Rabbi Hagay Gross
This festival concludes the Sukkot festival and finishes the festivals of Tishrei, known by the general public at present as the day of rejoicing of the Torah. It is interesting that this link between the last festival day of Sukkot and the end of the Torah reading is a much later link, from the time of the Sages.
In the bible itself the festival is called: “Weeks”: “On the eighth day you shall stop and shall do no work...”. The Sages equated this with that on this day a man who celebrated with his children for seven days and when it was time to separate he asked them to stay with him for one more day as it was difficult for him to leave his beloved sons, thus the festival of Sukkot is also a time of joy, after seven days together sitting in the Sukkah God it seems asked us to remain one more day with his sons...
At present the last day of Sukkot is called in Israel Simchat Torah (overseas it is customary to have two festival days and therefore the eighth day is called Shmini Atzeret and the ninth is called Simchat Torah). On this day we finish reading the Torah in entirety and immediately start reading again from Genesis.
In the past there were two different customs regarding the end of reading the Torah. The custom of the Land of Israel was to finish the Torah once every three years. The Babylonian custom was to divide the Torah into sections as the number of Sabbaths in the year and every year to finish reading the entire course of reading the Torah. This custom became the main custom in the Diaspora and this is the custom used today.
In order to express the joy that we feel for the Torah, the communities in Israel carry out the encirclement custom. All the Torah scrolls are removed from the Holy Ark to the centre of the synagogue and the entire congregation encircles the platform seven times. During each encirclement they dance and sing various holy songs. Various reasons have been given for this custom. There are those that see the seven encirclements as the seven Ushpizin (guests in Aramaic) who were invited to the Sukkah during the seven days of the festival: Abraham. Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David.
There are those who wrote that the seven encirclements are to remember the seven encirclements that Joshua encircled the walls of Jericho, encirclements that, as shall be recalled, caused the walls to fall. According to this opinion, we express hope that the walls between the people of Israel and God shall not fall after the encirclements with the Torah scrolls. The entire congregation participates in the encirclement and there is great joy. A great emphasis is placed on the participation of the small children in the encirclements and today one can see many children with small Torah scrolls, and special flags to honour the festival. The objective is to make the Torah enjoyable for the children so that they will want to study it.
As a rule a young boy whose age is less than 13 years is not permitted to be called to the Torah however on Simchat Torah there is a special dispensation for the young boys, and all the boys in the synagogue crowd together under a prayer shall (a canopy....) and an adult goes up to the Torah with them and reads the sections in which Jacob blessed Joseph’s sons before his death “The angel redeeming me from all evil shall bless the boys and shall read to them in my name and in the name of my fathers....”. This going up to the Torah is called “the going up of all the boys”.
About grooms and brides
The Sages said that the Torah was called the bride and the people of Israel the groom; an allegory as regards the relations of love that prevail between the people and the Holy Torah. From this allegory the custom developed according to which one who is called up to the Torah and finishes reading the entire Torah is called “the Groom of the Torah” and the one who starts the Torah again from Genesis is called the “Groom of Genesis”. In many Jewish communities it was customary to honour the important people in the congregation with this calling to the Torah. But those same important people “did not get off lightly” from this esteemed status and they would invite the congregation in entirety to a grooms Kiddush (blessing on the wine), that is a big meal in which they thank the congregation for the honour to finish the Torah and start reading again from Genesis.
In the past there were also customs in various communities to accompany the grooms when they left the synagogue and hold a canopy over them, just as is the customs in a marriage ceremony when a canopy is apread over the heads of the groom and bride.
The end of the process
The great Hassids say that Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot are all preparation for the rejoicing of the Torah. That is to say this day is the peak of all the festivals of Tishrei. If we wish there is here a message for the rest of the year. We stand before the winter, a period in which the days are short and the nights lengthen, a period in which the cold and the gloominess control everything. The festival of Simchat Torah is the last gas station before the long and difficult journey which we are going to undertake. We have passed various stations, the fear of judgement of the Days of Awe, the request for forgiveness and pardon on Yom Kippur and the joy of Sukkot. The peak of the joy is Simchat Torah which should light up the long nights of winter until the start of spring.