TheMishna Berura (O.C. 669) cites a statement of Maharik, who writes that it is not proper for people to get rid of the practices that have evolved for the celebration of Simchat Torah. As such, places that refrain from making it a day of celebration are not acting properly. The first question for us to ask is where this day of merriment comes from? The Tur provides the simple answer, stating that we are rejoicing in the completion of the Torah, as we read the last parasha, V'Zot HaBeracha, on this day. The Beit Yoseif notes that the fact that we should make such a celebration upon completing the Torah stems from King Shlomo, who made a feast for all of his courtiers after Hashem had granted him tremendous wisdom (tantamount to his having finished Torah).
Why do we celebrate this now? Why could the Torah readings not have been arranged so that the "Torah-year" coincides with the rest of our calendar, and thus Simchat Torah would fall out on Rosh HaShana? Sefer Ta'amei HaMinhagim writes that we are trying to confuse any accusing angels, who assume that we would finish the Torah on RoshHaShana, and are clearly not expecting us to have such a holy day of rejoicing three weeks later. Then , once we have already pushed off this day a little bit, we wait until all of the other holidays are done so as not to mess up the regular sequence of holiday Torah readings.
II. ROUND AND ROUND WE GO...
Possibly the most visible of all practices on Simchat Torah is that of Hakafot, the walking around the bima with the Torah. Several sources are given for this custom.Ramo says that the practices is to circle the bima while singing praises, and that this is done in imitation of the seven times that we circle the bima on Hoshana Rabba. The Mishna Berura also notes this as a reason, although he also notes that there are those who only circle the bima three times. Otzar Ta'amei Minhagim (by Shmuel David Gelberd) writes that seven hakafot is the custom of the Arizal, and is done either due to the link to Hoshana Rabba (as brought down by the Sha'arei Knesset HaGedola) or as a reminder of the battle against Yericho, when the Jews circles the city seven times with the Ark containing the Torah.
Rav Shlomo Yoseif Zevin notes that the practice of hakafot at night first appears in the customs of Rav Issac Tirana, while it is Ramo who first mentions doing so during the day. The practice of reciting the set of verses that begin with "Ata Har'eita" stems from theMachzor Vitri and Maharam MiRutenberg.
III. BLESS THE (BEASTS AND) CHILDREN
We know that, during the course of the year, a different number of people are called up to the Torah depending on the occasion. On a regular weekday three people are called up, four on Rosh Chodesh, five on regular holidays, six on Yom HaKippurim, and seven on Shabbat. Also, Torah reading is always done by day. However, on Simchat Torah, a number of changes are made in our usual practices. We will first discuss these technical issues, and then focus on what we actually read.
Putting aside for now the calling up if people for the last and the first parts of the Torah (Chatan Torah and Chatan Bereishit), the first inkling of any changes in the usual system of aliyot is given byRivash, cited by the Darchei Moshe. He writes that we continually go back to the beginning of V'Zot HaBeracha so as to increase the number of people that are called up. The Shulchan Aruch also cites the practice, and specifies that there is no halachic problem with doing so (I am unsure what the problem would be). The Otzar Dinim U'Minhagim of Yehuda David Eisenstein writes that the custom is to give every person present an aliyah (the custom followed today by most places). Maharik writes that out of respect for the Torah, we can call up a person other than a Kohein for the first aliyah if they pay for it, since the money given expresses one's mindset that being called up to the Torah on a day like this is a high honor that one would be willing to pay for.
Additionally, the Torah is read at night. The reason for doing so is that once they have already been taken out for the purpose of dancing, it is not respectful to put them away without reading at least a little. What is read at night? The Darchei Moshe writes that all of the "nedarim," or vows, are read. The Mishna Berura explains that this refers to portions of the Torah that are usually bought during the course of the year (i.e. sections that contains blessings that are considered to be especially desirable to be called up for; thus people would generally vow to donate a certain sum to the congregation in return for being called up for these sections). However, the Mishna Berura notes that the custom now is to read three aliyot in V'Zot HaBeracha at night.
There is also the practice known as "kol ha-ne'arim," literally meaning "all of the children." All of the children are called up together for one aliyah. TheGinat Veradim opposed this practice, since it involved many people saying the blessing together, which is not allowed in a normal situation. However, this practice is brought down by the Darchei Moshe, who notes that when the children are called up, the congregants bless them with "HaMalach Ha-Go'el," the blessing given by Yaakov to his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe. This practice is also noted by Levush, and the Eliyahu Rabba claims that the children are blessed before they make their blessing after the reading of the Torah. However, Rav Zevin notes that there are places where it was done only after they had completed their blessings. As a historical note, young men eligible for the draft in Czarist Russia would contend with each other for the right to be the adult called up to say the blessings with the children, as this aliyah was considered to be good luck for being released from duty.
