What is Simchat Torah?

The holiday of Simchat Torah is a great invention of the Jewish People in their Exile. It celebrates the completion of and the beginning of the "Reading of the Torah."

What do you mean "invention?"

Since the Shmini Atzeret-Simchat Torah Holiday has no intrinsic Mitzvot, but is a celebration of the relationship between G-d and Israel, the Jewish People created a "Mitzvah," so to speak, which brought out and emphasized that relationship, which is based on the Torah.

What does "Reading of the Torah" mean?

This expression refers to the fact that Moshe had instituted the public reading of the Torah on each Shabbat. Much later generations defined the schedule such that the reading of the entire Torah would be completed on Simchat Torah and begun again that very day.

How is the completion-and-beginning celebrated?

On the night of the Holiday, the celebration is begun with the reading of a selection of verses, beginning "Ata Horayta," "You have been Shown," recounting how G-d revealed Himself to the Jewish People at Mt. Sinai, declaring G-d's uniqueness, and emphasizing our reliance upon Him to bring our final redemption. Then all eyes turn to the Ark, which contains the "Sifrei Torah," the actual Scrolls of the Torah. The Ark is opened and all the Scrolls are taken out, and everybody in the shul is given an opportunity to dance with them.

"Hakafot" - Dancing with the Torah

What are Hakafot? 

On the night preceding Simchat Torah and again the following morning ("they could've danced all night!"), Jews all over the world (in Israel, Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are rolled into one) dance joyously with the Torah.

Each dance is begun with a circuit of the bimah (the central platform in the synagogue from which the Torah is read), which symbolizes the altar in the Temple, by Jews carrying scrolls of the Torah taken from the Ark. This is done seven times, each to its own "lyrics," but all to a standard melody.

This is followed by exuberant dancing, to the sound of various Hebrew melodies, ranging from the ancient to the old to the new, a capello (without instrumental accompaniment).

The songs are based mainly on phrases from the Bible, or the Talmud, or Jewish tradition, and the dances continue for an undetermined length of time, or until they are stopped by the Rabbi, in the interest of allowing the congregants to get some sleep, or the Gabbai (Sexton) - an officer of the shul responsible for ritual matters, or until the dancers become exhausted, whichever comes first.

The "Chatanim"

Who are the "Chatanim?"

First of all, "Chatanim" is the plural of "Chatan," which means bridegroom. This word befits the occasion, for the Jewish People on this day is expressing its love for the Torah and for its Author.

Why is the plural used? How many bridegrooms are needed at a wedding?

In this case, there are at least two. The term merely symbolizes love, and it is possible to love many aspects of the Torah. The two most important chatanim on Simchat Torah are the "Chatan Torah," the Bridegroom of the (End of the) Torah and the "Chatan Bereshit," the bridegroom of the (Beginning of the) Torah.

Who is the "Chatan Torah" and What does he do?

"Chatan Torah" is the title given to the individual who bought the honor at the Auction or the person designated by that buyer (frequently the Rabbi or some other highly respected member of the congregation). He is called to the Torah with a beautiful chant, describing his greatness in glowing (occasionally, slightly exaggerated) terms, and is given the honor of reciting the blessing over the last section of the Torah to be read in the current year, which is the conclusion of Moshe's valedictory address to the Jewish People.

Who is the "Chatan Bereshit" and What does he do?

The "Chatan Bereshit," "Bridegroom of the (Beginning of the) Torah," also a great honor, is called to the Torah with a similar introduction as that which introduced his fellow-chatan. He is given the honor of reciting the blessing over the beginning of the Torah, the section dealing with the Creation of the Universe by G-d, through the Creation of Man, and the Sanctification of the Seventh Day, the Day of Shabbat.

Gratitude and Simchat Torah

Did the angels agree that Man should be given the Torah?

Not at first, according to the Midrash. However, when they protested, G-d told Moshe to answer them. He said to them, "Do you have parents, that you should need a command to honor and fear them? Do you have jealousy, that you should need a command not to covet? Do you use money, that you should need a command not to steal?"

When the angels heard Moshe's questions, they could not answer them. They agreed that the Torah should be given to Man.

What is the attitude of the Jewish People regarding the Torah?

On this joyous holiday, tremendous gratitude is expressed towards Hashem for giving us His great gift, the Torah.

What is the spirit in the synagogue on this holiday?

In general, a spirit of solemnity and dignity surrounds the Service. However, a certain amount of levity is sometimes permitted, with children allowed to do harmless pranks, and the Service is sometimes conducted to melody medleys of operas, show tunes and other music not usually heard in the synagogue.

What is a great example of the spiritual power of Simchat Torah?

It was the celebration of this holiday by Jews in the former Soviet Union, when they had little knowledge of Judaism, and in an environment where Jewish Education was an offense punishable by harsh prison sentences, if not worse, that kept their faith alive throughout the bulk of this century.