Simchat Torah - שמחת תורה

By Rabbi Dr. Hillel ben David (Greg Killian)

 


The Reasons for the Readings. 3

How do we celebrate?. 4

The Development 4

Origins. 5

Song and Circuit Dancing. 5

In Eretz Israel 6

Dates. 6

Atzeret: 6

Rain: 6

Hakhel (Gathering) 7

Second Thoughts. 10

 

In this study I would like to examine the holiday Simchat Torah (Ashkenazim pronounce this as Simchas Torah). To do this, I will need to take an extensive look at Shemini Atzeret because these two holidays occur on the same day. While Simchat Torah is not mentioned explicitly in the Torah, it is a part of our tradition. Thus we know that these later generations are being taught something wonderfull through this mystical holiday.

 

 

Simchat Torah is normally translated as "Rejoicing in the Torah”. Simchat Torah celebrates the completion of the reading of the Torah by the community. Those communities which follow the Annual cycle complete the reading of the Torah in one year. Those who follow the Shmita or triennial cycle will complete the Torah once in three and a half years or twice in a Sabbatical cycle of seven years. Simchat Torah focuses on the Torah, the Five Books of Moses. This completion of the Torah readings is a time of great celebration, with processions, singing, and dancing.

 

Tishri 22, the day after the seventh day of Succoth, is the holiday of Shemini Atzeret. In Israel, Shemini Atzeret is also the holiday of Simchat Torah. Outside of Israel, where extra days of holidays are held, only the second day of Shemini Atzeret is Simchat Torah:

 

Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are on Tishri 22 in Eretz Israel.

 

Shemini Atzeret is Tishri 22 and 23, while Simchat Torah is Tishri 23, outside Israel.

 

Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah is one day holiday, the 8th day of cessation, assembly, or gathering, occurs right after the seven days of Succoth.

 

Simchat Torah is characterized by joyful dancing with the Torah. The final portion of the Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) is read in the synagogue followed by the beginning of the Book of Bereshit (Genesis). In this manner, the cycle of Torah readings by the community continues without ending.

 

The Torah Portion for Shemini Atzeret for the first day in the diaspora is:

 

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 14:22 - 16:17

Bamidbar (Numbers) 29:35 - 30:1

 

Haftorah: 1 Melakim (Kings) 8:54-66

 

The Torah Portion for Simchat Torah and Shemini Atzeret in Eretz Israel and the second day of Shemini Atzeret in the diaspora is:

 

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 33:1-34:12 (Vezot Habracha)

Bereshit (Genesis) 1:1-2:3

Maftir:  Bamidbar (Numbers) 29:35-30:1

 

Haftarah: Joshua 1:1-1:18

 

This "Reading of the Torah" refers to the fact that Moshe instituted the public reading of the Torah on each Shabbat, at the time of the exodus from Egypt. The completion of this reading of the Torah was later celebrated as Simchat Torah.

 

The Hakhel. (gathering) was the time when the populace gathered, once in seven years, for a public reading of the Law. This reading came at the time that the whole community had already spent seven years reading through the Torah twice, on successive Shabbatot of the seven years, until they arrived at Simchat Torah in a Shmita, or Sabbatical year. They began the Torah reading cycle in Tishri, seven years earlier. The first cycle ended in Nisan and the second cycle culminates on the exact same day that this inspiring journey had began. Now, on this fatefull day, the whole community will listen as the Torah is read by the King in the Temple. What a magnificent day!

 

In many communities it is customary to read the Torah on the evening of Shemini Atzeret [or on Simchat Torah outside the land of Israel], this is the ONLY time of the year when the Torah is read at night.

 

The practice of reading the final portion of the Torah, Devarim (Deuteronomy) 33-34, on this day was set by the Mishna. From this practice, there gradually grew a tradition of a special, joyous celebration to mark that completion. The basis for such a celebration is found in the Midrash, which described Solomon as having made a special feast after he was granted wisdom:

 

