Simchat Torah is about more than beginning to read the Torah all over again. It’s about the need to reexamine what we think we know, over and over again.
Reading can cause many different emotions. For some people, beginning a new book produces excitement about where the narrative will take them. Then there’s the pleasure of the plot itself, watching how events unfold. Finally, there’s the sense of joy at the end: satisfaction, gratitude and anticipation at the prospect of beginning the journey of reading all over again.
The Jewish holiday known as Simchat Torah, which begins at sunset on Oct. 17, 2022, encompasses all these emotions. During the festival, Jews celebrate another year of reading and studying Torah: the first five books of the Bible—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy—which, according to Jewish tradition, were divinely revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai.
As a scholar of the Bible and the ancient Near East, I am struck by the ways in which Simchat Torah cultivates a sense of humility and resilience in the midst of profound joy.
Joy of Torah
Simchat Torah is Hebrew for “the joy of Torah.” It is a celebration, often accompanied by dancing and singing, to mark the completion of the annual reading of this section of the Bible. Each week of the year, congregations around the world read a particular portion of the Torah, called a parashah, in a specified order.
On Simchat Torah, the scrolls that contain this literature are removed from the ark, the special place where they are kept at the front of the synagogue. While one or two scrolls are taken out during readings in the usual weekly service, Simchat Torah is one of the few times of year that all the scrolls are taken out of the ark.
Celebrants circle seven—or, in some traditions, three—times around the bimah, the stage where the scrolls are read during services, while holding these scrolls and dancing. This dancing, called hakafot in Hebrew, occurs both in the evening and the morning of Simchat Torah.
In some Jewish communities, people say they become the very “feet” of the scrolls, carrying them so the scrolls themselves can participate in the dancing and joy. The rejoicing can extend into the streets.
The last liturgical section for the year is read, from the Book of Deuteronomy. During the same service the first section of the first book of the Bible, Genesis, is also read. In this fashion, Simchat Torah connects the ending of the reading cycle with the beginning of the new one.
In 2022, Simchat Torah will take place from sundown Oct. 17 to sunset Oct. 18 in most of the world, immediately after a holiday called Shemini Atzeret the day before. In Israel and for Reform Jews, however, both holidays are combined on the same day. In either case, the celebrations come on the heels of another weeklong festival called Sukkot, or the festival of booths, when Jews commemorate the ancient Israelites’ wanderings in the desert after fleeing slavery in Egypt.
Centuries of celebration
Aspects of divinely ordained rejoicing and regular reading of the Torah do, however, appear in the book of Deuteronomy. For example, Deuteronomy 16 commands the Israelites to “rejoice” in the festival of booths. In Deuteronomy 31, Moses commands the priests to read the law, or Torah, to all Israel during Sukkot.
The origins of the celebration of Simchat Torah as known today are likely medieval. One of the most influential compilations of Jewish laws is called the “Shulchan Aruch,” written by a 16th-century Spanish rabbi named Joseph Karo. The overall features of the holiday, or “yom tov” in Hebrew, are set forth there.
For modern Jewish thinkers, the celebration of Simchat Torah embeds some of the most profound aspects of life, including themes of humility and strength even amid suffering and a troubled world.
Writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, for example, saw in Simchat Torah a reminder that we never know everything, and much less than we think we know. Even for a text as familiar as the Bible, an entire lifetime of reading the Torah week after week, year after year cannot begin to yield all the possible interpretations.
So, according to Wiesel, Simchat Torah is a time to take joy not only in completing the liturgical reading cycle, but in the reminder that we always need to look again, and be willing to begin again—even stories that we think we know so well.
As Wiesel observed, this aspect of Simchat Torah could transform a person and how that person lives with others. He famously once said that “people become the stories they hear and the stories they tell.” The celebration of Simchat Torah had profound significance, in Wiesel’s view, since the very act of reading could make a better world.
Likewise, the biblical scholar Baruch Schwartz calls attention to a prayer spoken during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the High Holy Days, which take place weeks before Simchat Torah. The words of the prayer speak the desire for “the discernment and understanding needed in order to comprehend the Torah’s deepest mysteries.” For Schwartz, this prayer anticipates the deeper meanings of Simchat Torah, and prepares celebrants for them.
There is joy in ending and once again beginning the Torah because of its many puzzles. Bringing intellectual energy to interpreting these texts opens windows into the seemingly unending dimensions of the Bible—and also into what it means to be human. Simchat Torah underscores the importance of revisiting the familiar, and, in so doing, cultivates humility.
Reading the Bible in a world gone wrong
The biblical command to have “joy” in reading the Torah also lays a framework for resilience in the midst of troubled times. Wiesel, himself born on Simchat Torah in 1928, recounted witnessing Jews who had no Torah scrolls and lived amid unthinkable horror in a concentration camp. Yet, during Simchat Torah, one adult picked up a child and delightedly danced with him as though he were a Torah scroll.
Simchat Torah represents renewals in endings—almost as though Jewish communities are receiving the revelation from Moses again for the first time, starting with the book of Genesis.
Such a cycle is not redundant, but instead can promote resilience. As Wiesel notes, the biblical command to “rejoice” becomes the means through which tragedy can be endured—helping to explain Simchat Torah’s power and vitality today.