The Torah Service for Simchat Torah

Special ceremonies for ending and beginning the Torah cycle.

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Reprinted with permission from Celebrating the Jewish Year (Jewish Publication Society).

"Every seventh year...at the Feast of Booths (Sukkot)...you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel (Deuteronomy 31:10-12)."

In much of the Diaspora (the Jewish communities outside the Land of Israel), Shemini Atzeret (the eighth day of Sukkot) is followed directly by a second special day, Simchat Torah (literally, "joy of the Torah"). In Israel and in most Reform congregations, however, all of the observances for Simhat Torah are held on Shemini Atzeret, combining the two holidays into one day and making them almost indistinguishable. Simchat Torah itself is the celebration dedicated to both completing the yearly cycle of public Torah reading and starting it again. 

The first mention of such a cycle appears in the Bible, in Deuteronomy, where Moses instructs the tribe of Levi and the elders of Israel to gather all the people for a public reading from portions of the Torah once every seven years. The need to read the Torah publicly intensified after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE; Jews were dispersed into other parts of the Middle East, into North Africa, and into Europe; and their earlier religious and cultural world became decentralized.

Triennial & Annual Readings

rolled torahBecause a reference in the Mishnah (the first effort to permanently record Jewish custom and law, compiled in the 3rd century C.E.) supported Deuteronomy's prescription, we understand that Jews were continuing to read the Torah publicly; and we also know that there were Torah readings for festivals, special Shabbatot (plural of Shabbat), and fast days.

But it was not until the Talmudic era, about the 6th century C.E., that the Jews in the Land of Israel began to read the entire Torah in public and do so until all the Five Books of Moses were completed. At that time, the cycle took three years in a pattern called the Palestinian triennial, beginning the first year with the first book, Genesis, and finishing, at the end of the third year, with the fifth book, Deuteronomy.

The Jews of Babylon, however, followed a different custom, established by the beginning of the 7th century CE, and completed the entire cycle each year, which they did by dividing the Torah into 54 weekly portions. (Because the number of portions exceeds the number of weeks in a given year, more than one portion is read during certain weeks.) In Hebrew, the word for portion is parshah (plural, parshiyot).

In the 19th century, a reintroduction of the Palestinian triennial cycle was attempted at the West End Congregation in London, but was unsuccessful. In the middle of the 20th century, various congregations in the United States (primarily Conservative ones) were seeking ways to modernize the service and also to spend more time on Shabbat on Torah study. They too attempted to revive the Palestinian cycles with the argument that reading only a section of the weekly Torah portion would make Torah study more concentrated and thus enhanced.

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Rabbi Paul Steinberg

Paul Steinberg is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California and is the Head of the Etz Chaim Hebrew School. He previously served as the Rabbi and Director of Jewish Studies and Hebrew at Levine Academy: A Solomon Schechter School in Dallas, Texas.