The last and most joyous festival of the Jewish holiday season is almost upon us – Sukkot finishes tonight and Simchat Torah begins.
Today, the last day of Sukkot, is known as Hoshana Raba. Here’s a short Hebrew article on Arutz Sheva which has an accompanying video (which I can’t embed here) of the tefilot (prayers) for Hoshana Raba at the Kotel which took place at dawn this morning.
Below are a couple of pictures from last year too:
As I wrote in previous years’ Simchat Torah posts, (which I have updated for this year):
(Note: Several Hebrew terms have dotted underlines: mouse over them for an explanation.)
After 3 weeks of chagim (festivals), starting off with the solemn Rosh Hashana, continuing on through the fast day of Yom Kippur, followed closely by Sukkot, we are now hurtling straight into the last day of the festive season: Simchat Torah (Rejoicing of the Torah). It is a day that is combined with Shemini Atzeret (lit: 8th day of Assembly) in Israel, whereas outside Israel it is celebrated over 2 days, with Shemini Atzeret first, and Simchat Torah on the next day, for reasons to be found here.
The festival is almost schizophrenic in character because its two parts are so completely different. Shemini Atzeret is festive yet serious, with the Yizkor (memorial for the dead) prayer and Tefilat Geshem (more on that here).
Simchat Torah on the other hand is pure joy, and in Israel, with the festival being celebrated all on one day, it always feels very strange to me to make the sudden switch from all the happiness and jollity of Simchat Torah to the serious prayers of Shemini Atzeret during the Musaf prayers.
But such is the reality of Jewish life I suppose, with seriousness and joy and celebration all rolled together.
So tonight we will all be gathering in shul to start the celebrations, and the excitement of the day is something I still remember from my own childhood. All the Torah scrolls will be removed from the Aron Hakodesh and distributed to congregants. Then the singing and dancing commences, with the Torah scrolls being danced round the shul in 7 hakafot; between each hakafah the Torahs are handed to other members. During the dancing sweets are handed out to the children who dance with their fathers holding flags (and bags to hold the sweets!).
Tomorrow morning, after morning services, the dancing with the Torah scrolls will be repeated, followed by the reading of the last chapters of the Torah: Zot Habracha (“This is the Blessing”), the blessing given by Moshe to the Children of Israel just before his death. The portion is read over and over (and over!) until every single member of the shul has been given an aliya. At that stage all the children are called up under a Chuppah, and they recite the Hamalach Hagoel prayer together with Shema Yisrael. It is an extremely exciting yet moving experience and I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
There are several other customs on Simchat Torah: one person is nominated to be Chatan Torah, another to be Chatan Bereishit. This year my brother has been honoured to be named Chatan Bereishit. We’ll all be there to cheer him on!
At the end of all the Torah readings, the Chatan Bereishit starts the Torah reading right from the beginning by reading the first chapters of Bereishit, to show how happy we are to begin the cycle again.
Once all these festivities are over, the atmosphere takes a sudden turn to the serious, and we say Yizkor, followed by Tefilat Geshem. This year the first rains have fallen early and several sukkot were washed out or the lights fused by the sudden rain. However you will never hear anyone complaining about the rain in Israel. At the first droplets you hear children shouting in joy “Geshem!” (Rain!). It’s such an exciting experience after 6 or more dry months. In the Bible the rainfall in Israel is so closely connected to our behaviour and keeping the mitzvot that it is a positive relief, even to the secular amongst us, to see the rain arrive in the right time.
On a final note: all the main prayers in our shul on Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Simchat Torah were led by my very talented husband and my equally talented brother. Yasher koach to both of you on your hard work and beautiful singing. On Rosh Hashanah the Shofar was blown smoothly and professionally (and loudly!) by my brother in law, and he too gets a loud yasher koach!
Chag Sameach everyone!