Sukkot, yes; Sh’mini Atzeret too. But Simchat Torah, which began as the Diaspora’s second day of Sh’mini Atzeret, gradually assumed a role, personality and importance all of its own.
In ancient times two traditions determined how the Torah was read – in Israel a triennial cycle, later discarded, and in Babylon an annual cycle, now the universal custom. The end of the annual cycle was an occasion for celebration, and so Simchat Torah was born.
The mode of celebration owed its inspiration to usages associated with other days of Sukkot. The song and dance were inspired by the festival of the water drawing on 16 Tishri, when “pious men and men of affairs danced with torches in their hands, singing songs of joy and of praise” (Mishnah Sukkah chapter 5).
Carrying the Torah scrolls around seven times was suggested by the seven circuits around the altar with the lulav and etrog on Hoshana Rabbah.
The congregants honoured with the reading of the final section of D’varim and the first section of B’reshit were feted like bridegrooms, and they became known as chatanim, though there is a view that originally the word was not chatan but chotem (the one who concludes or seals the reading).
As the Torah was personified as a bride, in some places the scrolls were adorned with textiles embroidered in silver and gold. In Poland people set off fireworks, which rabbinic authorities deemed halachically unacceptable.
But as Simchat Torah took hold of the people, things began to get out of hand.
The Spanish and Portuguese congregation in London became famous for its attempts to control the merry-making. When the synagogue decorations on Simchat Torah became too ornate, the congregational elders issued a by-law severely limiting what was permitted.
In 1663 there came the famous visit by Samuel Pepys, who was horrified at the scene in the synagogue: “But Lord!” he wrote, “To see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more: and indeed, I never could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this”.
In the Western Synagogue the Torah circuits were totally discontinued at one stage, though they did permit the Chatanim to be escorted home with a torchlight procession.
The result? In Chaim Bermant’s words, “In subsequent years Simchat Torah in London became an occasion so decorous that any passing Pepys would have taken it as a lying in state… The elders donned top-hats, the hakafot were allocated among ancients and worthies, all shuffling slowly behind the chazan and all intoning a tune which had the character and pace of a dirge.
“And at the end of it all there might be some kosher wine (in moderate quantities), some rubber sponge-cake, some speeches (in immoderate quantities) – and that was it, the revelry over for another year.”
Times have changed, and even the stately, decorous anglicised congregations of the past now let their hair down on Simchat Torah in neo-Chassidic fashion, and there is singing and dancing (accompanied in some places by a L’Chayyim or two).
Some don’t like it too much (the year we introduced dancing in the Hampstead Synagogue in London; one very proper gentleman, grandson of a former shammas, marched up to the bimah, announced, “My grandfather would turn in his grave”, ostentatiously took off his tallit and walked out).
But on the whole, people see how much pleasure it gives, especially to children and young people, and the arrival of the common touch has made this a real people’s festival.
We should not forget, though, the purpose of the occasion – not merry-making for its own sake, but a spontaneous expression of the Psalmist’s advice, “Serve the Lord with gladness, come before Him with exultation” (Psalm 100:2).