Simchat Torah is an emotional day, concluding the Tishri Yomtov season and ending the entire festival sequence that started with Pesach. As its name, Joy of the Torah, indicates, it’s a day focused on the Torah, when we complete the annual cycle of Torah reading and begin it all over again amid singing, dancing and communal festivities.
Yet lovely as it sounds, some are at best ambivalent towards Simchat Torah, others even regard it as an annoyance. Some of my most loyal congregants, among them daily attendees, arrive very late on Simchat Torah and others fail to turn up at all. And I’ll admit that in the years before I was a communal rabbi, on Simchat Torah I attended a “naughty boys” minyan that completed the hakafot — dance-circuits — in 15 minutes and had me home for kiddush by soon after 10am.
Of course, by the time Simchat Torah arrives, people are shuled out after a long and gruelling Yomtov season and nothing less than a day off shul will satisfy them. And it’s also obvious that no experience, however exciting, can work for everyone. Nonetheless, some aspects of the way we celebrate Simchat Torah should be re-examined in the hope of making it more attractive.
I am not a member of the “more is more” club. If dancing on Simchat Torah for an hour is enjoyable, it does not follow that two or even three hours’ dancing is more enjoyable. In fact, it can easily turn into a drag. In some shuls, Simchat Torah celebrations are even longer than Rosh Hashanah services and are chaotic experiences, major disincentives to participation, especially when, as this year, Simchat Torah falls on erev Shabbat.
The Torah reading often takes far too long (there are ways of speeding it up) and long before it’s over, people have lost interest and wandered off to the kiddush. Shuls should publish clear timetables and have enjoyable hakafot that are not too long and allow people to get home at a reasonable time.
This leads inexorably to the subject of excessive liquor consumption on Simchat Torah. There is no basis for the drunkenness that prevails in many shuls: Simchat Torah is not Purim, the only day in the year on which inebriation is sanctioned, even then in the very limited context of home feasting.
The spectacles of adults sneaking whisky bottles into services and intoxicated teenagers staggering from shul to shul are hardly among the most edifying of the Jewish year. And while there is no harm in adults having a glass of wine or the odd lechaim (it’s actually a mitzvah to drink wine in moderation at Yomtov meals), what has evolved in some places is a Simchat Torah that is too much simchah and not enough Torah, akin to barmitzvah celebrations that are too much bar and not enough mitzvah.
For many women, much of the Simchat Torah service is boring and frustrating. While some are entirely comfortable watching their menfolk sing and dance, others would love to dance with the Torah themselves, in celebration of their connection to Jewish life and learning. Many shuls have recognised this need as part of the extraordinary transformation of women’s Torah study that has taken place in recent decades and make separate provision for women’s dancing with Sifrei Torah on Simchat Torah.
And what about those — men or women — who for whatever reason, don’t dance? Some are physically unable to dance and others simply dislike dancing. And some can’t dance but don’t know it (always the fellow next to me).
The Torah itself reminds us that it is the “heritage of the community of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 33:4), the legacy of every member of the Jewish people, irrespective of age, gender, state of health or competence at dancing.
For those seeking an alternative, some shuls provide learning programmes to coincide with the dancing and Torah reading. I think there is room to expand this to include family programming and introductory Torah classes, as well as encouraging private study. And while these shouldn’t detract from the main event in shul, they should be professionally run and of a high standard rather than a lifeless alternative for those who can’t be bothered to dance or do anything else.
We may take as the role model for brief hakafot and alternative modes of celebration no less a figure than the Vilna Gaon (died 1797). It is said that on Simchat Torah he would emerge from his private study to dance with tremendous passion for a short while and then return to his learning. If you currently feel disenfranchised by the end of Yomtov, these relatively small changes might just restore the simchah to Simchat Torah.