As already noted, the main reading on this day is the end of the Torah. Machzor Vitri says that this is read either to juxtapose the joy of the finishing of the Torah with the joy of Succot, or to juxtapose the blessings of Moshe with those given to the people by King Shlomo (II Kings 8), which is supposed to serve as the Haftarah (more on that to come). Additionally, we also immediately begin reading from the beginning of the Torah, to undermine any claims by accusing angels that we are finishing reading the Torah and then moving on and leaving it behind. Finally, we read the sacrifices for Shmini Atzeret as on the previous day (since Simchat Torah as a separate day is only a Diaspora phenomenon and in Israel both holidays are celebrated on one day).
The issue of what haftarah is read on Simchat Torah is a thorny one. The gemara (Megilla 31a) says that we are to read from the eighth chapter of II Kings, where King Shlomo celebrates the building of the Temple. However, already from the times of the Rishonim there were alternate practices. Tosafot mention the current common practice of reading the first chapter of the Book of Yehoshua, but reject that view as it lacks support. Rosh cites a Yerushalmi in support of this practice, although the Korban Netanel notes that such a Yerushalmi does not exist. Daniel Shperber suggests that the Yerushalmi in question may not being what we refer to as the Talmud Yerushalmi, but rather may be a reference to a custom of the Land of Israel that ran counter to that practiced in Babylonia at the time of the Talmud. At any rate, the practice of reading from Yehoshua was held by Rosh,Ra'avyah, and the Shiltei HaGibborim. The Or Zarua notes that Rav Amram Gaon did so since it is linked to the completion of the Torah and the death of Moshe (as Yehoshua succeeded Moshe as leader of the Jews). Also, he notes that the Rabbanan Saborai, who completed to editing of the gemara and lived just previous to the Geonim followed this practice as well. Shperber also notes a range of "middle" approaches, which combine the first few verses of Yehoshua with the chapter from II Kings.
We conclude this week with a few random customs. There is a widespread custom that the people who are called up as Chatan Torah and Chatan Bereishit make a kiddush in shul for the congregation. This practice is cited by many, and is almost universally linked to the verses cited above concerning King Shlomo making a party. What should be noted is that the original practice was that they made their feast on Simchat Torah itself, and not several months later. As a result, there is the related practice that the kohanim do not bless the people on Simchat Torah at all, or do so during Shacharit. The reason for this is that a kohein who has had any alcohol to drink may not do any action connected with the service, and since there is a fear that they may do so at this feast, some communities take steps to avoid such a violation of the law (I am presuming that this practice gave rise to the general practice for there to be a kiddush in shul after people receive their aliyot. The other possible reason is that it is forbidden to fast on a holiday and if one day not eat by noon he will violate this prohibition. However, I do not no of any shul that has a long davening on other days of the year that are careful about this, and thus I am assuming that the kiddush stems from the one made by the Chatan Torah and Chatan Bereishit).
Also, there is a practice in some places that the one who lifts up to Torah after it has been read reverses his hands, and thus picks up the Torah so the writing is facing the people. Several reasons are given for this custom. Sefer Ta'amei HaMinhagim says that it is a reference to the mishna in Avot which says that we should "turn it (the Torah) and turn it, for all is contained within it." He also writes that since by the dedication of the Tabernacle the leader of the tribe of Ephraim brought his donation on the eighth day (which Simchat Torah really is), we are alluding to the fact that Ephraim received his blessing from Yaakov when Yaakov switched his hands so as to show favor to the younger Ephraim over his older brother Menashe. Gelberd notes this first reason, and adds a few of his own. He claims that it may be a reference to the idea that we are to follow the teachings of the Sages even if "they tell us that right is left and left is right." He also writes that since the Torah ends with the fact that all of the sign were done "before the eyes of all of Israel," so too do we now turn the Torah so that everyone can see it. Finally, he suggests, that it may simply be a change from the usual out of our joy upon completing the Torah.
There is much more to write about the various customs on Simchat Torah, but space is becoming a factor. Rest assured, whatever customs you see wherever you may be, there is an excellent chance that they have some basis (within reason, of course). In the end, the key factor is that all celebrating be done out of joy for the completion of the Torah and enthusiasm for starting it anew. When seen in this context, all of the various customs serve to merely enhance this purest of joys at the end of this holiday season
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