Midrash Rabbah - Ecclesiastes I:1 ‘Seest thou a man diligent in his business? he shall stand before kings' (melakim)--read the phrase as 'He shall stand before angels’ (mal'akim). R. Simon said in the name of R. Simeon b. Halafta: It may be likened to a councillor who became great in the royal palace. The king said to him, ‘Ask what you will and I shall give it you.’ The councillor thought to himself, ' If I ask for silver and gold, or precious pearls, or garments, he will give them to me; but I will ask for his daughter [in marriage] and then everything will be given to me included with his daughter.’ Similarly, In Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said: Ask what I shall give thee (I Kings III, 5). Solomon thought to himself, ' If I ask for silver and gold and pearls, He will give them to me; but I shall ask for wisdom and then everything will be included.’ That is what is written, Give Thy servant therefore an understanding heart (ib. 9). The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: ‘Thou hast asked for wisdom and didst not ask riches, honour, and the life of thine enemies for thyself; therefore wisdom and knowledge will be granted thee and thereby riches and possessions also will I give thee’ (cf. ib. 11 ff.). Immediately, Solomon awoke, and, behold it was a dream (ib. 15). R. Isaac said: A dream stands upon its foundation. [Solomon became so wise that] when a bird chirped he knew for what it chirped, and when an ass brayed he knew for what it brayed. At once, He came to Jerasalem, and stood before the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and offered up burnt-offerings, and offered peace-offerings, and made a feast to all his servants (ib.). (R. Isaac said: we learn from this that a feast should be held after completing [the study of] the Torah.) Forthwith the Holy Spirit alighted upon him and he composed the following three Books: Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes. Hence it is written, THE WORDS OF KOHELETH, THE SON OF DAVID.

 

There are two commonly heard misconceptions about Shemini Atzeret (Simchat Torah):

 

(1) That the Simcha, the joy of the Holiday, is the result of the Siyum[1], the ending of the Torah reading cycle.

 

(2) That we read the last parsha of the Torah, Vezot Habrachah, because we finish the reading annual cycle.

 

Nothing could be further from the truth than these two misconceptions. First, the excessive joy on Shemini Atzeret is a Torah commandment, one of the 613, where as the ending of the reading of the Torah in a cycle of one year is a relatively late Rabbinical custom. Hence the Simcha, the joy, of the holiday is a part of the laws of Shemini Atzeret, rather than a result of the Siyum. And secondly, the reading of Vezot Habrachah on Shemini Atzeret is an ancient custom dictated by the Mishna and has nothing to do with the Annual reading cycle. In fact, we may clearly say the opposite, that they instituted the ending of the cycle on Shemini Atzeret, because we read on this day the last parsha of the Torah. So why did the Mishna elect the Vezot Habrachah reading for Shemini Atzeret?

 

The Reasons for the Readings[2]

 

Shemini Atzeret is an open, yet concealed, feast. Chazal, our sages, apparently aware of the dilemma, and being fearful that the meaning of the holiday would be forgotten or overlooked, especially in the diaspora, instituted the requirement to read the main story of the holiday, the story of King Solomon building the Holy Temple, not less than three times throughout Succoth and Shemini Atzeret. Yet the story remains concealed from our heart and mind. We read it, time and again during the Shemini Atzeret holiday, year after year, totally unimpressed. We read it in the Haftarah of the second day of Succoth, on the first day of Shemini Atzeret, and on the second day of Shemini Atzeret [the reading from Joshua is wrong, say the Tosfot in Megilah].Yet, the halachic literature of the last two thousand years almost ignores it.

 

Moreover, as if to engrave the story in our mind even more so that we will not forget it, we read in the Torah from Vezot Habrachah, the last chapters of the Torah, in the memory of the story of King Solomon . Why, indeed, do we read that section in Shemini Atzeret? Everyone assumes that it is because we end the Torah reading cycle on Shemini Atzeret, but the Mishna in Megilah already says that we read it not for the Siyum but for the Holiday itself. And at the time of the Mishna there was no Simchat Torah and they used to finish the cycle once every three and a half years. So why does the Mishna elect the reading from Vezot Habrachah? Explains Rashi: Since the Haftarah says, "And on the eighth day he sent the people away and they blessed the King" (1 Melakim [Kings] 1:8). And Abudarham concurs: The people blessed the king, and the king, in turn, blessed the people. And it became a custom throughout the first Temple time that on Shemini Atzeret the people came to visit the King from the house of David, and the King in turn blessed the people. Since Moshe was not only a prophet but also a King, it is appropriate to read on this day his blessings too. Hence, not only do we read repeatedly the Haftarah from Melakim about the story of King Solomon, but we also read because of it, from the Torah itself, the blessing of the King who is Moshe. Moreover: We encounter the story of Solomon even when we study the Halachot of the holiday. According to the Talmud, the essence of Shemini Atzeret may be summarized in the acronym of the six letters כשו פזר (PZR-KShV), which also mean: ‘Pazer’ - disperse, ‘Keshev’- Listen. Hence we have two opposing messages in the same acronym. One part PZR will disperse your mind away, so to speak, whereas the second part - KShV - will lead you to the real meaning of the Holiday.

