(This year, Simchat Torah is October 10th & 11th 2020.)
The movie “Fiddler on the Roof” gave Jews around the world a catchphrase that could explain Jewish culture in a nutshell: “There’s a blessing for everything!” Likewise, the Jewish calendar is filled with feasts and celebrations for just about everything, including one named Simchat Torah.
If you look throughout the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, you won’t find mention of Simchat Torah on any of its pages. So, why would the Jewish people make such a big deal about it? Where did it come from? How did it start? These are excellent questions that have a fairly simple answer: Joy.
Leviticus 23 outlines the sacred appointed times that ADONAI mandated for the Israelites to observe in recognition of their covenant with the Lord. One of the major fall feasts is the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles, known in Hebrew as Sukkot. The Lord mandated that the Hebrews observe the holiday for seven days and have a closing assembly on the eighth day. This eighth day is called Shemini Atzeret, meaning “eighth day of assembly.”
When the Israelites were scattered into the Diaspora, the rabbis of the time decided to extend all feasts an extra 24 hours to allow Jews scattered throughout the world a way they could fulfill the commandments. From this, Shemini Atzeret went from only one day to two.
Throughout the centuries, that second day became a day of joy and celebration marking the completion of the Torah reading cycle. Additionally, it is Jewish tradition to never end one thing without beginning another. So! If the reading of the Torah ends on Shemini Atzeret, then the next reading of the Torah has to start then too. By the 14th century, Simchat Torah, which translates to “joy of the Torah”, became a full member of the list of Jewish holidays.
So, even though it’s not a Biblical feast according to Leviticus 23, it is still a valuable time of community and thanksgiving to God for “planting Eternal Life in our midst.” In fact, Deuteronomy 31 commands the Children of Israel to gather every seven years and read the Torah in public for all to hear! Traditionally, this was the job of the king, but it wasn’t until the Hebrews returned from exile in Babylon that Ezra the Scribe helped institute it as a more common practice throughout the community and at least once a year.
Nehemiah 8 recounts the history of the Israelites finding the Torah once again. When the Law of Moses was revealed, the people wept! They had fallen so far from the mitzvot of ADONAI! But the Levites in their midst told them to rejoice and be merry. So that’s what they did! They celebrated from Yom Teruah to Sukkot, listening to the Torah being read aloud while eating, drinking, and rejoicing.
So, this Simchat Torah, join the Jewish people around the world and take a moment to thank God for His Word. •