Shemini Atzeret-Simchat Torah

“And you shall rejoice [vesmachta] in your festival” Deuteronomy 16:14


Simchah, joy, is associated with the three pilgrimage festivals. However, it is on Shemini Chag Ha’atzeret when we actually use it in the name of the holiday, Simchat Torah. On this occasion we celebrate the completion of the reading of the Law, as we begin it again afresh.

On most years, in most synagogues, this occasion is marked with dancing and singing, as seven hakafot, circuits, are made with the scrolls around the reader’s desk. However, this year, as a result of Covid, this kind of rejoicing won’t be possible. I imagine that for many this will reduce the simchah in their Simchat Torah.

Perhaps then, we should recall a debate that goes back to biblical times. King David rejoiced when the Holy Ark was brought to Jerusalem. He did so “amid rejoicing[simchah]… David whirled with all his might before the Lord”. However, his wife Michal, daughter of Saul “looked out of the window and saw King David leaping and whirling before the Lord; and she disgraced him in her heart” (II Samuel 6:14-16).

It seems that Michal considered such unrestrained dancing unseemly, not befitting the honour of a King, the Torah, or both. Perhaps she preferred a more dignified affair. One could perhaps expect that she would have agreed with the lament of Samuel Pepys, who wrote after visiting a house minyan at Creechurch Lane, London on Simchat Torah in 1663, “But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service.”

Indeed, it was the last time that would happen, as in 1664 these Sephardic Jews received their first rabbi, Jacob Sasportas, who likely explained to them that dancing, and even hakafot, kabbalistic in origin, were not the Spanish and Portuguese custom, same as in Amsterdam, Livorno, or wherever else the Spanish & Portuguese Jews settled.

So while this year will be different for many, for those at Bevis Marks Synagogue, the longest continuously worshipped in synagogue in the world, it might feel almost normal. And for those who are missing their hakafot, perhaps they can take comfort, or perhaps even simchah, in knowing that they are following the original London minhag.


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