 

On Simchat Torah we read Vezot Habracha to complete the Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) and thus the whole Torah. This Torah portion begins with the blessing of Moshe, right before he dies, for the Jewish people and each tribe. Then Moshe ascends Mt. Nebo where HaShem shows him all of the land the Jewish people are about to inherit. He dies, is buried in an unknown spot, and the Jewish people mourn for thirty days. The Torah then concludes with the words, "Never again has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moshe, whom the Almighty had known face to face..." At the end of each Book of the Torah the congregation calls out in unison, "Chazak, chazak, v'nizchazeik" which means "Be strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened!" This is the eternal battle cry of the Jewish people. We then read the Book of Bereshit (Genesis), symbolizing that the Torah truly has no beginning or end; it is eternal and through our learning and fulfilling the Torah, the Jewish people is eternal!

 

How do we celebrate?

 

On Shemini Atzeret, which corresponds to Simchat Torah, we remove the Torah scrolls from the ark and make seven circles around the bimah (the raised platform where the Torah is read in the synagogue). The congregation dances before the Torah with intense joy. Some have the tradition of placing a lighted candle in the ark while the scrolls are removed so that the ark will not be without light.

 

Hallel (Psalms 113-118) is recited after the Shacharit Amidah (The morning prayer) on Shimini Atzeret.

 

The Torah reading at Shacharit, the morning service, is the last sidra in the Torah, Devarim (Deuteronomy) 33:1 - 34:12. It is customary that every male congregant is called up to the Torah for reading, on this day. Therefore, this portion is read through a number of times. The reading is concluded with calling up three people for aliyot, which is unique to this day. After this reading, another person is called to read the first portion of Bereshit (Genesis). The person given this honor is called the Chazzan Bereshit, the bridegroom of Genesis.

 

There is a special aliyah called "All the Children". This is the only time in the year when children are given an aliyah. A tallit is spread like a canopy over their heads and they say the blessing along with an adult who accompanies them. After the second blessing, the congregation recites:

 

Bereshit (Genesis) 48:16 "The angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the youths; and let my name be named on them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth".

 

It is customary for the Chazzan Torah, the most distinguished congregant who reads the conclusion of the Torah, to invite the entire congregation to a festive Kiddush to celebrate Simchat Torah.

 

On Simchat Torah it is customary to hand out flags to be reminiscent of the tribal flags under which the Israelites marched in the desert.

 

On Simchat Torah it is customary to put an apple on top of the flagstaff, or an apple with a hole carved out for a lighted candle, to evoke images of the Torah as light.

 

In some synagogues it is customary to allow some good-natured fooling around during mussaf (the additional prayers said after shacharit on Shabbat and festivals), particularly by the children, who tie the tzitzith together or throw water on the Chazzan when he recites, "who brings forth wind and brings down rain".

 

On Simchat Torah, taking hold of the Torah, and touching it, are privileges that are given to the whole congregation, in fulfillment of:

 

Mishlei (Proverbs) 3:13-18 Blessed is the man who finds wisdom, the man who gains understanding, For she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold. She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who embrace her; those who lay hold of her will be blessed.

 

It is worth noting that the imagery, the rejoicing, and the prayers all picture the culmination and consummation of a wedding feast.

 

The Development


While the tradition of added merriment on this last day of the holiday in honor of completing the Torah began during the ninth and tenth centuries of the common era, at the time of the Geonim, the name Simchat Torah came into use even later. The custom of reading of the last portion of the Torah was set by the Talmud, but that of reading of the first chapter of Bereshit (Genesis) was not introduced on Simchat Torah until sometime after the 12th century. The reasons given for this additional reading were:

 

1) To indicate that "just as we were privileged to witness its completion, so shall we be privileged to witness its beginning" and

 

2) To prevent Satan from accusing Israel that they were happy to finish the Torah (in the sense of getting it over with) and did not care to continue to read it.

