History of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah

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In the early middle ages, Shemini Atzeret began to be associated with the ritual of completing the yearly cycle of readings from the Torah, leading to the later development of Simchat Torah from what was likely the second day of Shemini Atzeret. Simchat Torah developed into the day on which we celebrate the ending of one cycle of Torah reading and the beginning of the next cycle.

Among traditional Diaspora communities, Simchat Torah is congruent with the second day of Shemini Atzeret, and in Israel and liberal Diaspora communities, it coincides with the single day of Shemini Atzeret. It is a joyous holiday with a relatively young history, since it is not mentioned in the Torah. It is traditionally the only time when the Torah is read at night, when we read the last section from Deuteronomy, to be followed the next day by the conclusion of Deuteronomy and the beginning of Genesis. There is a tradition on Simchat Torah morning of calling all members of the community to say the blessing over the Torah, known as an aliyah, and synagogues will often repeat the reading until all members have had their aliyot (plural) or split into smaller groups to chant the reading from several different Torah scrolls simultaneously, so everyone can have this honor.

Similar to Sukkot, there are several (three, or more commonly, seven depending on the custom of the synagogue) circuits around the synagogue on Simchat Torah. These are known as hakafot (singular: hakafah). In distinction to the hakafot on Sukkot, they are done holding the Torah, not the lulav and etrog. They are accompanied by joyous dancing that often spills onto the street outside.

In Kabbalah (the mystical tradition) the seven hakafot on Simhat Torah became a kind of unification of the seven days of Sukkot and also representative of the seven sephirot (emanations of God). This spiritual and mystical understanding of Simchat Torah accords with the very physical tradition of turning the hakafot into joyous dancing. The Torah reading that follows the wild dancing is often very playful and humorous, as it is a celebration of the great gift of God’s Torah.

In recent times, Simchat Torah has also become a very "child-friendly" holiday. Many synagogues invite all the children up for a group aliyah  and give out flags for the children to march around with during their own hakafah.

While Simchat Torah’s origins are not specifically biblical, it has become a Bible-centered holiday on which the hearts of Jews are drawn to celebrate the Torah.

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