Simchas Torah

After celebrating Hashem’s closeness for  eight days, what could be more appropriate  than to mark the conclusion of Kri’as HaTorah  with the joyousness of Simchas Torah?  The Zohar (Parshas Pinchas 256b) is one  of the oldest sources to describe the custom:  “Yisroel have a minhag to make a rejoicing  with [the Torah] called Simchas Torah, during  which they crown the Sefer Torah with  its crown.” 

Hakhel and Shlomo 
Why do we rejoice with the Torah after  Sukkos? The Machzor Vitri (section 385)  writes that this combines the joy of completing  the Torah with the culminating Yom Tov  joy of Shemini Atzeres, and also combines  the blessing Moshe gave us V’zos Habrochoh  with the blessing Shlomo gave the people  on Shemini Atzeres (I Melochim 8:55)The Abarbanel (Vayeilech) explains that  Simchas Torah is rooted in the mitzvah of  Hakhel, the mitzvah a king has to read Sefer  Devorim publicly on Chol Hamo’ed Sukkos  once in seven years.

“I saw written,” he writes, “that every year  a kohein godol, prophet, judge, or godol hador,  read part of the Torah on Sukkos… and  on the seventh year the king concluded the  Torah… From this, a minhag remains in our  time to complete the Torah on the last day  of Shemini Atzeres that is called Simchas Torah.  The prominent member of the kehillah  stands up and concludes it… as the king did  in that time.”

By the same token, some authorities explain  that the minhag of Kol Hane’arim,  when all the small boys are given an aliyah,  is in memory of the mitzvah of Hakhel where  the Torah commands, Gather the people together,  men, women, and children (Devorim  31:12).

The Sefer Ha’eshkol cites another early  source for the rejoicing of Simchas Torah.  Shir Hashirim Rabbah (1:9) describes the  immense joy Shlomo had when Hashem  promised him unprecedented wisdom:  “Shlomo woke and behold, it [G-d’s promise]  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). Said Rabi Elazar:

From this, we learn to make a repast  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, etc., 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.”

“Therefore,” the Sefer Ha’eshkol writes,  “we have big repasts and great delights on  the day of Simchas Torah in honor of completing  the Torah.”

You may have noticed that the Zohar cited  at the beginning of the article does not mention  when Simchas Torah is celebrated. In  earlier times, Simchas Torah was celebrated  at different times of the year. Our celebration  of Simchas Torah on Shemini Atzeres is  based on the Babylonian minhag of completing  the Torah every year. Of course, this was  not feasible for the people of Eretz Yisroel  who took about three years to go through the  Torah (see Megilla 29b). In consequence, 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  Yisroel” points out that Simchas Torah fell  at different times: “The people of the east  celebrate Simchas Torah every year and the  people of Eretz Yisroel every three-and-ahalf  years.”

Because there is no joy like the joy of  Torah, many novel customs developed to increase  the joy of Simchas Torah. Even poskim  who hold that it is forbidden to dance on  Yom Tov, just as one may not play musical instrumentspermit dancing on Simchas Torah  in honor of the Torah (Ri”tz Geius, Lulav pg.  117). Another novel custom was discussed  by Rav Hai Gaon. Women used to sew their  veils and ornaments onto the crowns of Sifrei  Torah and the people called up for kri’as  haTorah would wear these adorned crowns  on their heads. Was it permitted for the  women to make normal use of their veils  and ornaments afterwards, and was there  no problem of men wearing women’s garments?

Although Rav Hai ruled leniently on  both counts, he discouraged the minhag for  other reasons.

The Rashba (Shu”t Meyuchasos LeRamban  260) mentions that the custom of wearing  Torah crowns on Simchas Torah was  very prevalent in his time: “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) records an old minhag of making bonfires on Simchas 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 Chassonim all go out and see  the simcha. The baalei batim dance around  the fire and do all sorts of joyful thingsSometimes the Rov joins them in the dance  around the fire in honor of the Torah. They  stay there until Mincha and drink wine by  the fire. And the Chassonim give the wine  and the firewood, and the shamash puts them  [in a pile], and the Chassonim pay him back”  (Minhagei Vermaiza).

While some poskim wanted to abolish the  minhag of making fi res, the Maharil favored  it: “The Maharil said that the practice of boys  to take aravos and make fire on Yom Tov is  a good minhag as it is for the simcha of Yom  Tov” (hilchos Shmini Atzeres).

