07. Customs of Hakafot

It is customary on Simḥat Torah to have seven hakafot at night and another seven during the day. As we have learned, hakafot allude to the or makif, the highest illumination that envelops us, uplifts us, and inspires us, but which is so sublime that we cannot apprehend it through our intellects in any definite way (above, 1:7 and 5:9). Everything that we learned and had the privilege to understand in the course of the year is a type of internal light, which our intellect absorbs in a definite, demarcated manner. Through this, when we complete the Torah, we can absorb something of the or makif, which emerges from the Torah as a whole. The intensity of Simḥat Torah facilitates this process.

Before the hakafot, the custom is to take all the Torah scrolls out of the ark, including invalid scrolls. Ashkenazic custom is to carry all the scrolls and dance with them for the duration of the hakafot. If there are more scrolls than the dancers can carry, only those scrolls that have someone to carry them are taken out. According to Sephardic custom, for most of the hakafot, almost all of the Torah scrolls are placed on the bima, while one person holds one Torah scroll, and everyone else dances around them. Based on the teachings of Arizal, some have the custom to circle the bima with one Torah scroll exactly once for each of the seven hakafot. (See Ben Ish Ḥai, Vezot Ha-berakha §17.) All these customs are acceptable.

Seven circuits suffice to uphold the custom of hakafot, but to rejoice with and honor the Torah, the main focus of Simḥat Torah, one should expand and extend the dancing. The extra dancing does not have to take the form of circuits around the bima. It is customary (but not required) to sing liturgical poems during hakafot, each community according to its customs.

The night hakafot take place after Ma’ariv. During the day, some have the hakafot after Musaf and some have them after the Torah reading (Ḥida, Le-David Emet, end of §26). But in most congregations, hakafot take place earlier, after Shaḥarit and before the Torah reading.

Many synagogues have a kiddush during hakafot, where some people drink a lot of wine and get tipsy, but they make sure to avoid intoxication. One must make sure to leave enough time to become sober and clearheaded before Musaf and Minḥa, as it is prohibited to pray the Amida while under the influence of alcohol (SA 99:1; Peninei Halakha: Prayer 5:11). It is also prohibited for a kohen to perform Birkat Kohanim while under the influence (SA 128:38).

Le-khatḥila, everyone present in the synagogue should stand during the entire time of hakafot. However, if it is difficult for someone to stand, he may sit, but he should stand up at the beginning of each hakafa.[3]

Based on a kabbalistic custom from Arizal’s time, some Israeli communities hold “second” hakafot (“hakafot sheniyot”) at night after Shemini Atzeret ends. They, too, are in honor of the Torah, so there is an element of mitzva in them. Rav Kook says that musical instruments should be played during hakafot sheniyot to make it clear that Yom Tov is over, and that they are not celebrating Yom Tov Sheni shel Galuyot in Eretz Yisrael (Oraḥ Mishpat §142).


[3]. Every synagogue has some people who sit during hakafot, though, at first glance, the halakha is that one must stand throughout the hakafot, for we learn in Kiddushin (33b): “If one must stand for a Torah scholar, as it is written, ‘You shall honor the sage’ (Vayikra 19:32), then certainly one must stand for the Torah scroll itself.” AHS YD 282:2 records this ruling but states that this is not the prevailing practice and justifies this practice by explaining that when the Torah scrolls are being held between hakafot, they can be considered to be “at rest,” and it is not necessary to stand, just as it is not necessary to stand when the Torah scroll is lying on the bima. R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach justifies those who sit during hakafot on the grounds that during the hakafot, the circle of the hakafot is considered to be the place of the Torah scroll (Halikhot Shlomo, Mo’adim 12:9). Others find justification based on the laws about standing for a Torah scholar; according to Tosafot and Rema YD 242:16, it is enough to stand for a Torah scholar once in the morning and once in the evening, not necessarily every time he passes (Be-tzel Ha-ḥokhma 5:139). Still others argue that if the people dancing on Simḥat Torah are crowded together, with less than 3 tefaḥim of space between them, then they count as a barrier separating the Torah scroll from those sitting down (Pri Eliyahu 3:24).

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Translated By:
Series Editor: Rabbi Elli Fischer

The Laws of Shabbat (1+2) - Yocheved Cohen
The Laws of Prayer - Atira Ote
The Laws of Women’s Prayer - Atira Ote
The Laws of Pesach - Joshua Wertheimer
The Laws of Zemanim - Moshe Lichtman

Editor: Nechama Unterman