Simchat Torah is the time when Jewish children of all ages and from all denominations rejoice in celebration of a personal connection to the Torah and to their community. The festivities are often so exciting they’re recounted for months—and sometimes even years—afterwards. But for Spanish & Portuguese Jews living in England and elsewhere around the world, the story of one particular Simchat Torah celebration will be told again this year, exactly 350 years after it happened.
On Thursday night at London’s Spanish & Portuguese congregation, Bevis Marks Synagogue, the story recounted will be of renowned British diarist Samuel Pepys unexpectedly entering Congregation Shaar Hashamayim in London on Simchat Torah in 1663. Pepys’ account of his experience has become one of the most famous foundational stories in the narrative of Anglo-Jewry.
The modern Jewish community in England began in 1656, several hundred years after its expulsion in 1290 (though individual Jews had stayed and others visited during the intermediary centuries). During the 17th-century, famed Portuguese kabbalist and rabbi Menasseh ben Israel tirelessly petitioned the British Parliament to allow for the re-establishment of an organized Jewish community in England, and Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the British Commonwealth, granted permission for the Jews to reenter. Almost immediately, a Portuguese-Jewish merchant named António Fernandez Carvajal, the first Jew to be re-admitted to England, established a synagogue that would worship in the Spanish & Portuguese traditions.
Within several months, on December 19th, 1656, Congregation Shaar Hashamayim opened in Creechurch Lane in the City of London. (A related Spanish & Portuguese congregation in New York City, Shearith Israel, was established two years earlier in 1654 and remains the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States.)
Just a few years later, Pepys found himself at Shaar Hashamayim during Simchat Torah, completely aghast at the joyous scene before his eyes. In his diary entry for Wednesday, October 14th, 1663, he recorded the event, forever capturing for posterity the mood from that Simchat Torah evening 350 years ago:
Up and to my office, where all the morning, and part of it Sir J. Minnes spent, as he do every thing else, like a fool, reading the Anatomy of the body to me, but so sillily as to the making of me understand any thing that I was weary of him, and so I toward the ‘Change and met with Mr. Grant, and he and I to the Coffee-house, where I understand by him that Sir W. Petty and his vessel are coming, and the King intends to go to Portsmouth to meet it. Thence home and after dinner my wife and I, by Mr. Rawlinson’s conduct, to the Jewish Synagogue: where the men and boys in their vayles, and the women behind a lattice out of sight; and some things stand up, which I believe is their Law, in a press to which all coming in do bow; and at the putting on their vayles do say something, to which others that hear him do cry Amen, and the party do kiss his vayle. Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew. And anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that every one desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing. And in the end they had a prayer for the King, which they pronounced his name in Portugall; but the prayer, like the rest, in Hebrew. But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this. Away thence with my mind strongly disturbed with them, by coach and set down my wife in Westminster Hall, and I to White Hall, and there the Tangier Committee met, but the Duke and the Africa Committee meeting in our room, Sir G. Carteret; Sir W. Compton, Mr. Coventry, Sir W. Rider, Cuttance and myself met in another room, with chairs set in form but no table, and there we had very fine discourses of the business of the fitness to keep Sally, and also of the terms of our King’s paying the Portugees that deserted their house at Tangier, which did much please me, and so to fetch my wife, and so to the New Exchange about her things, and called at Thomas Pepys the turner’s and bought something there, an so home to supper and to bed, after I had been a good while with Sir W. Pen, railing and speaking freely our minds against Sir W. Batten and Sir J. Minnes, but no more than the folly of one and the knavery of the other do deserve.
Pepys’ depiction seems pretty similar to what one might see today on Simchat Torah, and offers a rare portrayal of early modern synagogue practice on one of the most festive days of the Jewish calendar. The story continues to be told to Jews and non-Jews alike when they enter a Spanish & Portuguese congregation in America and Europe on Simchat Torah night, with the hopes that they too will experience a similar feeling of festive, jovial, communal frivolity in celebration of the Torah.
Menachem Butler, a contributing editor at Tablet Magazine, is the program coordinator for Jewish Law Projects at The Julis-Rabinowitz Program on Jewish and Israeli Law at the Harvard Law School, and a co-editor at the Seforim blog. Follow him on Twitter @MyShtender.