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Notes from Limmud 2009: The Evolution of Simchas Torah - Lethargic Man (anag.)

Lethargic Man (anag.)
Date: 2016-05-03 21:51
Subject: Notes from Limmud 2009: The Evolution of Simchas Torah
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Tags:cool, limmud, meta-halacha

Notes from Limmud 2009

The Evolution of Simchas Torah

Chana Henkin

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed. This post is formatted for LiveJournal; if you are reading it on Facebook click on "View original post" for optimal layout.]

Simchas Torah is unusual in the sense that it's synagogue-centred and not family centred. There was a Temple-centred holiday in the time of the Temple, but in contemporary times there's nothing else with no home focus, and no special rituals for the home. For Orthodox women, Simchas Torah comes across as male-centred and not a favourite.

In the Torah it's only mentioned in context of the offering offered on it:

Numbers 29:35-36 במדבר כט לה-לו
The eighth day shall be a solemn assembly for you: do no manner of servile work, but offer a burnt offering, a sacrifice made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the Lord: one bullock, one ram, seven lambs of the first year without blemish. בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי עֲצֶרֶת תִּהְיֶה לָכֶם כָּל־מְלֶאכֶת עֲבֹדָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ׃ וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם עֹלָה אִשֵּׁה רֵיחַ נִיחֹחַ לַה׳ פַּר אֶחָד אַיִל אֶחָד כְּבָשִׂים בְּנֵי־שָׁנָה שִׁבְעָה תְּמִימִם׃

The number of offerings is significant. It starts as thirteen offerings on the first day for mussaf, decreasing to seven oxen on the last day of Succos, and then drops to one ox on the day after.

What's the connection to Simchas Torah today? The mention of it in the Mussaf service.

Succah 55b סוכה נה ב
R. Eliezer said: These seventy oxen represent whom? The seventy nations. The one single ox, why? It represents one single nation. An analogy: A flesh and blood king who told his servants, "Prepare for me a great banquet." The final day, he said to the friend who loved him: "Make me an intimate meal, so I can enjoy what you make." אמר ר׳ אליעזר הני שבעים פרים כנגד מי, כנגד שבעים אומות׃ פר יחידי למה, כנגד אומה יחידה׃ משל למלך בשר ודם שאמר לעבדיו עשו לי סועדה גדולה׃ ליום אחרון אמר לאוהבו עשה לי סעודה קטנה, כדי שאהנה ממך׃

Seventy nations are descended from Noah; that's where the number comes from. On the first day of Succos the haftarah says that all of the nations will on Succos come to celebrate it in Jerusalem after the Redemption.

Pesikta D'Rav Kahana ch. 28:

The Holy Blessed One said: My sons, all the days of the festival, we soil ourselves for the guests. This day, I and you shall feast together. Thus, one ox, one ram.

There is one more mention in the Talmudic literature:

Taanit 1:1 תענית א א
From when do we introduce the mention of rains? R. Eliezer says: From the first day of the festival. R. Yehoshua` says: From the final day of the festival. מאימתי מזכירין גבורות גשמים׃ רבי אליעזר אומר מיום טוב הראשון של חג׃ רבי יהושע אומר מיום טוב האחרון של חג׃

No mention is made of the conclusion of the reading of the Torah, because there were two different cycles ending at different times. The Babylonians followed the annual cycle, the earlier Palestinian custom was the triennial. [I read elsewhere that there also a three and a half year cycle, and some of the earliest שמחת תורה piyyutim are clearly meant to accompany a spring festival.]

Megilla 29b מגילה כט ב
...for the westerners [inhabitants of Palestine] who complete the Torah in three years. לבני מערבא דמסקי לדאורייתא בתלת שנין׃

By the time of the Rambam in the twelfth century, most Jews are following the Babylonian custom:

The custom that is widespread amongst all Israel is to complete the Torah in one year. We begin the Shabbat following Succot and read the portion of בראשית, the second [Shabbos] אלה תולדות נח, the third ויאמר ה׳ אל־אברם. And we read according to this order until we complete the Torah on Succos. And there is he who completes the Torah in three years, and it is not a widespread custom.

There was still no mention of any celebration then, or of both ending and starting the Torah on the same day. Moving forward to the fourteenth century, R. David Abudraham, wrote in Spain:

This day is called Simchat Torah because on it we complete the Torah, and it is worthy of rejoicing upon its completion. And the reason we begin בראשית immediately is so that Satan will not have an opening to say: They have already completed it and don't want to read again. Or the reason is to imply that just as we have merited to complete it, so let us merit to begin it. And we recite many piyutim, such as אשר בגלל אבות... And there are places where the person who completes, and the person who begins have the custom of holding a banquet1 and festival for completing the Torah, and they invite their relatives and friends.

This is also the first references to the name Simchas Torah, also to the חתן תורה and חתן בראשית. It's quite possible that these weren't decided in advance, and the banquet would therefore be the next week.

1. משתה, not סעודה. This is taken from Megillas Esther. It's a term used in the context of weddings—a first hint of the חֲתַן תּוֹרָה. [Except that I have read elsewhere that חֲתַן תּוֹרָה "Bridegroom of the Torah" is a corruption of חֲתַם תּוֹרָה "Sealer of the Torah".]

