Historical Insights On Simchat Torah – The Great Unification Through Happiness

Did you know that Simchat Torah not always happened in the form we know nowadays?

After reveling in the intimate connection with Hashem over seven joy-filled days of Sukkot, we express the grand finale of Kriat HaTorah by immersing ourselves in the exuberant celebration of Simchat Torah.

This age-old tradition, as described in the Holy Zohar (Parshat Pinchas 256b), embodies the spirit of the Jewish People: “Yisrael has a cherished custom of embracing jubilation with the Torah, aptly named Simchat Torah, wherein they bestow upon the Sefer Torah the regal crown it so rightfully deserves.”

There are a lot of chiddushim to explore and given the immense tragedy that happened last 3 weeks, I hope this historical post will shed some light on the situation.

The Hakhel Celebration and Shlomo HaMelech

Why do we bask in the radiant joy of the Torah’s embrace immediately following Sukkot?

This illuminating tradition unites the jubilation of completing the Torah with the apex of Yom Tov, Shemini Atzeret in which we effect the unification of the whole partzuf (spiritual system) that began on Rosh Hashana. It harmonizes the blessings of Moshe Rabbenu from V’zot Habrachah with those bestowed by Shlomo HaMelech upon the people during Shemini Atzeret (I Melochim 8:55).

Abarbanel, in his profound wisdom (Vayeilech), underscores that Simchat Torah traces its origins to the mitzvah of Hakhel, which requires the king to publicly read Sefer Devarim during Chol Hamo’ed Sukkot every seven years. This was also a tremendous simcha back in the days because we are now preparing to “go back to reality” with the blessings we acquired.

Simchat Torah

“I saw written,” the Abarbanel shares, “that every year, a kohen gadol, prophet, judge, or gadol hador would read a portion of the Torah during Sukkot… and on the seventh year, the king would conclude the Torah… From this, a cherished custom remains in our era to finalize the Torah’s reading on the last day of Shemini Atzeret, an occasion also known as Simchat Torah. A distinguished member of the kehillah rises to offer its conclusion, mirroring the ancient practice of kings.”

Some authorities explain the Minhag of Kol Hane’arim, where small boys receive an aliyah, as a homage to the mitzvah of Hakhel, wherein the Torah commands, “Gather the people together, men, women, and children” (Devorim 31:12). Intriguingly, the Sefer Ha’eshkol highlights another historical wellspring of Simchat Torah’s celebrations. Shir Hashirim Rabbah (1:9) describes the boundless joy that enveloped Shlomo HaMelekh upon receiving Hashem’s promise of unparalleled wisdom:

“Shlomo woke and behold, it was a dream. He came to Yerushalayim and stood before the ark of Hashem’s covenant, and offered burnt offerings and made peace offerings, and made a feast for all his servants” (I Melochim 3:15). Rabi Elazar observes:

“From this, we learn to make a feast when we complete the Torah. For when the Holy One said to Shlomo, ‘Behold, I have given you a wise, understanding heart that there was none like it before you, and after you, none will arise,’ he immediately heard birds chirping and understood their language, and he immediately made a feast. This teaches that we make a repast when we complete the Torah.”

The Sefer Ha’eshkol explicates, “Therefore, we partake in lavish feasts and revel in great delights on Simchat Torah in honor of finalizing the Torah.”

As noted at the outset, the Zohar, though cited initially, omits any mention of when Simchat Torah (the actual completion of the Torah) is to be celebrated. In ancient days, Simchat Torah was observed at different junctures throughout the year. Our present-day celebration of Simchat Torah on Shemini Atzeret finds its roots in the Babylonian Minhag of completing the Torah annually.

However, this posed a challenge for the residents of Eretz Yisrael, who took approximately three years to traverse the Torah (see Megilla 29b). Consequently, a 7th-century sefer from the time of the Geonim, titled “The Differences between the People of the East [Bavel] and the People of Eretz Yisrael” notes the varying timetables:

“The people of the east celebrate Simchat Torah every year, and the people of Eretz Yisrael every three-and-a-half years.”

Indeed, because there is no joy quite like the joy of the Torah, many novel customs evolved to amplify the euphoria of Simchat Torah. Even those poskim who thought of dancing on Yom Tov, akin to playing musical instruments, and forbade it, granted an exception on Simchat Torah in homage to the Torah (Ri”tz Geius, Lulav pg. 117).

Another unique tradition surfaced in the discourse of Rav Hai Gaon. Women would meticulously sew their veils and ornaments into the crowns of Sifrei Torah, which would then be worn by those called up for Kri’at haTorah. Yet, questions arose regarding whether women could subsequently make ordinary use of these veils and ornaments and whether men donning women’s attire posed an issue.

While Rav Hai Gaon displayed leniency on these matters, he discouraged the Minhag for other reasons.

The Rashba (Shu”t Meyuchasos LeRamban 260) remarked on the prevalence of the custom of wearing Torah crowns on Simchat Torah in his era:

“I heard that the custom has spread in most Jewish places and heard of no one who objected. In this town (Barcelona) too, I remember that they used to take the crowns of the seforim and place them on children’s heads, and take them [the children wearing the crowns] to the room where they were kept under guard.”

Rav Yuspa Shamash of Worms (1604–1678) documented an old Minhag of lighting bonfires on Simchat Torah:

“They make a large bonfire in the courtyard in front of the Braut Hauz [Large Hall], and when the fire is burning well, about a half hour after it was lit, the Rov, the rabbonim, and the Chatanim all go out and see the simcha.

The baalei batim dance around the fire and engage in various joyous activities. Sometimes the Rav even joins in the dance around the fire in honor of the Torah. They remain there until Mincha and partake of wine by the fire, with the Chatanim providing both the wine and firewood, while the shamash arranges them in a pile. The Chatanim, in turn, compensate him” (Minhagei Vermaiza).

