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Simchat Torah is a Hebrew term which means "rejoicing with/of the Torah". The annual cycle of reading the Torah is completed and begun anew, with the last section of Deuteronomy and the first section of Genesis read in succession after a festival parade of the Torah scrolls amidst singing, dancing and (typically) a moderate consumption of alcohol. It is one of the happiest days in the Jewish calendar.
Position in the calendar
Simchat Torah takes place on the Jewish holiday of Shemini Atzeret, or Eighth (day) of Assembly, which falls immediately after the 7-day holiday of Sukkot in the autumn (mid- to late-October). In 2006, Simchat Torah was on October 15, beginning at sunset the day before.
In Israel and among Reform Jews, Shemini Atzeret is one day long and the festivities and customs associated with Simchat Torah are celebrated on that day. Outside Israel (the Diaspora), Shemini Atzeret is two days long, with the Simchat Torah festivities observed on the second day. The first day is sometimes referred to as Shemini Atzeret and the second day as Simchat Torah, though both days are officially Shemini Atzeret according to Halakha, and this is reflected in the liturgy.
Simchat Torah festivities begin with the evening service. All the synagogue's Torah scrolls are removed from the ark and carried around the sanctuary in a series of seven ''hakafot'' (circuits). Although each ''hakafah'' need only encompass one circuit around the synagogue, the dancing and singing with the Torah often continues much longer, and may overflow from the synagogue onto the streets.
In Orthodox and Conservative Jewish synagogues, each circuit is announced by a few invocations imploring God to ''Hoshiah Nah'' (save us) and ending with the refrain ''Annenuu Bayom Karenu'' (answer us on the day we call). Following the standard liturgy, the congregation often breaks into an extended session of singing, chanting, and dancing around the Torah scrolls to a variety of verses and tunes. In Orthodox synagogues, traditional chants include biblical and liturgical verses and songs about the Torah, the goodness of God, and Messianic yearnings, including songs about the restoration of the House of David and the Temple in Jerusalem. Children are often given flags, and tasty snacks and candies are served. The vigor of the dancing and degree of festive merriment varies with congregational temperament. In many synagogues it is customary to drink hard liquor on Simchat Torah, and Simchat Torah is one of only two occassions in the year (the other is Purim) where public drunkeness is tolerated (rather than encouraged as on Purim) as an expression of joy. Men and women in Orthodox synagogues dance separately in accordance with the rules of ''tzniut'' (modesty), usually on opposite sides of a ''mechitza'' (partition). In Conservative synagogues men and women dance together. In some congregations the congregants carry the Torah scrolls out into the streets and they may dance far into the evening.
After the ''hakafot'' and dancing, a portion of the last Parsha of the Torah, V'Zot HaBerachah (This is the Blessing...) Deuteronomy is read. The part read is often 33:1-34:12, but may vary by synagogue custom, although Deuteronomy is never read to the end in the evening. A Torah reading does not occur as part of the evening service on any other occasion in Orthodox and Conservative practice.
The morning service includes a regular morning service, with all the special holiday prayers including Hallel and a special holiday Amidah and a holiday Mussaf service after the Torah reading.
Early Priestly Blessing
One customary deviation from an otherwise ordinary Holiday morning service in some congregations is to perform the Priestly Blessing as part of the morning Amidah, before the celebrations connected with the Torah reading, rather than as part of the Mussaf service following it. The reason for the deviation is that the Bible prohibits Kohanim (descendents of Aaron) from performing the priestly blessing while intoxicated. Because of concern that Kohanim who are not meticulous may imbibe during the festivities associated with the procession of the Torah scrolls and either be unable to fulfill the priestly Mitzvah of performing the Priestly Blessing or break the prohibition on performing it under the influence, the blessing was moved to before the time when alcohol would be served. (In most Conservative congregations, Kohanim do not perform the Priestly Blessing, although they do in some).
Before the Torah reading, seven ''hakafot'' (circuits) are performed, with all the congregation's Torah scrolls carried in circuits around the synagogue with chants and dancing, although the dancing is often somewhat shorter and more restrained than in the evening, as the congregation is often somewhat tired (and sometimes somewhat hung over) from the previous night's festivities. Festive refreshments, and liquor, are customarily served.
After the processions and the dancing three scrolls of the Torah are read. The last Parshah (section) of the Torah, called V'Zot HaBerachah at the end of Deuteronomy (33:1-34:12), is read from the first scroll, followed immediately by the first chapter (and part of the second) of the Book of Genesis (1:1-2:3), read from the second.