 

Initially it was the custom for the same person who completed Devarim (Deuteronomy) to read the Bereshit (Genesis) portion from memory without using a scroll, on account of the general rule that "two scrolls are not taken out for one reader." Eventually the practice developed of calling two different persons, one for the reading of the last portion of Devarim (Deuteronomy) and one for the first portion of Bereshit (Genesis), and two different scrolls began to be used.

 

The celebration of Simchat Torah in concert with Shemini Atzeret grew gradually during the middle ages. Until the Middle Ages there was more than one Torah reading cycle[3]. Another widespread reading cycle was the triennial or septennial cycle in which the Torah was read through in three and a half years. After the adoption of a single reading cycle, the annual cycle, the obvious desire to celebrate the concluding and the beginning of the Torah reading developed.

 

The ritual custom most closely identified with Simchat Torah is that of the hakkafot. Hakkafot is the term used to designate ceremonial processional circuits, whether in the synagogue or elsewhere. On Simchat Torah, all the Torah scrolls are removed from the Ark, and carried around the central platform in seven hakkafot. This takes place during the evening service and also before the readings from the two Torah scrolls (described above) during the morning service (shacharit). Hasidic practice in the Diaspora is to conduct hakkafot also at the evening service of the first day of Shemini Atzeret, as in Israel.

 

Origins

 

Although the custom of hakkafot on Simchat Torah is of rather late origin, dating from about the last third of the 16th century (in the city of Safed), the practice of hakkafot goes back much further. Processional circuits are first mentioned in the Tanach, in the book of Joshua, as a build-up to the downfall of the walls of Jericho. There were seven circuits around Jericho; once a day (starting on Passover) for six days, and seven times on the seventh day.


The lulav (and aravot too) were carried around the Temple altar during the seven days of Succoth; once a day during the first six days, and seven times on the seventh day (see above). From there developed the custom of hakkafot around the synagogue with the lulav and the etrog. At traditional Jewish wedding ceremonies the custom of hakkafot is still to be seen in the circling by the bride around the bridegroom at the very start of the ceremony, usually seven circuits. Three such circuits (Persian custom) can be said to symbolize the three-part passage from the Prophets, which describes Israel's relationship to HaShem in terms of an idyllic betrothal and marriage:


I will betroth you unto me forever; I will betroth you unto me in righteousness and judgment, in loving-kindness and mercy; I will betroth you unto me in faithfulness and you shall know the Lord. (See also weekday morning prayer for putting on tefillin).

 

Song and Circuit Dancing

 

In addition to the prescribed passages, it is commonplace for the congregation to join in the singing of many additional songs, generally verses from the Tanach or the prayer book that have been put to music. It is also the practice in the more traditional congregations for the worshippers to join a circle and dance in between each circuit.

 

Every other time of the year we have the opportunity to honor the Torah by studying it. On Simchat Torah, however, the Torah scroll remains covered! It is not available for intellectual study, only for being rejoiced through our dancing. And while we each attain our own unique personal level in Torah-study, when it comes to circling around the Torah together, we are all equal--two feet each! Distinctions based on level of intellect or even committment are irrelevant. We just dance. Then the Torah is "happy," G-d is happy, and we have a good time too. Afterwards, we should find that the dancing itself arouses us to increase our Torah study efforts throughout the new year.

 

Those holding Torah scrolls also join the dancing. In the yeshivot, the schools of higher Jewish learning, and in those congregations where traditional youth predominates, the singing and dancing that accompany the hakkafot can last for many hours. It is sometimes even carried outdoors. The whirling bodies and the stomping feet, perhaps a performance of acrobatic feats by someone inside the dancing circle, all accompanied by continuous song, provide a scene of ecstatic joy. Small children are generally given decorative flags or miniature scrolls and they too follow the Torah scrolls in the processions.

 

In Eretz Israel

 

In Jerusalem, it is now customary on Simchat Torah morning for some congregations to join together in a mass dancing procession through the city to the Western Wall. Led by scrolls of the Torah carried under the canopies, literally thousands of people, young and old, eight and ten abreast, dance and sing their way to the Western Wall in a procession that stretches for as far as the eye can see. The original custom of holding the hakkafot at the conclusion of Simchat Torah inspired the custom in Israel of carrying the Simchat Torah celebration also into the night after the holiday. Public gatherings with bands and music featuring hakkafot and singing and dancing are then held. In one public square of Jerusalem, it is customary for the Chief Rabbis and high government officials to participate. At that celebration there is featured the varied practices of the different Jewish communities: Hasidic, Yemenite, Bukharan, native Israeli, etc. A different group is responsible for each of the hakkafot, doing it in their respective traditional dress and with their traditional melodies.

