For those of you who may not be familiar with Simchat Torah (Joy of Torah), it is the holiday that comes on the 8th day after Sukkot. On this day we all get together in the Synagogue and read the end portion of Deuteronomy, then as the congregation sings (and in some places will also have Davidic dancing, usually a Hora since everyone can dance the Hora) the Torah is rolled back to the very beginning, and after that is done the first portion of Genesis is read.
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I have been blessed in that many times I have helped to roll back the Torah, and believe-you-me if you want to have forearms that look like Popeye’s, you will get them when you roll back a heavy Torah. You have to be very, VERY careful because it is made of animal skin and tied with animal gut (Kosher animals, of course.) The cost of a Torah can be anywhere from tens of thousands of dollars to well into hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The Torah is separated into 54 Parashot (portions), which are read on each Shabbat. In leap years they are read separately and in non-leap years sometimes two will be read at the same time, in order that at the end of the year, on Simchat Torah, every synagogue in the world will be reading the end of Deuteronomy and turning their Torah back to the beginning. Except for some synagogues which use a three-year cycle of reading instead of a one-year cycle: after all, we’re Jewish and it just wouldn’t be right if we all agreed on something.
BTW…I have written a book that is a commentary on each of the 54 Torah parashot, which can also be used for Bible study or even as fodder for a sermon. Here is a link to where you can buy it if you are interested (Parashot Drashim.)
In Leviticus 23:23 God says the first day of the 7th month is a day of remembrance, a day for blowing on the shofar and a day of complete rest. In Judaism, we say it is the first day of the Ten Days of Awe, during which we look, introspectively, to see how far short of the way God wants us to live we have been and thereby prepare our souls for Yom Kippur, the 10th day of this month when we come before God to ask for forgiveness of our sins over the past year.
If we consider that Rosh Hashanah is a new year celebration, it seems to make sense that the annual reading cycle of the Torah should be associated with it. But God said (Exodus 12:2) that the new year begins on the first day of Aviv (in Hebrew this means “Spring”), which has been renamed to Nissan. Therefore, if God says that is our new year, why isn’t Simchat Torah also celebrated at that time?
I don’t really know if anyone has the answer to that. From the little research I did, it seems that the three-year reading cycle was the norm in Israel until the Babylonian exiles returned to Jerusalem, taking many of the Babylonian influences with them, such as the names of the months and the annual reading cycle, which led to this holiday beginning sometime in the Second Millennia.
For me, it makes sense that Simchat Torah could be celebrated either at the beginning of the Holy Day cycle (before Passover) or at the end of the Holy Day cycle (Sh’mini Atzeret, the eighth day after Sukkot) because each is an annual cycle. The connection to Sh’mini Atzeret, though, makes more sense because that is after we have been cleansed of our sins and just finished an entire week living in Sukkot, to commemorate the way God took care of our ancestors and how they could commune with him because his presence was among them in their camp.
The Torah is more than a list of commandments; it tells us who God is. He reveals himself to Moses and, thereby, to us and that is why I think it is best celebrated after Sukkot. In Judaism, it is said that the reason God told us to have an eighth day added to Sukkot is that he so enjoyed being with his people for those 7 days that he added an additional day. And when we turn the Torah back to the beginning, it is like reliving that first kiss.
For me, that is the true joy we get from Simchat Torah -to get to know God all over again.
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Until next time, L’hitraot and Baruch HaShem!