As the sun sets on the seventh day of Sukkot, we transition immediately into the jubilant celebration of Simchat Torah. There is no time to spare; we’ve got to get this Torah party started! Simchat Torah means “rejoicing in Torah,” and this holiday is a true celebration of Torah, and all that it represents. We dance, we sing, and we make merry, long into the night!
On Simchat Torah we celebrate the end of one Torah-reading cycle and initiate the beginning of the next. Most communities read Torah on an annual cycle; that is, they take one year to move through the reading of the entire Torah. Every week, one or two portions are read, so as to finish the whole scroll by the next Simchat Torah. On Simchat Torah then, we celebrate not only the completion of the Torah, but also its new beginning. We read the last verses of Deuteronomy (the fifth and final book of Torah), followed immediately by the very first verses of Genesis (the first book of Torah).
One of the most beautiful ways to ritualize Simchat Torah is by unrolling the Torah around a room, for all present to witness. The ritual begins with a single person holding one end of the Torah and another slowly opening it around the room. The community will often stand in a circle, with each person holding a segment of the parchment. Then, when the Torah is completely unrolled, the rabbi or cantor will read key verses from various points in the narrative. He or she might also point out visually interesting moments in the scroll, when the writing itself gives clues to the action, such as the poetic stanzas in the Song of the Sea. If you have never seen a Torah open from beginning to end, it is one of the most breathtaking sights to behold.
In some communities, Simchat Torah is celebrated with multiple Torah processions, or hakafot. Many or all of the Torahs are taken from the ark, and held by different volunteers. (One or two Torahs are kept open for chanting.) After each portion of Torah is chanted, the community bursts into song and dance, often spilling into the parking lot and even the streets! There is food and drink and many times, live music, too. It is wondrous and wild to see men, women, and children dancing together, passing the Torah scrolls from person to person and heart to heart, and reveling in the sacred joy of the holiday.
Simchat Torah begins with a ma’ariv (evening) service for festivals, which flows into our celebration of Torah. On Simchat Torah morning, our festival service includes Yizkor, or memorial prayers. Our Yizkor prayers offer those who have lost loved ones an opportunity to reflect and remember them. During the morning hours, we once again read the final verses of Deuteronomy and the first verses of Genesis.
Simchat Torah teaches us that Torah is a never-ending cycle of learning and discovery. Every ending leads to a thrilling and dynamic new beginning. As we pass the Torah into the hands of children and parents, and to everyone beyond and in-between, we see that this sacred text belongs not to an elite few, but to all of us. It is our community’s most precious gift and our faith’s most cherished inheritance. On this Simchat Torah, may we all find the immense joy, wonder and light in our Torah, and may this light continue to shine for all of us in our day and in every generation to come.
Note: In Reform communities, Simchat Torah and Sh’mini Atzeret are celebrated concurrently, on the same day.
Rabbi Sara Y. Sapadin is a rabbi and mother of four. Ordained by HUC-JIR, Sara currently serves Temple Emanu-El in New York City, as an adjunct rabbi. Sara has written for a number of Jewish publications and is also a proud contributor to The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate (CCAR Press). She, her husband Danny, and their children reside in New York City, where they are raising their dog to be Jewish.