cycle of Torah, from the Book of Deuteronomy (Devarim), and Chatan Bereshit reads the first portion of the new year’s cycle, from the Book of Genesis (Bereshit).
It is customary for these two men to sponsor a festive meal later in the day of Simchat Torah. They also usually sponsor a special Kiddush following services, plus provide sweets and other special treats for the children of the congregation.
N.B. In some communities these honours are referred to as Chatan Torah (‘Bridegroom of the Torah’) and Chatan Bereshit (‘Bridefroom of Bereshit’).
Participation by Children on Simchat Torah
On Simchat Torah the prayer Kol HaNa’arim (“All the Young Ones”) is recited. After the last man is called up to the Torah (and the Torah is read over and over again on Simchat Torah until every man present has been called up) it is time for Kol HaNa’arim. A tallit (prayer shawl) is held out above the bimah and all the boys under Bar Mitzvah age are called up to the Torah; they crowd on to the bimah standing under the outstretched tallit. Young girls under Bat Mitzvah age also customarily come so it can be very crowded indeed. One adult male stands with the all and receives the final call up to the Torah, the prayer Kol haNa’arim is said, and after the call up is finished, members of the congregation customarily shower the children with lollies which they scramble to collect.
Children are encouraged to take part in the hakafot and are often hoisted onto the shoulders of the adults as they dance with the Sifrei Torah. The children usually wave flags with Magen Davids or other Jewish symbols on them.
Simchat Torah in Israel
Hakafot to the Kotel in Jerusalem
On the morning of Simchat Torah in Israel, some congregations join together in a mass dancing procession through the city to the Kotel (Western Wall). Led by scrolls of the Torah, thousands of people, young and old, eight and ten abreast, dance and sing their way to the Kotel in a procession that stretches for as far as the eye can see.
Concerts, Singing & Dancing into the Night
The original custom of holding the hakafot at the conclusion of Simchat Torah inspired the custom in Israel of carrying the celebration on into the night after the holiday. Public gatherings with bands and music, hakafot, singing and dancing are often held.
In one public square of Jerusalem, it is customary for the Chief Rabbis and high government officials to participate. That celebration features the varied practices of the different Jewish communities: Chassidic, Yemenite, Bukharan, native Israeli, etc. A different group is responsible for each of the hakafot, and performs it in their respective traditional dress and with their traditional melodies.
Hakafot at Army Bases
Hakafot also take place at Israel’s army bases, and even men near frontline positions have been known to participate in them during quiet periods. In the midst of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which lasted till after Sukkot, television crews recorded scenes of the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Goren, visiting army bases, having brought with him a small Torah scroll, and of men joining him in some traditional dancing with the Torah.