 

Dates

 

Simchat Torah, which coincides with Shemini Atzeret, is observed on:

 

2013:   Sundown September 25-27

2014:   Sundown October 15-17

2015:   Sundown October 4-6

2016:   Sundown October 23-25

2017:   Sundown October 11-13

 

Simchat Torah is only the first day in the land of Israel. Outside the land of Israel it is celebrated only on the second day.

 

Atzeret:

 

The Shemini Atzeret festival is related to the festival of the giving of the Torah, meaning the festival of Shavuot, which the Talmud always refers to as atzeret. We find the name atzeret also applied by the torah to the Seventh day of Passover (Devarim 16:6), although that day is an integral part of the festival. Thus, the term appears in connection with all three pilgrimage holidays.

 

Shavuot, the time of the giving of the Torah, is the last festival of the year (From Tishri to Tishri). Simchat Torah is the last Biblical festival of the months (From Nisan to Nisan).

 

Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah represents two climaxes in the Jewish calendar. It comes at the end of the holiday season, which begins in the month of Elul and continues through Rosh HaShanah, Yom HaKippurim, and Succoth. And it also marks the end of the harvest season, which began with Passover in the spring.

 

Rain:

 

In the Musaf prayer of Shemini Atzeret we begin saying "He causes the wind to blow and the rain to descend." This can be connected to the coming of Mashiach: The phrase "he causes the wind (ruach) to blow" uses the same word as the verse "The spirit (ruach) of G-d hovered on the surface of the waters," and our Sages say "This is the spirit of King Mashiach."

 

"He causes the rain (geshem) to descend" means that the coming of Mashiach actually occurs, in physicality (gashmiut - related to geshem). Not only "the spirit of Mashiach," but a soul in a body, i.e. Mashiach in the simple, literal sense in this physical world.

 

Moreover, "geshem" has the numerical value of 343, and this is connected to the prophecy that in the Messianic future "the light of the sun will be seven-fold as the light of the seven days." Rashi paraphrases this as "seven sevens as the light of the seven days, i.e. forty-nine sevens, equaling three hundred forty-three."          (Likutei Sichos)

 

* * *

 

Nehemiah 8:2,13-14,18

 

Hakhel (Gathering)

 

Hakhel is the culmination of the Shmita, or Sabbatical cycle. This seven year cycle profoundly affected Israel and the Jews living there. For example, failure to follow the Torah in it’s requirements for the Shmita cycle resulted in the captivity in Babylon. Aditionally the Torah requires that at the end of the Shmita cycle, in the beginning of the “eighth” year, that the King read the entire Torah to every man, woman, and child in the land. This gathering (Hakhel) of all the people of the land must have been an awesome sight!

 

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 31:9-13 And Moses wrote this law, and delivered it unto the priests the sons of Levi, which bare the ark of the covenant of HaShem, and unto all the elders of Israel. 10  And Moses commanded them, saying, At the end of every seven years, in the solemnity of the year of release, in the feast of tabernacles, 11  When all Israel is come to appear before HaShem thy God in the place which he shall choose, thou shalt read this law before all Israel in their hearing. 12  Gather the people together, men, and women, and children, and thy stranger that is within thy gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear HaShem your God, and observe to do all the words of this law: 13  And that their children, which have not known any thing, may hear, and learn to fear HaShem your God, as long as ye live in the land whither ye go over Jordan to possess it.

 

Hakhel also stresses the importance of welcoming the Ger Tzadek, the righteous "Jews by Choice" who have embraced the Jewish faith and community. All Jews are welcomed and nobody is asked to prove his Jewish credentials or lineage. Some authorities[4] say that even gentiles residing in Israel would be welcomed at the Hakhel ceremony.

 

The purpose of Hakhel, in the words of the Torah, is: "In order that you may hear and in order that you may learn to fear HaShem your God."  This, too, is cited as the purpose of Matan Torah at Mt. Sinai[5], where the entire nation congregated to hear the words of HaShem.

