Friday, October 9, 2020 /21 Tishrei, 5781
Parashat Sh’mini Atzeret Deut. 34:1-12, Gen. 1:1-2.3
Simhat Torah is a relatively modern holiday. Unlike Sukkot, Simhat Torah isn’t mentioned in the Torah or even in Talmud. The Torah does mention a separate holiday that also begins this evening, called Shemini Atzeret. Taking place on the eighth day (shemini) of Sukkot, it marks the end of one agricultural season and the beginning of another. Nineteenth century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that this is the final day of High Holy Day season. On this joyous day, we must store up (atzeret) the sentiments of gratitude and devotion that we built up throughout the High Holy Days.
Despite its late emergence, Simhat Torah has, in many ways, overshadowed Shemini Atzeret. It does, after all, have the word “joy” in its name. Simhat Torah has become one of the most beloved Jewish holidays, filled with dancing, festivity, and a love of Torah.
Simhat Torah emerged because the Rabbis couldn’t comprehend a time without public readings of Torah. They insisted that Moses created public Torah readings on Shabbat mornings and festivals. Since it would be a travesty to go more than a few days without studying the Torah, there were also readings on Mondays and Thursdays. They would take place in markets, where the most people could be reached.
Slowly, the Rabbis established an order for Torah readings, though they were not consistent throughout the Jewish world. Each community would celebrate their completion of Torah study as it came to be. Babylonian communities decided to complete the Torah each year, rather than every few years, so they set up 54 specific Torah portions to be read each year. Once the Torah schedule was set, this enabled Jews to finish reading the Torah at the same time each year. Simhat Torah was born, celebrating the end of one year of study and the beginning of a new year filled with possibilities of further exploration and ideas.
Usually, we gather in the temple to dance with the Torah, drink, and celebrate. This year has prompted us to be a bit more creative in our Simhat Torah plans. The festivities will begin this evening at 5 pm with music and dancing. We will be joining over 25 small congregations throughout the United States for a concert with the Jewish bluegrass group Nefesh Mountain. At last count, there were over 650 people who signed up. Please register right away to ensure that you can join this exciting zoom concert.
At 7 pm, our celebration will continue for a Simhat Torah service filled with art, reflections, and prayer, as we sing our way through the Torah, honor birthdays and anniversaries, and delight in the beauty of our tradition. I hope you will join for this special evening.
As Simhat Torah comes to a close, so too does our High Holy Days season. The past few weeks, although different, have been filled with moments of spirituality, community connection, and holiness. I am incredibly thankful to everyone (and there are more people than I can count) who helped to make our High Holy Days experiences so meaningful. I look forward to celebrating the season’s conclusion with you this evening.
Shabbat Shalom, and Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Cassi Kail