In other places children celebrated the  day with flags and candles, and Poskim discussed  whether dancing with candles might  not cause them to be extinguished. In Izmir,  this discussion turned into an argument that  split the town into two warring camps. 

Just as Klal Yisroel were wedded to the  Torah at Sinai during Matan Torah (Shir  Hashirim Rabbah end ch. 3), so Simchas Torah  has the ambience of a wedding and the  person who has the last reading has the title  of Chosson Torah. Originally, Bereishis was  not read on Simchas Torah at all. Later, the  Chosson Torah read the beginning of Bereishis  after completing V’zos Habrochoh, and  later still, the reading of Bereishis was made  into a separate honor given to the Chosson  Bereishis.

Also, originally the chassanim called up  to the Torah were talmidei chachomim who  knew the Torah (Shaarei Teshuvah 669)  since these two aliyos were an honor to the  Torah and its scholars. Gradually, the situation  changed and the two aliyos were sold to  the highest bidders. Rav Eliyahu Kapsali of  Candia (16th century) complained of this new  state of affairs, writing: “People now have  the custom of calling up whoever they want  for Chosson 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) writes that the custom  of also giving these aliyos to unlearned  people helped to minimize controversy

In the twentieth century, Rav Yosef Shlomo  Kahaneman of Ponovezher Yeshiva introduced  the novel minhag of auctioning the  honors of Simchas Torah for pledges to study  hundreds or thousands of dapim of Gemara  during the coming year. He joyfully supervised  the auctioning of the honors himself,  saying that on this day he did the best busiby ness of the whole year.

In olden times, the chassonim of Simchas  Torah were accorded great honor after davening.  In some places, they were taken home  beneath a chupah to the accompaniment of  burning torches and non-Jewish musicians  (Divrei Chachomim 131). In Yerushalayim  (according to an 1882 report) the festivities  extended until the next morning: “After the  tefi llah, the worshippers took them to their  homes with great honor, song, and shouts.  One shamash had a pierced silver container  in his hand full of perfume. He sprinkled this  over the crowd who were exhausted from  their great joy in order to refresh them. After  arriving at their homes, the people sang,  shouted, and rejoiced until close to daylight.”

Rav Chaim Palagi complained that the  expense of these Chassonim feasts became  so exorbitant that it was hard to find people  to accept the honor: “Nowadays, we search  for even one pair and cannot find them… and  this is because of the expense of the feasts.”

Other kehillos made enactments to limit the  festivities. An anti-luxuries enactments of  Regio (Italy) dating from 1760 limited the  number of women accompanying the Kallah  Bereishis (the wife of the chosson Bereishis)  and Kallas HaTorah to shul, and only  two could accompany them home. Only  the women accompanying them were permitted  to throw sweet things, and the men  accompanying the Chassonim home on the  night of Simchas Torah were not permitted  to give them gifts. 

Strangely, although the Rishonom mention  the minhag of taking out all the sifrei  Torah on Simchas Torah, they do not mention  the minhag of hakafos. And even Rav  Yitzchok Isaac of Tirna who mentions it for  the first time around the 15th century specifies that hakafos only take place at night:  “We take all the sifrei Torah from the ark.  The sh’liach tzibbur takes one and begins  saying, Ana Hashem hoshi’a noh… and  circles round the bimah and the people accompany  him with the sifrei Torah… In the  morning we take all the sifrei Torah from  the ark… and the sh’liach tzibbur says, Ana  Hashem hoshi’a noh as yesterday, but he  does not circle the bimah.

In the late 1960s, Simchas Torah became  a rallying call for the persecuted Jews of  the Soviet Union. Young Jews of large cities  of the Soviet Union began congregating  around state sanctioned shuls (that were  generally locked) on Simchas Torah as a  sign of union and solidarity. How did the  custom begin? No one knows. The news  spread. Friends heard of it from friends who  heard of it from their friends. For one day  a year, Soviet Jewry united and stood unafraid  before their oppressors. Celebrating  the joy of a Torah they knew little or nothing  about, eventually led many of them to  true Torah observance. 
   (Sources: Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin,  Hamo’adim Behalacha; Yom Tov Lewinski,  Sefer Hamo’adim, Devir, Tel Aviv, 5711.)

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