Tur, Orach Chaim 669:

...We call it Simchas Torah because then we complete the Torah, and it is worthy to rejoice upon its completion, and we are used to beginning immediately with בראשית, so that Satan will not be able to prosecute, saying: They have already finished it and do not wish to read again. And we recite many piyyutim... And there are places which take out all of the Torahs, and upon each they recite a piyut, each locality according to its custom. In Germany, the custom is for the one who finishes, and the one who begins, to make vows of charitable contributions, and they invite all their friends for a festive meal and holiday upon the ending and beginning of the Torah.

Skipping a hundred years to the Maharil, the preeminent fifteenth-century Ashkenazi authority:

Said Mahar״i Segal: That the youths take a willow and kindle a fire on Simchas Torah, it is a fine custom for the joy of the holiday; and they do not violate [the prohibition against] the dismantling of a tent if they dismantle the succah, for it is not considered "dismantling" [for purposes of violating the mitzvah] unless one dismantles in order to construct. And the kindling too is not prohibited even though it is not for the purpose [of the festival], for it is not Biblically prohibited, since we are knowledgeable regarding setting the calendar, and only the first day is from the Torah, and we have the custom of observing a second day. Also, those who do this are minors, and we don't have a mitzvah to stop them... However, those past barmitzvah, they do not follow the law if they do this, to dismantle and kindle fire. And he said that his father, Mahara״m Segal would forcefully stop him, in his youth, from dismantling any succah or kindling fire on Simchas Torah.

[The redactor adds:] And I, the collector of his words, I saw our master Mahar״i Segal much delighted and enjoying himself when he saw the youths running on Simchas Torah from house to house, to dismantle and steal boards of succos to bring wood and make a fire, and he himself willingly permitted them to take from his succah, and he goaded them to steal from those who didn't willingly permit them...]

This custom apparently lasted for a couple of hundred years; it's attested in Poland in the seven[teen]th century in the Pnei Yehoshua`, who saw these fires instructed the women to cook some food, so that it would be for the purpose of the festival.

Now the sixteenth century, in the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 669:

In places where they observe two days, on the eve of the ninth day, they recite Kiddush and שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ, and the following day they take out three Torahs. And in one they read וְזאֹת הַבְּרָכָה until the end of the Torah; in the second בְּרֵאשִׁית until אֲשֶׁר בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים לַעֲשׂוֹת. And in the third they read the maftir.

The custom of הַקָפוֹת does not arise until the time of the Ari:

It is the custom of Israel on the day of Simchat Torah to make a great rejoicing with the Scrolls, and they encircle the Reading Table with them for seven הַקָפוֹת, and it is called Simchat Torah.

The Rema, the Ashkenazi additions to the Shulchan Aruch, says:

We call the last day of the holiday Simchas Torah, since we rejoice and make festive meals marking the ending of the Torah; and the custom is that he who finishes the Torah and he who begins the Torah make vows of charitable contributions, and they invite others to a festive meal. There is an additional custom in these lands, on Simchas Torah, in the evening and day, to take out all the Torah Scolls in the ark, and to recite songs and praises, each place according to its custom. And it is also customary to encircle the bimah in the synagogue, just as we encircle with the lulav, all for reasons of joy. And it is also customary to call many to read the Torah, and we read one portion many times, and it is not prohibited. It is also customary to call up all the youths to the Torah, and we read them the portion of "The angel who redeems", etc...

This source uses the term סעודה משתה. This might be the more puritanical Ashkenazim adding the word סעודה; or סעודה may refer to the yomtov meal.

Since the sixteenth century, the customs have been pretty stable until our day. In recent years, Simchas Torah has been a spectators festival for many Orthodox women. Many women have protested about this in recent times.

Chagiga 16b ב טז חגיגה
R. Yossi said: Abba Eleazar told me: Once we had a calf of the Shelamim offering, and we brought it to the Women's Section, and the women laid their hands upon it. Not because there is "laying of the hands" by women, but in order to give spiritual satisfaction [נחת רוח] to the women. אמר רבי יוסי סח לי אבא[שמעון] אלעזר פעם אחת היה לנו עגל של זבחי שלמים והביאנוהו לעזרת נשים וסמכו עליו נשים׃ לא מפני שסמיכה בנשים אלא כדי לעשות נחת רוח לנשים׃

There is a controversy in the Gemara as to whether סמיכה [the laying on of hands] is permissible or forbidden for women.

If one looks around the world, there is no answer yet as to what custom will emerge. In Israel there are many different things which women are doing. In some women dance wth the Torah, and read from it. In others, women read from the Torah and give divrei Torah.

And, just in case anyone thought women cannot hold a Sefer Torah: Tur, Yoreh Deah 282:

One must give great honour to a Torah scroll, and it is a mitzvah to allocate it to a place and make it majestic... let one not turn his back to a Torah scroll unless it is ten handsbreadths above him; and let him bow before it in reverence and fear, for it is the faithful witness before all people... One who sees a Torah scroll moving must stand up before it, and all must stand till it reaches its place.... The Sages said: All those who are ritually impure, including menstruating women, can hold a Torah scroll and read from it, providing their hands are not dirty, but let them wash their hands and read.

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