In 1663, seven years after Jews were officially allowed to resettle in England, the diarist Samuel Pepys recorded the following entry for the Wednesday 14th October:
“…After dinner my wife and I, by Mr. Rawlinson’s conduct, to the Jewish Synagogue: where the men and boys in their vayles, and the women behind a lattice out of sight; and some things stand up, which I believe is their Law, in a press to which all coming in do bow; and at the putting on their vayles do say something, to which others that hear him do cry Amen, and the party do kiss his vayle.
“Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew. And anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that every one desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing.
“And in the end they had a prayer for the King, which they pronounced his name in Portugall; but the prayer, like the rest, in Hebrew. But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this.”
The explanation for this conduct, which so vexed Mr Pepys, is simple; the 14th October 1663 was Simchat Torah. Samuel Pepys, without knowing it, was describing the Hakafot (literally “circles”), during which Jewish people celebrate the end of one yearly cycle of reading the Torah and the beginning of a new cycle.
In my opinion, Simchat Torah is one of the most beautiful holidays in Judaism. One of the reasons for that is the music. Off the top of my head, I can think of twenty different tunes that are specifically sung on Simchat Torah, and otherwise never heard throughout the rest of the year. Even congregations which do not generally include much music in their regular service operate differently on Simchat Torah.
I cannot speak for Progressive synagogues, having never been to one on Simchat Torah, but in Orthodox congregations, the joy is unconfined, and dancing is akin to that one would see at a frum wedding. This makes perfect sense when one takes into account that Simchat Torah is, in a way, a recognition of the marriage between God and the Jewish people, with the Torah acting the part of a ketubah, a marriage document. By ending one cycle of reading the Torah and beginning another, we are, in effect, renewing our marriage vows.
But what is perhaps, one of the most interesting things about Simchat Torah is that so much of it – the singing, the dancing, the seven Hakafot – is all customary. None of this is mandated by Jewish law. It is a pure expression, developed over the centuries, of the Jewish people’s love for God and the Torah which was given to us.
The synagogue I went to this year has a very specific custom, which I found particularly beautiful. It is an Ashkenazi synagogue, and across the main road there is a Sephardi synagogue. Every year, for one of the hakafot, the two congregations come together as one to rejoice – on Simchat Torah night the Sephardi congregation take their Torah scrolls and dance across the road to join the Ashkenazi shul, and on Simchat Torah day the Ashkenazi minyan have a procession with their own Torah scrolls over to the Sephardim.
Watching the Rabbi of the Ashkenazi shul holding a Sephardi scroll while his Sephardi counterpart held an Ashkenazi one, dancing together on top of several tables put together for the purpose, I doubted Samuel Pepys would have approved. But joining a hundred people singing Hinei Ma Tov U’ma Naim Shevet Achim Gam Yachad (Behold how good and pleasing it is for brothers to sit together in unity), I think we would have met that disapproval with total equanimity.