Peninei Halakha

08. Intense Joy

The joy of Simḥat Torah is so intense because there is no greater joy than that associated with Torah. Thus we find that when King Shlomo attained wisdom, he offered burnt offerings and peace offerings and made a great feast for all his servants. We learn from this that we make a feast to celebrate the completion of the Torah (Shir Hashirim Rabba 1:9).

It was said in praise of Abaye, one of the greatest of the Amora’im, that he declared a holiday with a festive meal for the sages every time one of his students completed a tractate (Shabbat 128b). Thus, there is a custom to have a great feast on Simḥat Torah. In many places, the Ḥatan Torah and Ḥatan Bereishit invite the whole congregation to a kiddush or provide wine for the feast.

The importance of this joy is evident from the fact that the Ge’onim ruled that in honor of Simḥat Torah, it is permissible to dance and clap, even though the Sages prohibited dancing and clapping on Shabbat and Yom Tov, out of concern that people might end up fixing their musical instruments (Beitza 36b; SA 339:3). More recently, after the great Ḥasidic masters emphasized the value and importance of the mitzva to be joyful, many are lenient about this even on an ordinary Shabbat. (See Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 22:18.)[4]

It is customary for women and children to come to synagogue in honor of Simḥat Torah. Some say that there is a certain similarity between Simḥat Torah and the mitzva of Hak’hel, which took place on Sukkot every seven years. (See chapter 8 below.) Just as all Israel assembled to hear the king read the Torah, so too all Israel assembles to honor the Torah.

Many Torah giants would dance their hearts out on Simḥat Torah. It is told of the Vilna Gaon:

He was very happy on Sukkot, and even happier on Shemini Atzeret, because it is the happiest time of all according to esoteric teachings…. He would march before the Torah scroll joyously and energetically, his face alight with wisdom like a burning torch. He clapped and twirled and leapt with all his might before the Torah scroll. The song leaders would sing a verse, and he would repeat after them…. (Ma’aseh Rav §233; see Harḥavot)

Some do not stand on their dignity during the dancing. They are following the example of King David. When he escorted the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, he wore his best clothing, made with links of gold; he danced and leapt with all his might before the Ark, kicking his legs high, even exposing himself a bit, while the gold links of his clothing clanked and jingled (Bamidbar Rabba 4:20). When his wife, Michal the daughter of King Shaul, saw this, she was disgusted with him. When he returned home, she greeted him with rebuke, because she felt he had degraded the honor of the monarchy by acting like riffraff in the presence of his slaves and maidservants. King David responded that he was not dancing for his honor. Rather, he danced “before the Lord, Who chose me instead of your father and all his family, and appointed me ruler over the Lord’s people Israel! I will dance before the Lord and dishonor myself even more, and be low in my own esteem, but among the maidservants that you speak of I will be honored” (2 Shmuel 6:21-22).

It is said that anyone who dances and rejoices with all his might in honor of the Torah is guaranteed that the Torah will not be alien to his descendants (Rabbi Yisrael Yaakov Algazi, Shalmei Ḥagiga 17:16). Others say that all of our imperfect prayers and supplications, which could not ascend to heaven during the year and even during the Days of Awe, now ascend and are well received thanks to our dancing on Simḥat Torah (Rabbi Shalom Rokeach, the first Belzer Rebbe). It is also said that the holy Arizal attained the highest levels of insight into the esoteric aspects of the Torah because he rejoiced with all his might when performing mitzvot (MB 669:11).

[4]. The status of a mourner on Simḥat Torah: Sephardic practice allows mourners who have concluded shiva to participate in all aspects of Simḥat Torah, including hakafot, dancing, and the communal meal in the synagogue (Shalmei Mo’ed; R. Mordechai Eliyahu, Hilkhot Ḥagim 55:30; Ḥazon Ovadia, p. 467). According to Ashkenazic practice, they may participate in the communal meal and hakafot, but not the dancing, and mourners for a parent do not participate in the dancing during their twelve months of mourning (MB 669:8; Gesher Ha-ḥayim 23:3-7; Pnei Barukh 29:10). However, if it would be obvious that a mourner is avoiding the dancing (as in the case of a rabbi whom people always dance with, or one whose dancing usually stands out), he may dance, for if he does not do so, it will look like he is mourning on Yom Tov. (Minḥat Yitzḥak 6:62 gives this as the reason to be lenient in the case of the rabbi.) It would seem that if people from different communities pray together, an Ashkenazi who wants to rely on the Sephardic practice may do so. I also heard from my father and teacher, Rav Zalman Baruch Melamed, that there are grounds for leniency when it can reasonably be assumed that the parents would not want their child to miss out on Simḥat Torah because of them, since all the customs of mourning parents are to honor them.

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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