May 26, 2024 /

Sh’mini Atzeret & Simchat Torah

Immediately following Sukkot, we celebrate Sh’mini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, a fun-filled day during which we celebrate the completion of the annual reading of the Torah and affirm Torah as one of the pillars on which we build our lives. As part of the celebration, the Torah scrolls are taken from the ark and carried or danced around the synagogue seven times. During the Torah service, the concluding section of the fifth book of the Torah, D’varim (Deuteronomy), is read, and immediately following, the opening section of Genesis, or B’reishit as it is called in Hebrew, is read. This practice represents the cyclical nature of the relationship between the Jewish people and the reading of the Torah.

The symbolic message of the customs associated with Simchat Torah emphasize that the Torah is the prized possession of the Jewish people, representing our heritage and history, and linking Jews to each other over many generations. The words recited at the end of reading each book of the Torah inspire and represent this history: Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik. “Be strong, be strong, and we will strengthen each other,” building a living Judaism through study, action, and commitment..

During congregational Simchat Torah celebration and services, the Torah scrolls are taken from the ark and carried by congregants around the synagogue seven times. During these seven circuits, or hakafot, those not carrying a Torah often will wave brightly colored flags and sing Hebrew songs. The hakafot are accompanied by singing, dancing, and flag-waving, all of which symbolize the collective joy of Torah study and a commitment to lifelong Jewish learning.

The origin of making, decorating, and carrying flags during the hakafot is unclear. Some scholars hold that marching with flags recaptures the history of the 12 ancient tribes of Israel, when each tribe had its own banner. Other scholars believe that this practice originated in the Middle Ages and was borrowed from certain Christian customs.

The Torah service is the focal point of the Simchat Torah celebration. One rabbi, cantor, or member of the congregation opens the Torah and reads the last section of the fifth and final book of the Torah, D’varim(Deuteronomy). A second person then opens another Torah scroll and reads the opening section of the first book of the Torah, B’reishit (Genesis). The selection from D’varim tells of the death and legacy of Moses, the prophet and leader of the Jewish people. The reading from B’reishit, the very first words of the Torah, recounts the story of God’s creation of the world.

Adapted from:

  • The Jewish Home (Revised Edition) by Daniel B. Syme
  • Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice (Revised Edition) by Mark Washofsky

Click here to learn how to make edible Torah treats

Click here to learn how to be a scribe

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