 

In the Yovel, Jubilee, year, this assumed greater significance, as all slaves were freed on Yom HaKippurim and were, thus, able to participate in the communal acceptance of the Torah that took place on Hakhel.  Thus, the Sefirat HaYovel, the counting of the Yovel year, was in fact a countdown to the freedom from slavery and embracing of the Torah.  By way of comparison, it follows that Sefirat HaOmer expresses the same idea.

 

What is the significance of the Hakhel?

 

This commandment has in large measure fallen into disuse during the past two milennia because it is intimately linked to the Temple and the King of Israel, with the King responsible to actually read the Torah publicly:

 

Talmud Bavli Sotah 41a  MISHNA. WHAT WAS THE PROCEDURE IN CONNECTION WITH THE PORTION READ BY THE KING? AT THE CONCLUSION OF THE FIRST DAY OF THE FESTIVAL [OF TABERNACLES] IN THE EIGHTH, I.E., THE END OF THE SEVENTH, THEY ERECT A WOODEN DAIS IN THE TEMPLE COURT, UPON WHICH HE SITS; AS IT IS SAID, AT THE END OF EVERY SEVEN YEARS, IN THE SET TIME etc. THE SYNAGOGUE-ATTENDANT TAKES A TORAH-SCROLL AND HANDS IT TO THE SYNAGOGUE PRESIDENT, AND THE SYNAGOGUE-PRESIDENT HANDS IT TO THE [HIGH PRIEST'S] DEPUTY. HE HANDS IT TO THE HIGH PRIEST WHO HANDS IT TO THE KING. THE KING STANDS AND RECEIVES IT, BUT READS SITTING. KING AGRIPPA STOOD AND RECEIVED IT AND READ STANDING, FOR WHICH ACT THE SAGES PRAISED HIM. WHEN HE REACHED, THOU MAYEST NOT PUT A FOREIGNER OVER THEE, HIS EYES RAN WITH TEARS. THEY SAID TO HIM, ‘FEAR NOT, AGRIPPA, THOU ART OUR BROTHER, THOU ART OUR BROTHER!’ [THE KING] READS FROM THE BEGINNING OF DEUTERONOMY UP TO THE SHEMA’, THE SHEMA’, AND IT SHALL COME TO PASS IF YE HEARKEN, THOU SHALT SURELY TITHE, WHEN THOU HAST MADE AN END OF TITHING, THE PORTION OF THE KING, AND THE BLESSINGS AND CURSES, UNTIL HE FINISHES ALL THE SECTION. THE KING PRONOUNCES THE SAME BENEDICTIONS AS THE HIGH PRIEST, EXCEPT THAT HE SUBSTITUTES ONE FOR THE FESTIVALS INSTEAD OF ONE FOR THE PARDON OF SIN.

 

The awakening of awe in the nation by having the King read in the Temple, fosters Jewish unity. Thus, during Temple times, Hakhel was an opportunity to re-experience the revelation of the Torah at Sinai. And just as at Sinai, the unity of the Jewish people led them to bring together all levels and all types of Jews.

 

According to the Kli Yakar, the purpose of Hakhel is to foster unity.

 

The Biblical text does not specify the exact day of Hakhel. Maimonides, as well as most authorities,  rules that it took place on the night following the first day of the Succoth festival[6].

 

The Mishna[7] explains that this ceremony should take place “On the day after the first day of the festival of Succoth, on the year after the seventh year (that is the Shmita year)”. The king was to read the Torah to the whole nation1.

 

Rashi[8] writes that it was on the night following the last day (Shemini Atzeret) of the festival, which parallels Simchat Torah of the Diaspora.

 

It is interesting to note that the Jerusalem Talmud[9] in bringing the same Mishna has a different version. Instead of stating that the ceremony of the Hakhel should be on the second day of the festival of Succoth, it writes that the Hakhel was on “the day after the end of Succoth”.

 

We have already seen that the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds disagreed on the exact timing of the Hakhel. The Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) said that it was after Succoth whereas the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) placed it at the beginning of Succoth.

 

The argument stems from an understanding of how to achieve unity. The Jerusalem Talmud suggests that unity is an integral part of the Jewish people. When the people gather to celebrate Succoth they are already capable of bonding together to serve HaShem. Therefore it is appropriate that the Hakhel should be at the beginning of Succoth.

