At the conclusion of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, Jewish communities throughout the world begin a joyous and colorful celebration called Simchat Torah, a spectacular holiday focusing on the gift and significance of the Torah, a compilation of ancient and sacred texts that serve as a means of instruction, or guidance, for how one should conduct themselves in daily living. Otherwise known as the Pentateuch, or Tanakh, the Torah—the foundation of Judaism upon which Jewish thought and observance is based according to the law of God as revealed to Moses—chronicles the origins, history, and faith of the Jewish people, their connection to God and the land of Israel, and includes writings from the prophets, psalms, lamentations, and proverbs.
On Simchat Torah, meaning the “rejoicing of the Torah,” or the “rejoicing of the Jewish law,” we complete and immediately begin the annual Torah reading cycle again, signifying that the Word of God continues without ending. It is akin to a “Torah restart.” As the Torah scroll is rewound upon concluding the Book of Deuteronomy, we return to the beginning of the scroll when we read publicly from the Book of Genesis, ushering in a “new beginning” and an opportunity for grasping new interpretation and garnering deeper meaning and understanding of the Word of God.
Central to Judaism are public readings of the Torah which date to the time of Moses who prescribed that such readings take place on Saturdays—the Jewish Sabbath, Shabbat—and during festivals and on Rosh Chodesh, when Jewish communities celebrate the New Moon. Ezra, the scribe, additionally established the practice for public Torah readings on Mondays and Thursdays when townspeople would go to the marketplace for shopping and trade, providing an opportunity for increased spiritual sustenance by hearing the Torah being read aloud.
Though not mentioned in the Bible, Simchat Torah is clearly Bible-centered and is a holiday intended for jubilation and merrymaking, with a relatively young history, believed to have originated during the early Medieval period. While many Jewish holidays focus on home and family, Simchat Torah festivities elevate the celebratory mood in connecting Jewish life and existence to the synagogue, and ultimately, to receiving the gift of God’s word. It is customary to see exultant dancing, singing, clapping, and outward expressions of praise and gratitude, by way of hakafot, in Hebrew meaning “going around in circles” when the rabbi, congregants and all who are present, including children, march with the Torah through the synagogue.
The holiest objects within Judaism, Torah scrolls are housed in the synagogue’s Aron HaKodesh, the Holy Ark, symbolic of the Ark in which Moses placed the tablets after he received them. Each Torah scroll is treated with the utmost sacred respect and is handled with care as one would carefully approach and touch a precious, treasured object. Each Torah has a cover and ornaments and is protected with either a mantel, a colorfully decorated and intricately woven fabric, artfully depicting Bible stories or lush landscapes, Jewish-themed motifs, spiritually-inspired Hebrew letters, or perhaps even the Tree of Life, wrapped around the Torah scroll, or is housed in ornately adorned beautifully-crafted wooden cases.
The holiday is marked with family gatherings, holiday blessings adorned with nightly candle lighting, festive meals, and synagogue worship where the celebration can last for hours. Work is prohibited until Simchat Torah concludes at sunset the following day. Visitors who wish to attend Simchat Torah celebrations at their local synagogue should call in advance to inquire about hours of worship and celebration.
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