Though some poskim sought to abolish the custom of kindling fires, the Maharil spoke in favor of it:

“The Maharil said that the practice of boys taking aravos and igniting fires on Yom Tov is a commendable Minhag, a source of joy on Yom Tov” (hilchot Shmini Atzeret).

In various localities, children celebrated the day by brandishing flags and candles, sparking discussions among poskim about whether dancing with candles posed a risk of extinguishing them. In Izmir, this discourse evolved into a contentious dispute, dividing the town into two opposing camps.

Chatanim on Simchat Torah

Much like the sacred union between Klal Yisrael and the Torah at Sinai during Matan Torah, Simchat Torah exudes the festive ambiance of a wedding. On this joyous occasion, the individual honored with the final Torah reading is bestowed the prestigious title of “Chatan Torah.” Interestingly, Bereshit, the beginning of the Torah, was not initially recited on Simchat Torah.

Later, it became a custom for the Chatan Torah to read the opening verses of Bereshit after the conclusion of V’zot Habrachah. Subsequently, the practice evolved to create a distinct honor, the “Chatan Bereshit,” for this special reading.

In its early days, those called to the Torah as chatanim were esteemed Torah scholars, individuals with deep knowledge of the Torah (see Shaarei Teshuvah 669). These two aliyot represented an honor to the Torah and those who dedicated their lives to its study.

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As mentioned before, the situation shifted, and these aliyot were auctioned off to the highest bidders. A complaint from Rav Eliyahu Kapsali of Candia in the 16th century underscored this transformation: “People now have the custom of calling up whoever they want for Chatan Torah, whether wise or foolish, poor or wealthy, so long as he promises donations and gifts.” On the other hand, the Sefer Chassidim (470-471) believed that allowing unlearned individuals to receive these aliyot helped reduce disputes and tension within the community.

Nowadays, many synagogues simply auction these honors, which, while sadly reflecting our low spiritual level, prevents greater squabbling over who should get them.

In the 20th century, Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman of Ponovezher Yeshiva introduced a novel custom of auctioning off the Simchat Torah honors in exchange for pledges to study hundreds or thousands of dapim of Gemara over the following year. He personally oversaw these auctions with immense joy, considering it the best “business” of the entire year.

In days of old, the chatanim of Simchat Torah were accorded great honor after the prayer service. In certain locales, they were led home beneath a chupah (canopy), accompanied by the warm glow of burning torches and the lively melodies of non-Jewish musicians (Divrei Chachomim 131).

According to an 1882 report, the festivities in Jerusalem extended well into the following morning: “After the tefillah, the congregants escorted them to their homes with great honor, singing and jubilation. One shamash even carried a silver container filled with perfume, sprinkling it over the exuberant crowd to invigorate them. Upon arriving at their homes, people continued to sing, shout, and celebrate until the break of dawn.”

However, not all were pleased with the extravagance of these Chatanim feasts. Rav Chaim Palagi lamented that the exorbitant costs associated with these celebrations made it increasingly difficult to find willing participants: “Nowadays, we search for even one pair and cannot find them… and this is because of the expense of the feasts.”

To curb these excesses, some communities implemented regulations. An anti-luxuries decree in Regio, Italy, dating back to 1760, imposed restrictions on the number of women allowed to accompany the Kallah Bereshit (the wife of the Chatan Bereshit) and Kallat HaTorah to the synagogue. Only two women were permitted to accompany them back home, and only these women were allowed to distribute sweets. Men escorting the Chatanim home on the night of Simchat Torah were prohibited from giving them gifts.

Hakafot – Keter Of Keter

Interestingly, the practice of taking out all the Sifrei Torah on Simchat Torah is noted in the Rishonim, but the tradition of Hakafot, or processions with the Torah scrolls, is conspicuously absent from their records. Even when Rav Yitzchok Isaac of Tirna, around the 15th century, makes one of the earliest mentions of Hakafot, he specifies that these processions exclusively occur at night:

“We take all the Sifrei Torah from the ark. The Sh’liach Tzibbur takes one and begins saying, ‘Ana Hashem hoshi’a nah,’ and he circulates around the Bimah while the congregation accompanies him with the Sifrei Torah… In the morning, we retrieve all the Sifrei Torah from the ark… and the Sh’liach Tzibbur recites ‘Ana Hashem hoshi’a nah’ as he did the previous night, but he does not circumnavigate the Bimah.”

In a curious turn of history, the late 1960s saw Simchat Torah emerging as a beacon of hope for the persecuted Jews of the Soviet Union. In the sprawling cities of the USSR, young Jewish people began to gather around state-sanctioned synagogues, which were typically locked, on Simchat Torah. This clandestine tradition was an expression of unity and solidarity. The origins of this custom remain shrouded in mystery, with no one able to pinpoint its exact beginnings.

The word spread like wildfire: friends heard of it from friends, who heard of it from their friends. For one day each year, the Jewish community of Soviet Russia stood together, unafraid, before their oppressors. In celebrating the joy of the Torah, a Torah many of them knew little or nothing about, this clandestine gathering gradually led many to embrace true Torah observance.

May we merit to see Simchat Torah in our Third Temple rebuilt speedily in our days.

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Chaim Apsan

Chaim is a teacher and Kabbalah enthusiast. He loves helping Jews connect with true Torah teaching and enhancing their spiritual growth. With a focus on meditation, he guides individuals on transformative journeys of prayer, contemplation, and connection with Hashem. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and kids, and is committed to sharing the wisdom and power of Kabbalah in a genuine way.

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