Judaism is filled with joyous holidays. The Torah commands us to “be happy on your holidays” (Deuteronomy 16:14), and we fulfil this commandment by refraining from work, spending the days praying to HaShem and eating good food.
But when one thinks of the most joyous of all holidays, what comes to mind? Many might say Purim, with its many beautiful practices, such as reading the megillah and exchanging mishloach manot. But during only one nine-day holiday period do we refer to the days as Zman Simchateinu (the time of our happiness). These are the holidays of Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret, which culminate with the most delightful of all our holidays, Simchat Torah.
Simchat Torah comes at the very end of our “holiday season.” We’ve just experienced the judgment of Rosh Hashanah, the cleansing of Yom Kippur and the simchah of sitting in our sukkahs. It’s at this time, after the intensity of the previous weeks, that we breathe a collective sigh of relief, filling our day with joy and song, knowing that HaShem has granted us a happy and sweet new year.
Simchat Torah has no scriptural basis in the Torah. During the prayers on Simchat Torah, we still refer to the day as Shmini Atzeret. In Israel, Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are celebrated on one day. Outside Israel, the holiday is celebrated for two days, like every other Yom Tov.
Traditionally, the annual cycle of Torah readings ends and begins anew on Simchat Torah. The Talmud, in tractate Megillah 31a, refers to completing the Torah on the second day of Shmini Atzeret. Over time, the practice became to make a special celebration on this day, with the focus of Simchat Torah being the seven Hakafot circuits we make around our shuls while holding the Torah. This is done both in the evening and morning prayers.
But why do we finish the Torah reading cycle on Simchat Torah? We received the Torah on Shavuot, so why not have a “Simchat Torah” then as well? Numerous great rabbis of previous generations have given their reasons. Rabbi Aaron Moshe Yitzchak Granboom of Amsterdam, author of the sefer Meilitz Yosher (circa 1809), answers this very question. He writes that we celebrate when we complete an endeavour, not when when we start it. Upon completing a tractate of Talmud, the widespread custom is to hold a festive meal called a siyum. All the more so when we complete the reading of Torah.
The importance of being happy on Simchat Torah is emphasized in a story I read recently. In his Sefer Mekadshei HaShem, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Meisels tells of a moving episode that occurred at Auschwitz. On the night of Simchat Torah, 50 yeshiva boys were rounded up by the SS for gassing. They were sent to a gas chamber and told to undress. Knowing that their lives would end in a few minutes, one of the boys pointed out that it was Simchat Torah that night and although they didn’t have a Sefer Torah to dance with, HaShem was right there with them. They began singing and dancing in a hakafah circle.
The SS guard in charge heard the sounds of singing coming from inside the gas chamber and barged in, demanding to know what was going on. One boy explained that they were joyful knowing that they would die soon and once again see all their murdered loved ones. This infuriated the guard so much that he had all 50 boys taken from the gas chamber to a special barracks where they would be tortured slowly, forced to suffer a slow, agonizing death.
The next day, several hundred prisoners were due to be transported to a work camp inside Germany. Most of these 50 boys were mistakenly placed on that transport and managed to survive the war. The few others left behind successfully blended in with the other inmates in the camp. These boys were ready to die Al Kiddush HaShem (sanctifying God’s name), but were saved due to their singing and dancing in honour of Simchat Torah.
This year, make sure to sing and dance in honour of the Torah, knowing that God has blessed you with a sweet new year. Gut Yom Tov and Chag Samayach to everyone.