A variety of customs are observed as part of the Torah Reading. In many congregations it is customary to call every single eligible member of the congregation who wants one to an aliyah as part of the reading of the end of Deuteronomy, and in some congregations the section is repeatedly reread and the reading can take a very long time. Some congregations, particularly in large Conservative synagogues, will call people in groups.
Another custom is to call all the boys (in some Modern Orthodox and Conservative congregations, all the children) to an ''aliyah'', called ''Kol HaNaarim'' (all the children) towards the end of Deuteronomy. In many Orthodox congregations, it is customary for the congregation (or as many as can fit) to hold a Talit (or several) over the heads of the children for the congregation to bless the children by reciting (in Hebrew) a verse from Jacob's blessing to Ephraim and Manashe (Manassas), Genesis 48:16:
May the angel who redeems me from all evil bless the children, and may my name be declared among them, and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they teem like fish for multitude within the land.
The blessing of the children is omitted from Conservative Judaism's ''Sim Shalom'' prayer book, although some Conservative congregations still perform it.
''Chatan Torah'' and ''Chatan Bereishit''
Another custom is to honor two members of the congregation by calling them up to the last aliyah ending Deuteronomy and the first aliyah beginning Genesis (respectively). The two members are called the ''Chatan Torah'' (Bridegroom of the Torah) and ''Chatan Bereisheit'' (Bridegroom of Genesis). As traditions evolve, a third, the ''Chatan Maftir'' (Bridegroom of theHaftarah) has been nominated at many synagogues. A traditional speech especially praising them is read, and it is customary for members of the congregation to hold a Talit over the heads of the ''Chatan Torah'' and ''Chatan Bereisheit'' as they stand when the Torah is read, symbolizing a bridal Chuppah (canopy).
After the portion of Genesis is read, the Maftir, Numbers 29:35-30:1, is read from a third Torah scroll. The passage describes the prescribed sacrifices performed for the holiday. The Haftorah (reading from the prophets)is the first the first section of the Book of Joshua.
Joy and a bit of mischief
Both the evening and morning services on Simchat Torah are unconventionally joyous, and humorous deviations from synagogue decorum are often tolerated. A variety of traditional mischief is performed in many congregations to increase the interest of the children, often abetted by some of the adults. In addition to the old standbye of underage drinking, Trickster practices include spraying water on the Hazzan (reader) during the prayer for rain, shouting chants at various times in the service for no particular reason, reciting prayers in funny accents, tying the fringes of the Hazzan's Talit to some suitable post during a part of the service when he is not supposed to move, singing parodies of songs, stealing and hiding various items of various officious people, and much more.
Restarting the Torah reading cycle
The following Shabbat, Jews start reading the Torah again from the beginning of the Book of Genesis.
The name ''Simchat Torah'' was not used until a relatively late time. In the Talmud (Meg. 31b) it is called simply the second day of Shemini Atzeret. The name "Simchat Torah" came into use after the introduction of the one-year cycle for the reading of the Law, and was due to the fact that the reading was finished on this day.
In the 9th century some European Jewish communities assigned a special reading from the Prophets to be read on this day. In the 14th century the reading of Genesis was begun immediately upon the completion of Deuteronomy. In southern European countries it then became a general practice to take out all the Torah scrolls from the ark, and to sing a separate hymn for each scroll. In northern European countries it became customary for those who had finished the reading of Deuteronomy to make donations to the synagogue, after which the wealthier members of the community would give a dinner for friends and acquaintances. By the end of the 15th century it was usual, though not a universal practice, for the children to tear down and burn the sukkahs on Simchat Torah (Joseph Colon, Responsa, No. 26); and shortly afterward many Rabbis permitted dancing in the synagogue at this festival.
In the 16th century the practice of taking out the scrolls and of filing solemnly around the bimah on the night of the 22nd of Tishri became customary; and on the same evening, after the procession, a number of passages from the Torah were read.
In Poland it was the custom to sell to the members of the congregation, on the 22nd of Tishri, the privilege of executing various functions during the services on Shabbats and festivals; i.e., the synagogue used this occasion as a fundraiser. People who made these donations were called up to the Torah and given a congregational blessing.
It became a custom for every male member of the congregation to read from the Torah, the passage Deut. 33:1-29 being repeated as many times as was necessary for this purpose. Today this practice is still followed in Orthodox synagogues; Conservative synagogues adapt this practice by also including women. One person is given the privilege of completing the reading of the Law with Deut. 34:1-12; he receives the name of ''Chatan Torah'' (bridegroom of the Torah). After him comes the member who recommences the reading of the Torah with Gen. 1. He is called the ''Chatan Bereshit'' (bridegroom of Genesis).
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