Seriously, ask most any kid attending a Jewish school what the most enjoyable day of the year is and you will be surprised by the answer. It won’t be Chanuka, although everyone loves presents, and it won’t be Passover, although everyone loves family gatherings (sorry, my Dad made me say that); it won’t even be Purim, although everyone loves dressing up in costumes and drinking too much wine. The response would be Simchat (“Simchas” in European pronunciation) Torah, a holiday being observed this year on Friday, October 5th.
This festive day was not specifically ordained in the Bible, nor had it taken on its present character by the time the Talmud was “sealed” as the final legal authority. It is something that evolved from the diaspora experience, showing the genius of a peripatetic nation to find occasions for joy.
Here is how it came about, and what it means. In pure Biblical ritual, the holiday of Tabernacles begins on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month. There is one major festival day, then six low-key ones, all celebrating our temporal blessings, the harvest and so forth. Then comes the holiday of the Eighth, Shmini Atzeret in Hebrew, symbolizing that which is beyond time, the spiritual realm above the seven-day world.
The problem in ancient times was determining the correct date. Each lunar month can be twenty-nine or thirty days, depending on the sighting of the new moon; the determination was made by the court in Jerusalem. Thus, people were never sure just when the seventh month started. Some effort was expended in sending messengers out with the news, but people living outside Israel rarely got word in time. Just to be sure, they had to make each holiday twice, on consecutive days, a behavior we continue today in commemoration. Which meant that after the Eighth, there was now an extra day, the Eighth Take Two, lacking an individual personality.
This was solved in a brilliant way. The custom outside Israel was to divide the Bible into weekly readings, designed to finish the five Books of Moses each year. (In Israel at that time, they would finish once in three years; that custom ended when the Crusades wiped out the last remnant of the old community. Today, the Bible is finished annually everywhere around the globe.) Instead of concluding it at the end of the actual year, it was timed to end on this very holiday. After all, the Bible is conceived as the ultimate truth-beyond-time.
Thus, the day took on a name of its own — Simchat Torah means the joy of God’s teachings — sometime about 1,200 years ago. The scrolls with the original Bible in Hebrew that are used for the weekly readings (which cost $30,000 and up to have written on parchment) become objects of adoration. Synagogue congregants take turns holding them while they dance along with the crowd. Depending on the enthusiasm and passion generated in each place, this can go on for anywhere from an hour to four or five.
As a young Yeshiva student, lo these thirty years ago, I recall my amazement at seeing otherwise staid Walter Mitty types suddenly dancing their hearts out. Trust me, the first time you see a man sweat up a $500 suit to the point of salt stains, it makes an impression. The kids are always fawned on, called upon to read from the Torah like adults, given tons of sweets, lifted to Daddy’s shoulders on the dance floor and generally overindulged. Many Jewish merchants publish colorful flags as a free premium with holiday purchases, and the youngest children wave them on the sidelines.
My own father has been a star of this culture for about sixty years. People would walk long distances across Brooklyn to see his antics. If the room was at a high noise level all through the festivities, when my Dad gets the scroll the ruckus explodes into a crescendo. He is still going strong at age 76, and I feel bad for not having been there to see it in many years.
It occurs to me that the underlying message, to revisit the Bible intelligently and alertly as an adult, is very meaningful for all. We often tend to slip back into the shallow perceptions we formed as youngsters. This is a serious book for serious people with serious things to say about our lives and it deserves a serious investment of time to give it serious treatment…which may turn out to be quite enjoyable.
Jay D. Homnick, commentator and humorist, is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator. He also writes for Human Events.
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