07 – Shemini Atzeret and Simḥat Torah

01. Shemini Atzeret – a Holiday in Its Own Right

The Yom Tov of Shemini Atzeret is both a continuation of Sukkot and an independent festival. The fact that the Torah calls it the “eighth” (shemini) indicates that it is a continuation of the seven days of Sukkot. Likewise, with respect to the mitzva to make a pilgrimage and offer an olat re’iya (pilgrimage burnt offering) and shalmei ḥagiga (festival peace-offering), it was deemed a continuation of Sukkot; one who ascended to the Temple and offered the requisite sacrifices on Sukkot did not need to offer them again on Shemini Atzeret, while one who did not offer the sacrifices on Sukkot could offer them on Shemini Atzeret (Rosh Ha-shana 4b).

On the other hand, in several respects, Shemini Atzeret is considered an independent festival. First, the special mitzvot of Sukkot do not pertain to it: There is no mitzva to sit in the sukka, to take the lulav and etrog, or to offer a water libation with the tamid offering. Therefore, it has a different name; it is not called Sukkot, but Shemini Atzeret in the prayers, kiddush, and Birkat Ha-mazon.[1] Second, the sacrifices offered on Shemini Atzeret in Temple times were different. On each day of Sukkot, fourteen lambs and two rams were offered, but on Shemini Atzeret, seven lambs and one ram were offered. On Sukkot, 13 bulls were offered on the first day, 12 on the second, and so forth until 7 bulls were offered on the seventh day. If Shemini Atzeret were a continuation of Sukkot, presumably 6 bulls would have been offered. In fact, only a single bull was offered, indicating that Shemini Atzeret is an independent festival (Bamidbar 29:32-39).

Since, in some ways, Shemini Atzeret is a holiday in its own right, we recite the berakha of She-heḥeyanu in kiddush at night; the She-heḥeyanu recited on the first night of Sukkot does not cover Shemini Atzeret (Sukka 47b; SA 668:1).


[1]. If one mistakenly says “Ḥag Ha-Sukkot” instead of “Shemini Atzeret” in the Amida, then if he has not yet completed that berakha, he should return to the beginning of the paragraph that begins “Va-titen lanu” and correct himself. If he completed the Amida before realizing his mistake, some say that be-di’avad he has fulfilled his obligation, since in some ways Shemini Atzeret is a part of Sukkot (Beit Yehuda, OḤ §4; Ḥayei Adam 28:15). However, the mainstream position and that of most poskim is that he has not fulfilled his obligation and must repeat the Amida (Birkei Yosef 668:2; Ma’amar Mordekhai ad loc. 1; R. Shlomo Kluger, Responsa Shenot Ḥayim §140; Sho’el U-meshiv 4:6:22; Yabi’a Omer 4:51). If he remembered that it is Shemini Atzeret but simply misspoke, some maintain that he does not have to repeat (Bikurei Yaakov 668:2; Ben Ish Ḥai, Ve-zot Ha-berakha §2). If one says “Ḥag Ha-Sukkot” instead of “Shemini Atzeret” in Ya’aleh Ve-yavo of Birkat Ha-mazon, he need not repeat Birkat Ha-mazon because, according to many poskim, even one who forgot to say Ya’aleh Ve-yavo altogether need not repeat Birkat Ha-mazon, as we are concerned for the view that there is no obligation to eat bread at a Yom Tov meal. Sephardim and some Ashkenazim follow this opinion in practice. In this case, where there is an additional uncertainty (i.e., Shemini Atzeret may be part of Sukkot), all agree that there is no need to repeat Birkat Ha-mazon. (See Peninei Halakha: Mo’adim 2:6 n. 5; Peninei Halakha: Berakhot 4:8.)

02. The Idea Behind Shemini Atzeret

The Sages tell us that the seventy bulls offered on Sukkot correspond to the seventy nations of the world, while the single bull offered on Shemini Atzeret corresponds to the singular nation of Israel. The Gemara illustrates: “This can be compared to a king of flesh and blood who told his servants, ‘Make me a big feast.’ Then on the last day of the celebration he said to his favorite, ‘Make me a small banquet, so that I can enjoy your company alone’” (Sukka 55b). A midrash makes a similar analogy. “This can be compared to a king who threw a week-long party and invited everyone in the country to it. Once the week was over, he said to his favorite, ‘We have already fulfilled our duty to the countrymen. Let the two of us continue with whatever we find – some meat, fish, or vegetable.’ Similarly, when God said to Israel, ‘On the eighth day you shall hold a joyous gathering for yourselves’ (Bamidbar 29:35), He was telling them, ‘Continue with whatever you find – a bull and a ram’” (Bamidbar Rabba 21:24).

