SIMḤAT TORAH ("The Rejoicing over the Law"):
Name given to the second day of Shemini 'Aẓeret; it falls on the 23d of Tishri and closes the Feast of Sukkot. The name was not used until a relatively late time. In the Talmud (Meg. 31a),where the hafṭarah for this feast-day is given, it is called simply the second day of Shemini 'Aẓeret; and it is so designated in the prayer for the day. The name "Simḥat Torah" came into use after the introduction of the one-year cycle for the reading of the Law, and was due to the fact that the reading was finished on this day (see Zunz, "Ritus," pp. 86, 87).Post-Biblical Origin.
In the ninth century the assignment of a new hafṭarah, Josh. i., to this feast is mentioned ("Seder Rab 'Amram," i. 52a). The prayer "Asher bi-gelal abot," the lines of which begin with the successive letters of the alphabet, was already in use in that century, and Saadia Gaon forbade its recitation beyond the line beginning with the letter פ, since the remainder contained irrelevant matter (ib.). In the fourteenth century the reading of Genesis was begun immediately upon the completion of Deuteronomy, the reason assigned being, according to Jacob b. Asher (Ṭur Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 669), that Satan might not say the Jews had finished the reading of the Torah and were unwilling to begin anew. In southern countries it then became the general practise to take out all the scrolls of the Law from the Ark on the morning of the feast and to repeat a separate hymn for each scroll. In northern countries it became customary about the same period for those who had finished the reading of Deuteronomy and had begun Genesis to make generous gifts of money to the synagogue, after which the wealthier members of the community gave a dinner to friends and acquaintances. By the end of the fifteenth century it was usual, though scarcely a universal practise, for the children to tear down and burn the Sukkot booths on Simḥat Torah (Joseph Colon, Responsa, No. 26); and shortly afterward the Rabbis permitted dancing in the synagogue at this festival (ib.).
In the sixteenth century the practise of taking out the scrolls and of filing solemnly around the almemar on the night of the 22d of Tishri became customary; and on the same evening, after the procession, the passages Deut. xxxiii. 1-29, Gen. i. 1-ii. 3, and Num. xxix. 35-39 were read from three different scrolls, after which the leader took a scroll in his hand, chanting, among other hymns, the one beginning "Hitḳabbeẓu mal'akim zeh el zeh." In Poland, however, it was the custom merely to sell to the members of the congregation on the 22d of Tishri the privilege of executing various functions during the services on Sabbaths and at festivals, the purchasers being called up to the Law, and a blessing being pronounced upon them ("mi sheberak"). On the morning of the 23d of Tishri every member of the congregation read from the Torah, the passage Deut. xxxiii. 1-29 being repeated as many times as was necessary for this purpose; then the children were called up to the Law; and after the leader had read a few sentences, he recited with them the verse Gen. xlviii. 16. The member who had bought the privilege of completing the reading of the Law with Deut. xxxiv. 1-12 then stepped forward; he received the name of "ḥatan Torah" and was summoned with the prayer "Me-reshut ha-El ha-Gadol." After him came the member who was to recommence the reading with Gen. i. 1-ii. 3. He was summoned with the prayer "Me-reshut meromam," and was called "ḥatan Bereshit." The service was concluded by the Mafṭir; and the scrolls were then replaced (Moses Isserles, "Darke Mosheh," on Asheri, Ṭur Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 669; see also Bridegroom of the Law). Even the distribution of fruits to children on this festival is traced back to an ancient custom ("Be'er Heṭeb," ad loc.). In the eighteenth century the custom of firing salutes as a sign of rejoicing was also instituted (ib.).
In general, the ritual as here described has been preserved unchanged by Orthodox congregations; and the ceremony of filing around the almemar with the scrolls takes place not only on the evening of the 22d and on the morning of the 23d of Tishri, but also on the evening of the 21st of that month, as a sort of preparatory celebration. In this procession the children carry small flags with the colors of the country in which they live, or tiny banners with the inscription "Sisu we-simḥu be-simḥat Torah," or else small torches or candles. After each circuit has been completed the single scrolls are given to other members of the congregation in order that every one may participate in the ceremony, which is frequently prolonged until after midnight.
- De Sola, The Festival Prayers, vol. vi., London, 1897;
- W. Rosenau, Jewish Ceremonial Institutions and Customs, pp. 100-102, Baltimore, 1903.