Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Simhat Torah 5770/ October 10, 2009

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


Rejoicing on Simhat Torah

Dr. Aharon Arend

Department of Talmud

During the hakkafot in the synagogue on Simhat Torah there are many signs of rejoicing:  dancing in a processional ( hakafa) with the Torah scrolls, handing out sweets, reciting liturgical poems, waving flags, etc.  Some congregations do more, others less.  At times the excessive rejoicing leads to unrestrained boisterousness.  Thus, throughout the generations there have been people who took exception to such behavior and tried to set limits and tone down the activities.   There were even some places, such as Amsterdam and Frankfurt, where dancing was not permitted and the ceremony was restricted to hakafot around the synagogue, cantorial music and recitation of liturgical poems during the processional. [1]

Beyond the usual activities in the synagogue, there is evidence from certain places of exceptional activities being held, and intended to evoke the extreme admiration of the congregation and heighten the rejoicing.  Here we give only a few examples, and surely one could elaborate further.

1)      Melodic variation.  In some places the cantor would change the melody in the course of a passage of prayer, showing off his ability to switch from one melody to another.  Sometimes the benediction, Barkhu et Adonai ha- mevorakh, would be rendered in a melody that combined that of the Festivals with that of the High Holy Days, [2] and sometimes the cantor singing the shaharit service would sing Ha-El in the melody used for the Festivals as well as the melody of the High Holy Days, and in the kaddish before Barkhu would incorporate the melodies of all the varieties of kaddish. [3]   Others would interweave melodies of the festivals and the High Holy Days in Hallel and in the Kedushah. [4]   Occasionally the priests, in giving the priestly blessing, would recite the first verse in the Passover tune, the second in the Feast of Weeks tune, and the third in the Tabernacles tune. [5]

Now we move on to a custom which is less known but no less amazing.  On Simhat Torah and on Purim, in order to heighten the rejoicing, some would sing a parody Kiddush, beginning with a verse from the kiddush for Friday night, blending that into a different verse on the basis of a word common to both verses, and thus continuing from theme to theme until the concluding lines of the kiddush. [6]   We have a record of the following kiddush having been said on Purim (and possibly also on Simhat Torah?), with changes of melody, in a town near Pinsk: [7]

Kiddush for Purim.  According to the usual formulation (= Yom ha-shishi.   Va-yekhulu ha- shamayim [The sixth day.   The heaven… were finished] ha- shamayim mesaprim kevodo [the heavens declare the glory of G-d] kevodo malé olam, meshartav shoalim ze le-ze aye [His glory fills the world; His servants ask one another, where] ayé Sarah ishtekha [where is Sarah your wife] ishtekha kegefen poriyah be- yarkhetei beitkha [your wife shall be like a fruitful vine within your house]), except that our Ze’ev used to be punctilious in his rendition, singing each fragment of a verse according to its usual melody:   Yom ha-shishi, va-yekhulu in the melody of kiddush; ha- shamayim mesaprim in the melody of Pesukei de-zimra; kevodo malé olam in the melody of the kedushah on the Day of Atonment; ayé Sarah ishtekha in the cantillation of the Sabbath Torah reading; ke-gefen poriya be-yarketei beitkha in the tune of Psalms for the Sabbath, etc.

2)      Acrobatics: In the Lida synagogue in the late 19th century there was a man by the name of Moses Moliere who “used to turn upside down on his head three times in honor of Simhat Torah.” [8]   In Kovno two hassidim would stand on either side of the steps leading up to the ark and approach one another swiftly, dancing on one foot, and it seemed that one would knock the other down in the course of the dance.   At the last moment before colliding they would retreat on one foot, all to the applause of the public. [9]   These descriptions and others of the same sort [10] are somewhat reminiscent of the story in the Tosefta (Sukkah 4.4), regarding Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel’s celebration of Simhat Beit ha-Shoevah:   “He used to dance with eight flaming torches, and not one would touch the ground.  When he bowed down he would touch his finger to the ground on the hot coal, prostrate himself, kiss and rise immediately.”  The Jerusalem Talmud (Sukkah 5.4) tells of a person by the name of ben Yehotzedek who “excelled in his jumping.”

3)      Physical might:  there are accounts of hassidic leaders who danced on Simhat Torah for a very long time without wearying, notwithstanding their paucity of strength.   For example, the following story is told of the Szatmár admor, R. Joel Moses Teitelbaum: [11]

The Szatmár Rebbe’s feet were terribly swollen because he hardly ever lay down, and the doctor had forbidden him to dance on Simhat Torah.  But how can one not dance on Simhat Torah?  Once I had the privilege of spending Simhat Torah with him.  Four doctors stood ready at the side, for fear that something might happen to him, G-d forbid.   The heiliger (holy) Szatmár Rebbe danced for six hours.  You know, in Szatmár, as in Bobov and several other courts, only the rebbes dance during the hakkafot, not the hassidim. There were thousands of people standing around, and the Szatmár Rebbe ran back and forth.   Did I say ran?   No, he flew.

