Simchat Torah or Simchas Torah (שמחת תורה) is a Jewish holiday marking the conclusion of the annual cycle of public Torah readings, and the beginning of a new cycle. Simchat Torah is Hebrew for "rejoicing with the Torah". On the morning of Simchat Torah, the last parashah of Deuteronomy and the first parashah of Genesis are read out in the synagogue. Most communities have a special Torah reading on the eve of Simchat Torah. At both the morning and evening services in the synagogue, the ark is opened, and the Torah scrolls are carried around the synagogue in seven circuits, accompanied by singing and dancing.
Duration of holiday
On the Hebrew calendar
, the holiday of Sukkot
in the autumn (mid to late October) is immediately followed by the holiday of Shemini Atzeret
. In Orthodox
communities outside Israel, Shemini Atzeret is a two-day holiday and the Simchat Torah festivities are observed on the second day. The first day is referred to as "Shemini Atzeret" and the second day as "Simchat Torah," although both days are officially Shemini Atzeret according to Halakha
, and this is reflected in the liturgy.
In Israel and in Reform congregations both in Israel and the Diaspora, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are celebrated on the same day.
The Simchat Torah festivities begin with the evening service. All the synagogue's Torah scrolls are removed from the ark
and are carried around the sanctuary in a series of seven hakafot
(circuits). Although each hakafa
need only encompass one circuit around the synagogue, the dancing and singing with the Torah often continues much longer, and may overflow from the synagogue onto the streets.
In Orthodox and Conservative Jewish synagogues, each circuit is announced by a few melodious invocations imploring God to Hoshiah Na ("Save us") and ending with the refrain, Aneinu B'yom Koreinu ("Answer us on the day we call"). In Orthodox synagogues, the hakafot are accompanied by traditional chants, including biblical and liturgical verses and songs about the Torah, the goodness of God, Messianic yearnings, and prayers for the restoration of the House of David and the Temple in Jerusalem. Congregations may also sing other, popular songs during the dancing. Children are often given flags, candies and treats. The vigor of the dancing and degree of festive merriment varies with congregational temperament.
In Orthodox synagogues, the dancing is mainly carried out by men and boys; very young girls may also be sent in to dance on their fathers' shoulders. Women and older girls form their own dancing circles on the other side of a mechitza (partition) in accordance with the rules of tzniut (modesty). In Conservative congregations, men and women dance together. In some congregations, the Torah scrolls are carried out into the streets and the dancing may continue far into the evening.
After the hakafot, a portion of the last parashah of the Torah, V'Zot HaBerachah (This is the Blessing...) in Deuteronomy is read. The part read is often 33:1-34:12, but may vary by synagogue custom, although Deuteronomy is never read to the end in the evening. Simchat Torah is the only day on which the Torah is read during the evening service in Orthodox and Conservative Jewish synagogues.
The morning service, like that of other Jewish holidays, includes a special holiday Amidah
, the saying of Hallel
, and a holiday Mussaf
service. When the ark is opened to take out the Torah for the Torah reading, all the scrolls are again removed and the congregation engages in the seven hakafot
Early Priestly Blessing
In many congregations, one deviation from an otherwise ordinary holiday morning service is the performance of the Priestly Blessing
as part of the Shacharit service, before the celebrations connected with the Torah reading begin, rather than as part of the Musaf service that follows. This practice hearkens back to an old custom for the kiddush
sponsored by the Chatan Torah (see below) to be held during the Simchat Torah service itself. Since the Bible prohibits Kohanim
(descendants of Aaron) from performing the priestly blessing while intoxicated, and there is concern that Kohanim may imbibe during the Simchat Torah festivities, the blessing was moved to before the time when alcohol would be served.
In some congregations, the Kohanim deliver their blessing as usual during the Musaf service of Simchat Torah. (In Orthodox congregations in Israel, the Kohanim deliver their blessing at both Shacharit and Musaf services.)
Some congregations serve hard liquor along with other refreshments during the Simchat Torah dancing. The Orthodox Union recently advised its member synagogues not to serve alcohol to minors.
Torah reading and customs
After the hakafot
and the dancing, three scrolls of the Torah are read. The last parashah
of the Torah
, V'Zot HaBerachah
, at the end of Deuteronomy (33:1-34:12), is read from the first scroll, followed immediately by the first chapter (and part of the second) of the Book of Genesis
(1:1-2:3), which is read from the second scroll.
