Has Simchat Torah become too boozy?

By Nathan Jeffay, October 17, 2008
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This week's festival has become an excuse for binge drinking. Where is the justification?

If one thing is certain about Simchat Torah, it is that, by late afternoon, at least one youngster from an Orthodox neighbourhood will be having his stomach pumped. It happens every year in North-West London, usually Hendon or Edgware, or in Manchester's Broughton Park district.

It all starts in synagogue. The likely culprits, usually in their mid- to late-teens, take advantage of the unique Simchat Torah tradition of making kiddush on the bimah, both at night and during the day, and then passing out trays of drink.

Some monitor the word on the street and go shul-hopping accordingly. For example, the intelligence circulating this week is that Edgware (United) Synagogue will be frisking under-18s, while another local synagogue will welcome young drinkers if it gets them through the door. Others get bevvied-up in a single synagogue, and then, with their parents at communal celebrations or visiting friends, they congregate in someone's house and raid the whisky cabinet.

Parents are best out of the way because they cramp the style, not because they disapprove. Mums and dads often regard drinking as an integral part of the day's practice and see nothing wrong with their youngsters getting started early.

Is there any tradition of serious drinking on Jewish festivals? There is a well-known injunction to get drunk, to the point of becoming confused, on Purim. While nowadays you might get the impression that this - or a slightly more "lenient" requirement - also applies to Simchat Torah, does it have any historic basis?

Simchat Torah drinking has certainly been going on for a long time. Sources that are several hundred years old record the moving of the Cohen's blessing, usually recited on festivals during Musaph - the second service of the morning, to the preceding Shacharit service, so that it would sung instead of slurred.

Avraham Ya'ari, the Israeli scholar who penned a history of the day, also uncovers poems that equate it with drinking and frivolity, as well as spoof liturgies that were sung. There are records of a clown rabbi - confusingly called a "Purim rabbi" - being appointed.

However, just because excess merriment may have caused the day to become more like Purim, necessitating the rescheduling of the priestly prayer does not mean that people were right to pursue it. Much as Ya'ari finds examples of drunkenness, he cites rabbis reproving their bibulous flock. Rather different from Purim, when the clergy has tended to lead the boozing.

Some concerned members of the community would like to see a strong rabbinic declaration that drinking, beyond the odd l'chaim, has no part in the day. The problem is that, given the ambiguous roots of this festival, rabbis are, by their own admission, in a seemingly weak position to dictate people's conduct.

The halachic stance on Simchat Torah is simply that, as Rabbi Moses Isserlis (the 16th-century authority who influenced Anglo-Jewish practice) tersely put it, "each community follows its own custom." The Shulchan Aruch, the authoritative halachic code, is noticeably silent on what form celebrations should take, except for outlining the form of the hakafot (the processions around the synagogue with the Torah scrolls). In fact, it has just 15 lines that deal with the festival.

The lack of detailed guidance results from the fact that Simchat Torah is a latecomer to the festival world, not making an appearance until the sixth century. It has changed so much since its inception, as Yom Habrachah, when Deuteronomy was completed but, unlike today, Genesis was not begun (hence the name from the final portion of Deuteronomy).

Does this mean that rabbis now are powerless to control behaviour? While they cannot invoke some non-existent textbook model of celebration, they can surely return us to the realm of common sense.

You cannot assign a religious value to getting drunk just because, in the absence of any ruling against it, it seems like a good practice. The requirement to drink on Purim is the most unusual of mitzvot and had to fight for its place through codification in the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch. When we claim to do something out of religious compulsion, the burden of proof is on us to show that it is not something we have dreamed up ourselves. We are quick to make this point to hard-liners from other faiths, but sometimes forget it ourselves.

The rabbis could emphasise that, although the halachic demands on the day are ambiguous, they are not a blank canvas: we are meant to follow the local tradition. How to fulfil this injunction is like any other halachic question. We need to know what the tradition is in a given community. Anecdotes indicate that in most English synagogues 50 years ago, it was supposedly a matter of a whisky or two to wash down the kichel, with a very different feel from Purim.

But if adults think that hitting the bottle fulfils some kind of religious obligation, who can blame the kids for trying to be just as devout?

What rabbis say about Yomtov boozing

Rabbi Harvey Belovski, Golders Green United Synagogue

"On Simchat Torah, some people seem to have too much simchah, and not enough Torah. Joviality should accompany celebration of the Torah. Significant drinking should be reserved for Purim: unfortunately, there is confusion between the two days.

"This drinking is a load of nonsense. It is a Yomtov day like any other, and you have a drink at all Yomtov meals.

"There should be joyful celebration, but it can become tedious if it goes on for too long. The Vilna Gaon used to emerge from his study, dance like a meshugenah for a few minutes and then return to his learning. I would say that around an hour of dancing on both the evening and the morning is about right. This way, you get to finish your Yomtov meals at a sensible time."

 

Rabbi Warren Kaye, Rabbinical shaliach, Bnei Akiva

"Simchat Torah is one of those occasions when nobody really knows what to do, a bit like Yom Ha'atzmaut in Israel. So it has become seen as an excuse to party, but people don't relate to the real meaning of completing Devarim and staring Bereshit, and the continuity in Torah study that is symbolised buy it.

"I don't like this drinking trend, and I have not seen any sources for it.

"There needs to be a ritual or educational structure for the day, which does not seem to exist now - six hours of hakafot doesn't do it. Perhaps services could have shiurim between hakafot examining the meaning of the circling, or the day itself. This would allow people to celebrate the day true to its theme."

Last updated: 10:57am, October 28 2008