In popular thinking Simchat Torah is a sort of Purim, a day for carnival jollification. But the popular view is wrong.
Simchat Torah is, in some respects, more spiritual. It epitomises the “simchah shel mitzvah”, the joy of the Divine commandment, a day to rejoice in the study and observance of the Torah.
Purim is more down to earth. It symbolises the fear and fright of the antisemite’s plan to exterminate us, and our relief at escaping.
Both are occasions of joy. The one reminds us that it’s hard to be a Jew, the other that being a Jew is good.
Both, however, are days of happiness, and on both it is we have to share our rejoicing with others, not just by being generous but by being thoughtful.
One Simchat Torah, Rabbi Chaim Gutnick of Melbourne asked one of his congregants who insisted on dancing with the Torah, “If you were a person who studied the Torah I would understand why you want a Torah to dance with!”
The congregant responded, “If someone else has something to celebrate, I am happy too!”
DRINKING & THINKING
Some congregations wax and wane on Simchat Torah morning.
There is a custom to call as many people as possible to the Torah reading. After each Aliyah it seems to be the practice in such places that the person who has just been called up immediately makes an exit from the synagogue.
When I first encountered this practice I became a detective, following the person concerned to see where he was off to. I discovered that in a nearby room there was a drinking club in session. Each Aliyah was followed by a whisky (plus, in that particular shule, herring on a cracker).
I must say I was underwhelmed. A whisky has its place and time, but what it adds to the love of the Torah which is the purpose of the Simchat Torah festival is highly debatable.
I am even less impressed with the habit in some places of plastering young people with alcohol which often ends up as vomit in the gutters. No God, no religion, no spiritual joy.
The answer is not necessarily to be a teetotaler, but can’t we think of something better? Can’t the policy be that of the Psalmist, “Worship the Lord in gladness, enter His Presence with song” (Psalm 100:2)?
ADDING A NEW FESTIVAL
In a traditional faith like Judaism it is understandable that new commandments are not to be introduced, so how can the Jewish people have brought into being a new festival like Simchat Torah which has no roots in the Bible?
Yehudah HaLevi’s answer is that the prohibition applies to individuals, not to the sages of Israel.
When the sages institute something new, it is in order to strengthen the existing structures of Judaism. Thus their “Seven Commandments of the Rabbis” include kindling Shabbat lights with the purpose of strengthening the hold of Shabbat. They include chanting Hallel on festive days, which enhances the joy of the occasion.
Simchat Torah enriches the Jewish love affair with the Torah, especially by means of the regular reading of the Chumash.
Making the Torah reading an annual obligation not only stresses that the whole of the Torah is sacred, but emphasises the authority of the Babylonian custom of reading the Torah over the course of one year (as opposed to Eretz Yisra’el where they took three years).
Anglo-Jewry rarely used the Hebrew name for anything.
Pesach was Passover, Shavu’ot was Pentecost, Rosh HaShanah was New Year, Yom Kippur was The Day of Atonement, Sukkot was Tabernacles… and Sh’mini Atzeret was The Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly.
This latter name sounded highly impressive, but no-one really knew what it meant.
They could have looked up the Chumash and they would have found the combination of the words “sh’mini” and “atzeret” (Num. 29:35; cf. Lev. 23:36) but the two words are not a complete phrase (“sh’mini atzeret”) but part of a sentence, “On the 8th day you shall have an atzeret”.
The root of the word is “ayin-tzadde-resh”, which means to stop or close.
It is used in relation to Shavu’ot which is the “atzeret”, the closing festival of Pesach, occurring after seven weeks of the Omer. By analogy, Sh’mini Atzeret is the closing festival of Sukkot.
In theory it should have been seven weeks after the beginning of Sukkot, but that would have been well into the winter season when a pilgrimage to Jerusalem would have been difficult.
To make life easier for the Israelites, says the Midrash, God moved the closing festival and made it right at the end of the Sukkot celebrations.