 

However, the Bavli holds that in order to achieve unity the Jewish people have to spend a week together. They have to study each other and worship together. Only then can they achieve true unity. Therefore the Hakhel was held at the end of Succoth.

 

Succoth and Simchat Torah are times of unity, true unity. Therefore, they are also times of joy, true joy. The focal point of this joy is the Torah, and the unity that we seek and celebrate comes from the Torah. As we have learned elsewhere, Torah = Mashiach.

 

There is a Gemara that discusses the Hakhel and raises a number of important points connected with this ceremony.

 

Chagigah 3a-3b “Once Rabbi Yochanan ben Beroka and Rabbi Elazar ben Chisma went to visit Rabbi Yehoshua in Peki’in. He asked them ‘What new things were said today in the study hall?’ They replied ‘We are your students and drink from your waters.’ ‘Even though, there is no study hall with no new ideas. Who gave the discourse this week?’ ‘Elazar ben Azaria.’ ‘What did he teach about today?’ They said to him ‘Hakhel.’ ‘What did he teach?’ ‘“Gather together the men, women and children” (Devarim 31:12), if the men come to learn, the women to hear, why do the children come? In order to give reward to those that bring them.’ He said to them ‘You had such a gem [of an idea] and you did not want to reveal it to me?’

 

‘He continued [the verse states] ‘You have declared God today [to be your God]’ (Devarim 26:17), and [in the next verse it says] ‘God has declared you [to be His chosen nation]’ (ibid. 18). God said to Israel ‘You made Me one entity in the world, I will make you one entity in the world. You made Me one entity in the world as it says ‘Listen Israel, the Lord is our God, God is one’ (Devarim 6:4), and I will make you one entity in the world, as it says ‘Who is like you, Israel, one nation in the land’ (Divrei HaYamim I 17:21)’.

 

‘He continued and said ‘The words of the sages are like spurs, and like nails driven in are those who collect; they all come from one shepherd’ (Kohelet 12:11). Why are words of Torah compared to spurs? In the same way that spurs direct the animal to give life to the world, so do words of Torah direct those who learn from the ways of death to the ways of life.

 

‘Those who collect’; these are Torah scholars who gather together and learn Torah. Some say that [a particular item] is impure while others say that it is pure, some say that [a particular action] is forbidden, while others say that it is permitted, some say that [a food item] is not kosher, while others say that it is kosher. Lest a person should ask ‘How can I learn Torah in such a situation?’ The verse clearly states ‘they all come from one shepherd’. One God gave them, from the mouth of the Lord of all actions. Thus you should open your ears like a funnel and acquire an understanding heart to hear the words of those who say it is impure, the words of those who say it is pure, the words of those who forbid and the words of those who permit, the words of those who disqualify and the words of those who say it is kosher’”.

 

Most startling of all is the Maimonidean explanation of the commandment: "And the converts who are not conversant must prepare their hearts to understand and their ears to comprehend, with fear and awe and joy within their trembling, as on the day in which the Torah was given at Sinai. This commandment was established by the Torah in order to strengthen the true religion and to enable us to see ourselves as if we were now being commanded and we were hearing it from the mouth of the Great One. And the King is the messenger who imparts the words of HaShem[10]". Clearly, Maimonides sees Hakhel as being a re-creation of the Revelation at Sinai at the conclusion of each seven year period, and a re-affirmation of the covenant on the part of the Jewish nation. This ceremony likewise establishes the King of Israel as representing the King of all Kings. Our ruler is seen as a Hakham-King whose major task is to communicate the Divine word[11].

 

Hakhel, according to the Rambam, is not aimed at transmitting intellectual content, rather it a re-creation of the Matan Torah experience, a renewal of the Sinai covenant.

 

If you will analyze the mystical dimension of the commandment of Hakhel, you will find that just as the Shmita year itself is an allusion to the seventh millennium during which our universe will revert to chaos, so the commandment of Hakhel, which commences after completion of the seventh year alludes to the word "la'asot" in Genesis 2:4 which follows the report of the conclusion of the seven days of creation after the Torah had introduced the concept of the Sabbath.  Rebbeinu Bachya

 

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 33:1-5 And this is the blessing wherewith Moses the man of God blessed the children of Israel before his death. 2  And he said: HaShem came from Sinai, and rose from Seir unto them; He shined forth from mount Paran, and He came from the myriads holy, at His right hand was a fiery law unto them. 3  Yea, He loveth the peoples, all His holy ones—they are in Thy hand; and they sit down at Thy feet, receiving of Thy words. 4  Moses commanded us a law, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob. 5  And there was a king in Jeshurun, when the heads of the people were gathered, all the tribes of Israel together.

