WHEN IS SIMCHAT TORAH AND WHY DO WE CELEBRATE IT?
Simchat Torah falls on the last of the two days yom tov at the end of Sukkot, on the 23rd day of Tishrei.
It is the festival where we finish reading the Torah and start again from the beginning. Its name means ‘Rejoicing of the Torah’ (being happy about the Torah).
WHAT DO WE DO ON SIMCHAT TORAH?
Make Hakafot and dance with the Torahs
Just like during the seven days of Sukkot and on Shemini Atzeret, on Simchat Torah people make hakafot (walk or dance in circles) around the bimah of the synagogue carrying the lulav and etrog.
On Simchat Torah the hakafot include special dancing with the Torahs held up in the air. Children often join in and ride on their fathers’ shoulders during this.
Honour Members of the Congregation: Chatan Torah and Chatan Bereishit
Each Shabbat and festival, members of the congregation are honoured by being called up to read the Torah. This is called being given an aliyah.
On Simchat Torah the aliyot (plural of ‘aliyah’) are even more special. Two men in the congregation are chosen to be chatanim (bridegrooms): one is called the Chatan Torah (Bridegroom of the Torah/Law) and the other is the Chatan Bereshit (Bridegroom of Genesis, the first book in the Torah).
The Chatan Torah reads the last portion of the old year’s Torah, from the Book of Deuteronomy (Devarimin in Hebrew), and the Chatan Bereshit reads the first portion of the new year’s Torah, from the Book of Genesis (Bereshit in Hebrew).
These two men pay for a special, delicious meal at lunch time on the day of Simchat Torah and all the members of the congregation share in the meal. The chatanim also usually give sweets and other special treats to all the children of the congregation.
Another special custom of Simchat Torah is that every man or boy above Bar Mitzvah age is given an aliyah and called up to the Torah, even if it has to be read several times over so that there will be enough call ups for all the men and boys.
Bless the Children
On Simchat Torah we say the prayer Kol HaNa’arim (“All the Young Ones”). The very last aliyah (call up to the Torah) is saved for all the boys under Bar Mitzvah age and the blessing Kol haNa’arim is said.
Children take part in the hakafot and are often carried high up on the shoulders of the adults as they dance with the Sifrei Torah. The children often wave flags with Magen Davids or other Jewish symbols on them.
Hakafot to the Kotel in Jerusalem
On the morning of Simchat Torah in Israel, some people join together and dance all the way through the city to the Kotel (Western Wall). Led by scrolls of the Torah, thousands of people, young and old, dance and sing their way to the Kotel in a procession that stretches for as far as the eye can see.
Concerts, singing and dancing into the night
In olden times, people used to hold the hakafot at the end of Simchat Torah. So today in Israel some people keep celebrating late into the night after the holiday. There are often big outdoor concerts at night with music, hakafot, singing and dancing.