Why and when we celebrated Simchat Torah
By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel
CHULA VISTA, California –Simchat Torah is a relative latecomer to Judaism.
Historically, the first mention of Simchat Torah is found in the 13th century work known as the Zohar, which is a mystical commentary on the Bible. Sometime in the 9th century, European communities would begin reading Genesis immediately after concluding Deuteronomy. Communities in southern Europe used to remove all the Torahs from the ark, but did they dance with the Torahs?
I suspect they did.
Where they the first to dance with the Torah?
History is silent.
One of the most remarkable witnesses to this new holiday comes from a totally unexpected non-Jewish source—from Samuel Pepys, the famous English diarist, who wrote down his impressions of a London synagogue he visited back in 1663.
See if you figure out what confused him and his English sensibilities:
- Thence home and after dinner my wife and I, by Mr. Rawlinson’s conduct, to the Jewish Synagogue: where the men and boys in their vayles [tallitot], and the women behind a lattice out of sight; and some things stand up, which I believe is their Law, in a press [aron] to which all coming in do bow; and at the putting on their vayles do say something, to which others that hear him do cry Amen, and the party do kiss his vayle. Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew. And anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that everyone desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing. And in the end they had a prayer for the King, which they pronounced his name in Portugal; but the prayer, like the rest, in Hebrew. But, Lord! 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 did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this. Away thence with my mind strongly disturbed with them, by coach and set down my wife in Westminster Hall, and I to White Hall . . . 
When I first came across this narrative over 25 years ago, it left a lasting impression upon me.
Yes, Jews have been celebrating Simchat Torah for many centuries–but why do we dance on Simchat Torah? Throughout the year we study the Torah, but on Simchat Torah—we dance! Why is this night of Simchat Torah different from all other nights of the year?
Its close connection to the holiday of Sukkot and Shimini Azertet is not an accident. One might think that this holiday should have been celebrated immediately after Shavuot—the day our ancestors received the Torah at Sinai. Yet, Jewish custom specifically identified this holiday with Sukkot.
Let us explore this mystery.
Both holidays revolve around the theme of joy. The holiday of Sukkot is designated as z’man simchataynu–“the season of our joy.”
There is a two-fold significance to Sukkot. On the one hand, it is the holiday that marks the end of the harvest. For the ancient farmer, Sukkot was always a joyous time of the year; he could safely store all the produce he would need for the long winter that awaited him. The waving of the lulav and etrog reminded our ancestors that God is our Provider. We depend upon God for all the blessings we enjoy.
The second aspect of Sukkot celebrates the physical preservation of the Jewish people throughout her wanderings in the wilderness and later, in the Diaspora. When one considers all the great empires and civilizations the Jews have faced—it is no wonder why Sukkot is a special time when we celebrate the miracles of our existence.
The holiday of Shemini Atzeret also stresses the importance of joy. One Midrash compares Shemini Atzeret to a king whose friends have come from afar to celebrate a festival with him. When the time arrived for their departure, the king begs his best friend to remain a little longer with him before returning to his homes. “Let you and I celebrate together!” The analogy is clear: we are God’s children and nothing brings him greater joy than to have us in His presence.
Imagine Jews celebrating these joyous holidays in the face of pogroms and Inquisitions! Our ancestor’s capacity to face obstacles with confidence and hope is inspiring.
Perhaps Mark Twain said it best:
- If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one quarter of one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk.
- His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning are also very out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world in all ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself and be excused for it. The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they were gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, and have vanished.
- The Jew saw them all, survived them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities, of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert but aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jews; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?
The secret that Mark Twain (and Peyps) could not discern is our commitment to the Torah that has preserved us; it is more than just a legal code Christians incorrectly refer to as, “The Law.” Torah is life; Torah teaches us that every human being is made in God’s image; our uniqueness as a people, along with our ancestral traditions is why we really celebrate. Ethical monotheism derives from the Torah.
Like a love letter, we read it repeatedly and look for hidden nuances and meaning. As God’s love letter, the Torah reveals something about the Creator’s special fondness of His people. The Jew is God’s witness in history. As the Sages said, “‘You are my witnesses, says the LORD, and I am God’ (Isa. 43:12). This means: When you act as My witnesses, then I am God; when you fail to act as My witnesses, then I am not God” (Midrash Psalms 123:1).
Paradoxically, our relationship with God is symbiotic; we need God as much as God needs us. This is one reason we celebrate Simchat Torah.
The rest is commentary.
 זוהר – רעיא מהימנא כרך ג (במדבר) פרשת פנחס דף רנו עמוד ב
זה יעצור בעמי ולית עצר אלא מלכות מסטרא דשכינתא עלאה עביד סעודתא רברבא ומסטרא דמלכותא סעודתא זעירא ונוהגין למעבד ישראל עמה חדוה ואתקריאת שמחת תורה ומעטרן לס”ת בכתר דיליה רמז ס”ת לתפארת שכינתא עטרת תפארת
 Diary of Samuel Pepys, Vol. 2 of 4: Clerk of the Acts and … – Page 224
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