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 instruments, permit 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 things. Sometimes 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.)