The marathon of Jewish holidays is almost over. as the last and most joyous festival of the holiday season approaches– Sukkot finishes tonight and Simchat Torah begins.
But before that, today, the last day of Sukkot, is known as Hoshana Raba, which despite the happy nature of Sukkot is a serious day, the last day on whcih we can repent before G-d seals the Book of Life for the coming year. Special selichot prayers and the Hoshanot tefila – a circling of the synagogue 7 times while holding the Lulav and Etrog – take place in the synagogues.
As every year, Arutz Sheva has a beautiful photo essay of the prayers at the Kotel:
Amongst the various celebrations this Sukkot, there was a remarkable event in Jerusalem, where hundreds of Levi’im (Levites) gathered together at the Southern Kotel (the southern retaining wall of the Temple Mount, the “regular” Kotel being the Western wall), and sang together Tehillim (Psalms) ch. 126 (one of the “Shir Hamaalot”, the “Songs of the Steps”) on the ancient steps as they would have done in the days of the Bet Hamikdash. As a Bat Levi (daughter of a Levite) myself, I was profoundly moved by this:
And now on to Simchat Torah, which in Israel is combined with Shemini Atzeret.
Regarding the actual day, here is what I wrote in previous years:
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, the prayer for rain, (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.
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 began slightly early with a sudden rainstorm and huge thunderstorm, the lightning from which tragically took the life of a young boy and severely injured his sister in law and other family members.
Aside from such horrific tragedies 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 Torah, 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.
When Simchat Torah finishes tomorrow night, it has become an Israeli tradition to launch into second Hakafot, a second round of dancing with the Torah, but since it is no longer chag, we can use loudspeakers and have live music. It is a wonderful, uniting experience and it started as a sign of solidarity with our Diaspora brothers who celebrate Simchat Torah on the second day.
I wish you all a pitka taba, or a guten kvittel (a good note) for Hoshana Raba, and wish you all a wonderful chag same’ach for this last day of yomtov.