Simchat Torah: The greatest joy
Updated: Oct 2, 2018
The festival of Sukkot is celebrated over seven days, but the Torah adds an “eighth day” of joy to it: “Shemini Atzeret” (an expression that could be translated as the “eighth day of gathering”). Rashi explains (in his exegesis on Leviticus 23:36) that on the eighth day God rejoices with the people of Israel like a father who invited his children for a seven-day party, and afterwards says to them: My children, please stay for one day more in my house (meaning the Temple of Jerusalem).
Rabbi Shmuel Avidor HaCohen (in: Likrat Shabbat, Parashat Shemini) calls attention to the expression “eighth day.” Time, since long before, is computed in cycles of seven days, therefore: what is the meaning of referring to an eighth day? He answers his own question, saying: on three special occasions this expression appears in the Torah – at the dedication of the Tabernacle, in the command about circumcision (it must be done on the eighth day after the son’s birth) and on the celebration of Shemini Atzeret on which the annual reading of the Torah is concluded and recommenced (in Israel Shemini Atzeret and Simḥat Torah are on the same day, but in the diaspora Simḥat Torah is celebrated as a second day of Shemini Atzeret). From these facts the Rabbi infers that there are three things which transcend time:
the Sanctuary, the Torah and the covenant with God. The passing of time never mars them.
Naḥmanides, seven centuries before HaCohen, in his exegesis on Leviticus 23:36, also refers to the “eighth day of Atzeret” as a special time, a transcendent one. All the days in the week, he explains, have a complementary day, except for the seventh, the complement of Shabbat is Israel. Shemini Atzeret represents Israel. Seven cycles of seven days, must be counted between Pesaḥ and Shavuot, which is the fiftieth day, the grand “eighth day” on which God gave the Torah to Israel. For that reason, in the Talmud, Shavuot is named Atzeret, explained Naḥmanides.
Simḥat Torah was established by the sages of Babylonia where the reading of the Torah was annual, differing from the tradition in Israel where the reading was a three year cycle. The Talmud (Meguilah 31,a) indicates that the last parashah of the Torah is the reading of the second day of Shemini Atzeret. According to the Tosafot commentary at locum (Dibbur HaMathil: LeMahar Karinan), it seems that the establishment of this festivity as the one on which the Torah reading is formally finished and restarted was established by Rav Hai Ha-Gaon (IX century c.e.). With the passing of time, all Jewish communities accepted this custom (Maimonides, Yad, Hilkhot Tefilah, Chap. 13, Halakha 1).
Simḥat Torah is the moment of highest joy in the Jewish calendar, for the essence of all our joys and our very identity are in it since it is the celebration of the Torah. During times of persecution, the destruction of Jewish culture and repression in the then Soviet Union, Jewish youngsters, having great insight, gathered around the great synagogues of the different cities, and danced with the Torah on Simḥat Torah. This was during the nineteen-sixties. They were thousands and thousands of young people who challenged the political power and police of the Soviet regime with their action. They were youngsters without any knowledge of the sources and traditions of Judaism, but a last spark of awareness vibrated in their being. They searched that spark in order to find its essence and they discovered Simḥat Torah. They danced despite restrictions and threats. It was a dance that evidently did not reflect the joy of that moment, because it was a very sad time, but it reflected another joy, that which makes the Torah and Israel transcend time.