An aliyah for all
In many congregations it is customary to call all eligible members of the congregation for an aliyah
to the Torah on Simchat Torah. In some congregations, the first five aliyot
are reread so that everyone has an opportunity to recite the blessing. To save time, some congregations call people up in groups. Others hold a series of separate minyanim
for the Torah reading.
Another custom is to call all the boys (in some Modern Orthodox, Conservative and Liberal/Reform congregations, both boys and girls) to a special aliyah
called Kol HaNe'arim
(all the children). In many Orthodox congregations, a large talit
is spread out over the heads of all the children as the blessing over the Torah is pronounced, and for the congregation to bless the children by reciting (in Hebrew) a verse from Jacob's blessing to Ephraim
- May the angel who redeems me from all evil bless the children, and may my name be declared among them, and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they teem like fish for multitude within the land.
The blessing of the children is omitted from the 1985 edition of Conservative Judaism's Siddur Sim Shalom prayer book, but was reinstated in later versions of Sim Shalom. Most Conservative congregations still perform it.
After the portion of Genesis is read, the Maftir
29:35-30:1, is read from a third Torah scroll. The passage describes the prescribed sacrifices
performed for the holiday. The haftarah
(reading from the prophets) is the first section of the Book of Joshua
History of the holiday
The name Simchat Torah
was not used until a relatively late time. In the Talmud
(Meg. 31b) it is called simply the second day of Shemini Atzeret
In the ninth century, some European Jewish communities assigned a special reading from the Prophets to be read on this day. In the fourteenth century the reading of Genesis was added immediately upon the completion of Deuteronomy. In southern European countries it then became a general practice to remove all the Torah scrolls from the ark, and to sing a separate hymn for each scroll. In northern European countries, those who had finished the reading of Deuteronomy made donations to the synagogue, after which the wealthier members of the community would give a dinner for friends and acquaintances. By the end of the fifteenth century it was a common though not universal practice for the children to tear down and burn the sukkahs on Simchat Torah (Joseph Colon, Responsa, No. 26); and shortly afterward many Rabbis permitted dancing in the synagogue at this festival (ib.).
In the sixteenth century the practice of taking out the scrolls and filing solemnly around the bimah on the night of the 23nd of Tishri became customary; and on the same evening, after the procession, a number of passages from the Torah were read.
In the 17th century, Rebecca bat Meir Tiktiner of Prague composed a poem about Simhat Torah.
In Poland it was the custom to sell to the members of the congregation, on the 23nd of Tishri, the privilege of executing various functions during the services on Shabbats and festivals; i.e., the synagogue used this occasion as a fund-raiser. People who made these donations were called up to the Torah and given a congregational blessing.
It became a custom for every male member of the congregation to read from the Torah, the passage Deut. 33:1-29 being repeated as many times as was necessary for this purpose. Today this practice is still followed in Orthodox synagogues; Conservative synagogues adapt this practice by also including women. One person is given the privilege of completing the reading of the Law with Deut. 34:1-12; he receives the name of Chatan Torah (bridegroom of the Torah). After him comes the member who recommences the reading of the Torah with Gen. 1. He is called the Chatan Bereshit (bridegroom of Genesis).
In the twentieth century
, Simchat Torah came to symbolize the public assertion of Jewish identity. The Jews of the Soviet Union
, in particular, would celebrate the festival en masse
in the streets of Moscow
. On October 14, 1973, more than 100,000 Jews took part in a Simchat Torah rally on behalf of refusniks
and Soviet Jewry.
Dancing in the street with the Torah become part the holiday's ritual in various Jewish congregations in the United States as well.
As festive and memorable point on the Jewish calendar, the celebration of Simchat Torah has endured among many Jews who have shown declining interest in other aspects of Jewish observance. In 1996, the Israel Postal Authority issued a postage stamp to honor the holiday.
- Machzor Beis Yosef / The Complete Artscroll Machzor: Succos - Nusach Ashkenaz, Translation and Commentary by Avie Gold. Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 1989. (Fifteenth printing 2006). (Orthodox, Ashkenazic Prayerbook for Sukkot including Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah)
- Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals Ed. Leonard Cahan, 1998. (Conservative)
- Goodman, Philip. Sukkot and Simchat Torah Anthology JPS, 1988. ISBN 0827600100
- Yaari, A. Toldot Hag Simchat Torah. Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 1964.
- Zinberg, Israel. Old Yiddish Literature from Its Origins to the Haskalah Period KTAV, 1975. ISBN 0870684655. On Rebecca batMeir Tikitiner's Simchat Torah poem, see p.51ff.