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How Did Simchat Torah Get So Popular?

The festive holiday now overshadows Shemini Atzeret, which has biblical roots

Shlomo M. Brody
October 15, 2014
Simchat Torah decorationsFlickr
Simchat Torah decorationsFlickr

Simchat Torah is an anomaly on the Jewish calendar. The festival, which celebrates the completion of the yearly cycle of public Torah reading, doesn’t appear in the Bible or even the Talmud. The holiday that does appear in biblical texts on this date is Shemini Atzeret, a one-day festival that immediately follows Sukkot and completes the holiday season. Yet over the last millennium, Simchat Torah has become one of the most beloved holidays of the Jewish year—and in some ways overshadows the other holiday with which it shares a date.

The Talmud deems it unfathomable that the Jews had a period without public Torah reading. It asserts that Moses established public reading of the Torah on Shabbat mornings and on the festivals, with Ezra subsequently adding readings on Mondays, Thursdays, and Shabbat afternoons. Based on passages in Philo and in the Talmud, Professor Yitzhak Gilat has suggested that these ancient readings followed no set order; rather, they were chosen based on timely topics and on the local sage’s inclinations.

By late antiquity, an order was established for the weekly public readings, yet the two major centers of Judaism differed on how to apportion them. Communities in Israel divided the Torah into more than 150 sections. As such, the idea of an annual holiday to celebrate the Torah’s completion wouldn’t have occurred to the worshippers, since it took three to three-and-a-half years to complete the reading. Instead, each community, reading at a different pace, would hold its own celebration upon completing its reading cycle.

Seeking to complete the Torah each year, Babylonian communities uniformly divided the Torah into 54 portions (called parashot in Hebrew), the maximum number of non-festival Shabbatot that can occur in a Jewish leap year. (Non-leap years include the reading of “double parashot,” with two portions read in one week.) By completing the cycle after Sukkot, as opposed to before Rosh Hashanah, these communities were able to time the major speeches of admonition in Deuteronomy to be read before the High Holidays. Additionally, Moses’ concluding blessing to the nation provided a fitting conclusion to the Tishrei holiday season. While the custom from the Land of Israel survived until the early Middle Ages, the Babylonian practice, as with many matters, ultimately won the day.

The completion of the Torah cycle on Shemini Atzeret, however, was potentially problematic, since each holiday demands its own thematically appropriate reading. Like all diaspora communities, Babylonian congregations observed two days of each festival, providing an easy solution. On the first day of Shemini Atzeret, which this year begins on Wednesday night, the holiday portion is read, while on the second day (colloquially known today as Simchat Torah), the congregation reads the last portion of Deuteronomy, called VeZot HaBerakha.

With only one day afforded to the festival in Israel, priority has, perhaps surprisingly, been given to the Simchat Torah reading, with recognition of Shemini Atzeret—the biblical holiday—relegated to the brief “maftir” reading and the Amidah service. Combining two days of rituals into one also means that the festive dancing in honor of the Torah gets followed by two prayers customarily recited on Shemini Atzeret: the somber yizkor memorial service and the solemn prayer for rain.

Another distinctive element of Simhat Torah is that in addition to reading the day’s Torah portion and its maftir, we take out a third Torah scroll to begin the reading OF Genesis. As Avraham Yaari’s chronicle of Simchat Torah documents, this was not the practice in Babylonia. Rather, 12-century European communities began reciting the first verses of Genesis (frequently orally or from a Bible, not a Torah scroll) to display their love of the Torah and eagerness to study it afresh. Similarly, they also chose the beginning of Joshua for the haftorah, thereby continuing the biblical narrative and highlighting the importance of the rest of Scripture.

To my mind, these later additions of beginning both Genesis and Joshua might indicate how the Torah celebration came to dominate this date. On the last day of the holiday season, we assert that the best way to begin the near year is by going back to the beginning and starting our journey anew.

Rabbi Dr. Shlomo M. Brody is the executive director of Ematai and the author of Ethics of Our Fighters: A Jewish View on War and Morality (Maggid Books).