The Torah Service for Simchat Torah

Special ceremonies for ending and beginning the Torah cycle.

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The reintroduction failed for two reasons. First, in the pattern of the Palestinian triennial cycle, the weekly reading would have differed from what the rest of the Jewish world was reading. Second, Simchat Torah celebrations would only occur one out of every three years, instead of annually.

Finally, in 1988, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement passed a legal responsum that put into practice a new American triennial cycle. This new triennial cycle, rather than dividing the entire Torah into thirds, as was done in the Palestinian cycle, divides each of the individual 54 portions into thirds. Therefore, a congregation can be reading within the same portion as those who follow the annual cycle, but will only read one-third of each portion per year. In addition, this pattern enables the congregation to read from Genesis through Deuteronomy each year, providing for an annual celebration of Simchat Torah.

There is an obvious drawback to this system: only one-third of each conventional Torah portion is actually read per year; and the readings, because incomplete, do not flow smoothly into the portion of the following week. Nonetheless, the vast majority of American Conservative and Reform congregations prefer this new cycle. All Jews in Israel, however, and Orthodox Jews in America continue to follow the annual cycle with the full portion read each week.

Dancing & Merriment

Whichever cycle a congregation may follow, observance of Simchat Torah begins in the same way, with the evening service. It provides, in addition to the regular festival liturgy, a special Torah service in which the final parshah of the year is read. Before the reading itself begins, selected congregants take all of the Torah scrolls from the ark and parade them around the synagogue. They make seven of these hakafot (circuits), which are performed with joy and accompanied by drinking, singing, and dancing.

The festivities for Simchat Torah continue the next morning with seven more hakafot. Children are particularly involved in this merrymaking and are often given paper flags to carry in the processional. The Torah reading that day is drawn from three scrolls. From the first scroll, we read the last parshah of Deuteronomy and from the second, the first parshah of Genesis. Thus, when we end the Torah with the final book, Deuteronomy, we immediately begin again with the first book, Genesis, to symbolize that Torah never ends and that we never complete our learning. From the third scroll we read the maftir (the passage that concludes the Torah reading). For Simchat Torah, the maftir is from Numbers (29:35-30:1), about observing Shemini Atzeret.

Aliyot for Everyone

An aliyah (plural, aliyot) is the honor of being called upon to make one set of the blessings said before and after each section of the Torah reading. Customarily, on Simchat Torah, everyone in the congregation receives an aliyah; and so it is common to have both individuals and groups of people called up at once.

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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.