 

Torah tzivah lanu Moshe,

morasha kehilat Yaakov!

 

"Moshe taught us the Torah; these teachings are an inheritance for the children of Yaaqov!"

 

Devarim 16:15 "You shall rejoice on your festival and be exceedingly happy".

 

The next Hakhel will be in Tishri 5776.

 

Second Thoughts

 

Now that I have had a chance to meditate on the aspects of this study, I have come to understand another very interesting concept that King Shlomo spoke about many years ago:

 

Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 1:9 That which hath been is that which shall be, and that which hath been done is that which shall be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.

 

The essence of Simchat Torah is the rejoicing we have with Torah and HaShem. This is the picture that HaShem established in the beginning:

 

Bereshit (Genesis) 2:15 And HaShem God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.

 

Thus it seems that not only is Simchat Torah a re-enactment of Sinai, and a re-enactment of the Temple, it is also a re-enactment, a returning to Gan Eden. Just as HaShem walked with Adam in the garden, so also in the end, the second Adam will walk with HaShem in the garden. May it happen speedily in our day, Amen v’Amen!

 


 

Simchat Torah events:

 

Tishri 22nd

 Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah (Eretz Israel), The Eighth day, Sabbath. Leviticus 23:34, Numbers 29:33

 Solomon dismisses the people at the end of the Temple dedication ceremony 1 Kings 8:66

 Yeshua is circumcised. Luke 2:21

 Yeshua begins His ministry. (Yeshua is 30 years old - Luke 3:23). Luke 3:23

 Yeshua is transfigured before Peter, John, and James. Peter wants to build 3 succoth. Luke 9:28-36

 Adulteress brought to Yeshua. He says, "let him who is without sin cast the first stone". John 7:27 - 8:11

 Yeshua spends the night on the Mount of Olives. John 7:37-53

 (Diaspora)Torah section is Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17, Numbers 29:35-30:1. Haftorah is 1 Kings 8:54-66.

 (Israel) Torah section is Deu. 33:1 - 34:26, Genesis 1:1 - 2:3, Num. 29:35 - 30:1. Haftorah is Joshua 1:1-18.

 

Tishri 23rd

 Shimini Atzeret / Simchat Torah (Diaspora), The Eighth day, Sabbath. Leviticus 23:34, Numbers 29:33

 Rebecca’s nurse, Deborah, dies. Book of Jubilees

 Moses waged war on Og. Tanhuma, Hukkat 24

 Solomon sends the people home, with joyful and glad hearts. II Chronicles 7:10

 Yeshua rebukes a demon in a boy and heals him. Luke 9:37-45

The disciples debate "who will be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven." Luke 9:44-48

 (Diaspora) Torah section is Deu. 33:1 - 34:26, Gen. 1:1 - 2:3, Num. 29:35 - 30:1. Haftorah is Joshua 1:1-18.

 


* * *

 

This study was written by

Rabbi Dr. Hillel ben David

(Greg Killian).

Comments may be submitted to:

 

Rabbi Dr. Greg Killian

4544 Highline Drive SE

Olympia, WA 98501

 

Internet address:  gkilli@aol.com

Web page:  http://www.betemunah.org/

 

(360) 918-2905

 

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Send comments to Greg Killian at his email address: gkilli@aol.com



[1] Completion of a text, or of a course of study; a graduation.

[2] This explanation is excerpted and edited from Sod Siach Shmini Azeret www.mjol.com, by Dr Zvi Aviner

 

[3] The Jewish Holidays, A Guide and Commentary, by Michael Strassfeld, page 150

[4] Ibn Ezra's commentary to Devarim 31:10-12

[5] see, e.g., Shemot 20:18

[6] Laws of Chagigah 3:1

[7] Sotah 7:8

1 See my “Sparks of Light” page 194 for an explanation of the significance of the king reading the Torah

[8] B.T. Megillah 5a

[9] Yerushalmi, Sotah 7:7

[10] Rambam, Hilkhot Hagigah, Chapter 3, Law 6

[11] Deuteronomy 17:18-20