A common practice in Jewish communities of Franco-Germany, attested to from the 18th century on, is for the person who raises up the first Torah scroll to cross his hands when he lifts it, holding the left post of the scroll in his right hand and the right post in his left hand, so that when he raises the scroll the writing faces outward toward the congregation.  Many explanations have been given for this practice, but it seems the reason is quite simple:   the person raising the scroll hoists in his left hand the bulk of the weight of the scroll, which is wrapped around the right-hand post, thus showing off his great strength.   Rabbi Ephraim Zalman Margaliyot, author of Sha‘arei Ephraim and Matteh Ephraim, issued a restrictive ruling, that one may raise the scroll in such a manner “only with Torah scrolls that are not heavy, or by a person who has a firm strong hand and is sure that he has the strength to do so without stumbling and will be able to open the scroll well so as to show the writing to the people.” [12]   In our view, physical strength is not only a necessary condition; it is actually what underlies the custom. [13]   Today, many people raise the scroll high above their head with both hands, thus also showing off their strength.

4)      Daring:  we have testimony of some individuals who used to jump over a bonfire on Simhat Torah. [14]   I recall someone from my childhood who every year used to bring a very strong whiskey to the synagogue and would offer it to members of the congregation during the break, the idea being to see who had the courage to drink such a strong beverage.  Another exceptional practice, also associated with daring, was observed in the synagogue in Salonika.   In one corner there was a tall chair, approximately two meters high, which was used once a year:   after the Torah reading the Hatan Bereshit would be seated on the chair and tied down so that he would not fall.   Thus, he was symbolically accepting martyrdom and suffering, but all with love, for it was an honor to him.   The congregation would bless him for his willingness and merit in giving himself up to the public welfare; then they would seize the four legs of the chair, and as the cantor read they would lift the chair, with him seated on it, sixteen times – four in each direction, so that everyone would see.  The cantor would sing the psalms of the festival as the Hatan Bereshit was waved around in all directions.   Moreover, he was required to submit to this with a smile on his lips, so that his devotion to kiddush ha-Shem would be evident to all. [15]

5)      Learning Torah:  at Simhat Torah celebrations around the world, yeshivas would sell the honors of opening the ark, leading hakkafot and being called to the Torah in exchange for an undertaking by the person acquiring the honor to learn something specific by the next Simhat Torah.  For example, Rabbi Joseph Kahaneman, head of the Panevezys yeshivah in Bnei Brak, had his yeshivah sell honors for learning hundreds of thousands of pages of Talmud, and sometimes even the entire Talmud, which the purchaser had to finish within a year.   Rabbi Kahaneman orchestrated the sale and competition, saying that on this day he did his best business of the year. [16]   Needless to say, this sale brought the congregation great joy, as they admired those who undertook a pledge to such extensive study.  Thus we see rejoicing combined with greater Torah study.

On Simhat Torah, a holiday on which we are supposed to rejoice in the Torah, perhaps it behooves us to try to focus our rejoicing not only on something external, such as acrobatics or selling pages of Talmud, but also and primarily to focus on the words of the Torah themselves.  In many locales it was customary to incorporate a short sermon between each hakkafah.  One could set a policy of having lessons and sermons on Simhat Torah that in some way are special, such as by choosing a good preacher, or selecting a special audience (women, teenagers, youngsters), or a special topic.  Many preachers on Simhat Torah draw a connection between the end of the Torah and its beginning, due to the custom of juxtaposing the reading from the beginning of the Torah to the reading from the end. [17]   The sermon could be on this theme, or some other theme, the main point being that on Simhat Torah the speaker should cause the audience to feel a stronger attachment to the Torah and to rejoice in it.

[1] Cf. Y. Brillman, Sefer Minhagei Amsterdam, Jerusalem 2002, p. 132.   My father, Professor Moshe Arend, told me that in the Great Synagogue of the seceding community in Frankfurt there was no dancing.  Only after the Torah reading would two of the gabbais jump towards one another on the bimah with Torah scrolls in their hands, bringing the scrolls together so that they touched each other time and again; this they called dancing.  In the last year, 1938, one month before Kristallnacht, a group of youngsters held dancing in the synagogue after the service, and the beadle protested their action.  Rabbi Dr. Joseph Breuer, head of the yeshivah next to the synagogue, heard about it and at the afternoon service (Minhah Gedolah) spoke out sharply against the disrespect shown thereby for the synagogue.

