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    Origin of the name “Simchat Torah” – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. Where does the name Simchat Torah come from?

    Painting by Emmanuel Levy

    A. Simchat Torah is really the second day of Sh’mini Atzeret (the day after Sukkot), which is why the Kiddush and other prayers refer to it as “this eighth-day festival of assembly”.

    Developing an idea from the Sefer HaManhig of Rabbi Abraham Ibn Yar’chi (13th century), one might say that Rosh HaShanah helps us to make peace with God, Yom Kippur with our own soul, Sukkot with our home, Sh’mini Atzeret with nature and Simchat Torah with the Torah.

    Each occasion is a simchah.

    The one that concludes the series equips us to know how to maintain each of the treaties.

    When we study the Torah and live by its precepts, we remain on good terms with God, keep our soul in good shape, have a firm basis of family and community, have good relations with nature, and cherish the Torah that gives our life meaning.

    Historically, the Simchah part of the name probably comes from the ancient Sukkot traditions, especially Simchat Bet HaSho’evah, “The Festivity of the Water-Drawing” of ancient times (Mishnah Sukkah 5:1).

    As our ancestors encircled the altar on Sukkot, so do we encircle the bimah carrying the Torah scrolls. We rejoice in and with them, happy that we have concluded the yearly readings and can at once re-commence the cycle.

    It is thus Simchat Torah, our rejoicing over the Torah – or possibly it is the Torah’s rejoicing over the Jewish people, who remain faithful to their tradition despite every temptation to weaken in and even, God forbid, abandon it.

    The name Simchat Torah was probably unknown before the Middle Ages. It is first mentioned by Rav Hai Gaon in the 11th century.

    Alternative names were Yom HaB’rachah (Day of Blessing, because on it we read the final blessing which Moses gave Israel before he died), and Chag HaSiyyum (Festival of Conclusion – either the conclusion of the Torah or that of the festival of Sukkot).

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