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What are Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah?

Simon Rocker explains the meaning and customs behind one of the liveliest festivals in the Jewish calendar

    (Getty)

    The climax to the autumn festivals is Simchat Torah, the Rejoicing in the Law, when the synagogue is turned into a dance-hall and the worshippers swing round in horas with Torah scrolls in their arms.

    The 17th-century diarist Samuel Pepys famously visited the first synagogue after the resettlement of the Jews in England on the night of Simchat Torah, curious to know how these newcomers to the country conducted themselves at prayer, and was appalled at the most un-Anglican commotion. Only on Purim is the synagogue service more raucous.

    The curious thing about Simchat Torah is that not only is it not mentioned in the Bible, it is not even in the Talmud either. The conclusion to the seven days of Succot’s “season of joy” is almost a blank slate. The Torah simply instructs the Israelites to observe a day of rest and hold an assembly, an atzeret, for the eighth day (shemini meaning “eighth”). But beyond the particular sacrificial rites in the Temple, there is nothing particularly to distinguish Shemini Atzeret.

    The mystics saw it as a spiritually propitious day. Seven is a special number – the Sabbath, the sabbatical year, when one breaks from one’s normal routine. But seven is regarded as part of the natural cycle. Eight represents seven plus one – so as it were, one steps out of time into the realm of transcendence.

    The origins of Simchat Torah lie in the practice of Babylonian Jewry to read the Five Books of Moses according to an annual cycle – while Palestinian Jewry preferred a triennial system. The day after Shemini Atzeret, it became the custom for the Babylonians to complete the annual reading. By medieval times, Simchat Torah was firmly established in the calendar. What better way to end the festive period than to celebrate what Jews regard as God’s greatest gift – the Torah. And if to dance is to lose oneself in the joy of the moment, then what better than to dance with a Torah.

    In Israel and among Progressive communities, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are combined on a single day, whereas in traditional diaspora communities they take place over two, with Simchat Torah following Shemin Atzeret.

     


     

    What Happens on Shemini Atzeret

    The one ritual specific to this day is the recitation of the Prayer for Rain. After a wet and windy Succot all too familiar to many Jews in the UK, it can seem almost ironic. But the object of the prayer is the Land of Israel. Succot was the last of the three harvest festivals for agricultural Israel and the farmers would look ahead in hope that there would be sufficient rainfall for the year to come. The prayer is intoned with a solemn tune and the chazan is dressed in white, just as on the High Holy Days.

    It is the custom among some to eat in the succah on Shemini Atzeret, but not to recite the prayer for dwelling in it which is said on the days of Succot.

     

    The Night of Simchat Torah

    While the mood of the Prayer for Rain echoes the High Holy Days, Simchat Torah switches into a different religious gear. In the evening service, the Torah scrolls are removed from the ark and carried around the synagogue in a procession, a hakafah, seven times. Between each circuit, there is much singing and dancing: children often sport flags specially made for the occasion, sometimes with an apple pinned on top of the stick.

    In egalitarian communities, men and women may dance together – but in Orthodox communities, they do so separately. It is only over the last decade or so that women in the mainstream United Synagogue have been able to dance with Torah scrolls, too.

    Simchat Torah is unique in that it is the only occasion when the Torah is read during the evening service.

    The Morning of Simchat Torah

    The seven circuits of the Torah are repeated the following day along with the revelries. When the hakafot are completed, the last of the 54 portions of the Torah, which recounts the death of Moses, is chanted: and then a new cycle begins, with the recitation of the Creation story from Genesis.

    It is the custom in Orthodox syngogues for all men to be called up to the reading of the Torah on this day, so often there will be multiple readings of the Torah going on simultaneously in different parts of the synagogue. And it is also traditional to call up the children too – that is below the age of bar and batmitzvah – who gather on the bimah under a tallit and recite the blessing along with an adult.

    Two members whom the community particularly wish to honour are chosen for the prestigious mitzvah of being called to the reading of the law at the completion of the cycle and at the beginning of the new one. The Chatan Torah – chatan means a bridegroom – presides over the completion, while the Chatan Bereshit, the renewal. In some synagogues, they are literally treated as grooms as they are summoned to the Torah, borne along on chairs and beneath a tallit outstretched as a wedding canopy. The Chatan Torah and Chatan Bereshit traditionally distribute sweets and chocolates to children on the night of the festival.

    While it is usual to enjoy a special kiddush after the service, during it the dancing worshippers are fortified with wine and whisky, biscuits and cake. In some communities, the final prayers are often sung to a light-hearted tune and the priestly blessing is generally not recited, as it would be on other festivals, in case the priests have had too much to drink.

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