[2] B. Y. Taussig and Y. Goldhaber, Minhagei ha-Kehilot, 1, Jerusalem 2005, p. 153.

[3] Cf. G. S. Sokhi, “Minhagei K.K. Pressburg (Beit ha-Knesset ha-Gadol),” Hodesh be-Hodsho:  Luah 5761, p. 87.  My father told me that in the Great Synagogue of Frankfurt the cantor sang the kaddish shalem after the amidah in this way.

[4]A. Fürst, “Minhagei Eisenstadt,” Hodesh be-Hodsho:  Luah 5764, p. 84.

[5] Minhagei ha-Kehilot (note 2, above), p. 170.  See there on the Galician hassidim changing the melody of the Torah cantillation.

[6] Cf. Y. Tavori, “Kiddush le-Furim,” Mehkarei Hag, 12 (2001), pp. 63-71.s

[7] H. Tschemerinsky, My Town Motele (Hebrew), Jerusalem 2002, p. 133.

[8] M. Iwensky, “Ayyarati,” Yeda Am, 28-29 (5764), p. 91.

[9] R. Y. A. Gibraltar, Yasor Yisrani, Bnei Brak 2007, p. 126.

[10] A. Z. Ben-Yishai (“Simhat Torah be-Veit Bialik,” in Yom Tov Lewinsky, Sefer ha-Mo‘adim:  Sukkot, Tel Aviv 1952, p. 291) attests that on the eve of Simhat Torah, in the Bialik household in Tel-Aviv, it was customary to gather many of the city’s residents, among them also traditional Jews.  One of them, an elderly Hebrew teacher, would do tricks:   “Look, he is prostrating himself the way the cantor does in the Avodah service on the Day of Atonement, and picking up from the floor the cup of wine that has been poured for him, not in his hands but in his mouth, between his teeth, as magicians and slight of hand experts would do, all to the cheers and applause of those assembled.”

[11] Cf. Lev ha-Shamayim:  Ha-Rav Shlomo Carlebach, Rosh ha-Shanah – Yom Kippur – Sukkot (ed. S. Zivan), Jerusalem 2005, p. 329.  Rabbi Y. A. Weiss, the Spinka Rebbe, would jump excitedly from the ark to the desk in the middle of the beit midrash; cf. Yed‘u Doroteikhem (editor anonymous), Jerusalem 2007, p. 1371.  Also see many other accounts of lengthy dancing there.

[12] Cf. A. Ya‘ari, Toledot Hag Simhat Torah, Jerusalem 1964, pp. 75-77.

[13] Rabbi S. Z. Auerbach was called to the Torah as Hatan Torah, and once after his honor he commented that the commandment of hagbhah, raising the Torah scroll, is great and beloved, for “the one who raises the scroll receives the reward of them all” (Megilla 32a), but that for years he had not been honored with raising the scroll because the people thought that the honor was beneath him, but that day he wished to have the privilege of performing it.  He was given hagbhah, and he raised the scroll in the usual fashion, for he said he did not have the strength to reverse the scroll so as to show the congregation the writing.   See Y. Trager and A. Auerbach, Halikhot Shlomo:  Mo‘adim (Tishre-Adar), Jerusalem 2004, p. 245.

[14] Cf. Toledot Hag Simhat Torah (note 12, above), p. 320; R. D. Sperber, Minhagei Yisrael, I, Jerusalem 1989, pp. 17-18.

[15] S. Yitzhaki, “Minhagim shel Simhat Torah be- Saloniki,” Sefer ha- Mo‘adim (see note 10, above), p. 286.   In a different version:   Toledot Hag Simhat Torah (note 12, above), p. 381 (and loc. sit., pp. 121-122, on the special chairs for the Hatan Torah and Hatan Bereshit).

[16] A. Sourasky, Ha-Rav mi- Ponevezh, 3, Bnei Brak 1999, p. 7.  On the young man who purchased the prayer Ata hor’eita for one thousand pages of Talmud, see R. Y. Lifschitz, Simhat Ya‘akov, Bnei Brak 1987, p. 14.

[17] For example, cf. R. M. Sofer, Torat Moshe al ha-Torah, 2, New York 2002, pp. 552-555;   R.A. Zunz, Aryeh Sha’ag:   Yamim Nora’im, Ashdod 2002, pp. 173-183; R. S. Kluger, Kehillat Ya’akov al ha-Mo‘adim: Simhat Torah, Jerusalem 2004, pp. 160-244, 247-339.