Zohar (III 104b) presents a third variation on the analogy. All throughout Sukkot, Israel offered sacrifices on behalf of the seventy nations. Shemini Atzeret, though, is the King’s day to celebrate exclusively with Israel. It can be compared to a king who invited guests. Everyone in the palace worked on their behalf. Later on, the king said to them, “Thus far, you and I have made efforts on behalf of all the guests. You have brought all these offerings for the seventy nations. Now we will celebrate for one day, just us.” This is the meaning of: “On the eighth day you shall hold a joyous gathering for yourselves” – these offerings are for you.

Another midrash focuses on the joy of celebrating Shemini Atzeret with God. “When Israel heard about it, they began praising God with the verse, ‘This is the day that the Lord has made – let us delight and rejoice in it (bo)’ (Tehilim 118:24). Rabbi Avin asked: [The Hebrew word bo is ambiguous, so] we do not know whether to rejoice on the day or to rejoice in God. King Shlomo came and resolved it: ‘Let us delight and rejoice in You’ (Shir Ha-shirim 1:4) – in You, through Your Torah; in You through Your salvation…” (Yalkut Shimoni, Pinḥas §782).

This is what is unique about Shemini Atzeret. It has no special mitzva other than rejoicing in God, His Torah, and His salvation.

03. The Meaning of “Atzeret

The word “atzeret” derives from “atzara,” a gathering, for on this day, we gather together to bid farewell to the annual holiday cycle. This cycle begins with Pesaḥ, when we left Egypt, continues to Shavu’ot, when we were given the Torah, goes on to Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur, times of remembrance, repentance, and atonement, and culminates with Sukkot, the Festival of Ingathering, when we gather in all the physical and spiritual fruits of the year and rejoice in them, thus spreading joy and blessing throughout the world. On Shemini Atzeret, which wraps everything up, we have a farewell get-together. “This can be compared to a king who invited his children to a party that was scheduled for a certain amount of time. When the time for departure arrived, he said, ‘My children, please stay with me for one more day. Saying goodbye is hard for me” (Rashi on Vayikra 23:36).

From this perspective, it is appropriate to be happier on Shemini Atzeret than on any other holiday. It is on this day, which concludes the yearly cycle of uplifting holidays, that we reach the pinnacle of closeness and connection to God. The joy we experience on Shemini Atzeret does not hinge on a specific mitzva, such as the sukka or four species, but stems from the very fact that we are God’s children and people. Thus, the Vilna Gaon says that the mitzva is to rejoice in God exclusively, as it is written, “You shall have nothing but joy” (Devarim 16:15). It is told that the Vilna Gaon rejoiced greatly on Sukkot and was even more joyful on Shemini Atzeret, because, according to esoteric teachings of the Torah, it is the happiest day of all (Ma’aseh Rav §233).

In this festive farewell get-together, when we draw especially close to God, He gave us the opportunity to permanently conserve and preserve in our souls forever all the illumination that we absorbed over the previous year. This makes it possible for us to continue to ascend in the upcoming year.

There is another holiday that the Torah calls an atzeret, namely the seventh day of Pesaḥ: “You shall hold a joyous gathering (atzeret) for the Lord your God on the seventh day” (Devarim 16:8). It is described as an atzeret for God because all the light we gather and absorb during Pesaḥ we give back to God to guard it for us, as we are not yet on the level to permanently store it within us. But six months later on Shemini Atzeret, after completing all the year’s festivals, we have reached a point where we can store within ourselves, forever, all the light and goodness that we absorbed during the year. Thus, it is written: “On the eighth day you shall hold a joyous gathering (atzeret) for yourselves.” (See Peninei Halakha: Moadim 13:6 for why Shavu’ot is also called Atzeret.)

The eighth day is fitting for this celebration, as this world, the natural world, is linked with the number seven. It was created in seven days, and everything in it is temporary and finite. In order to store all of the goodness and divine illumination that manifests in it, we must sanctify ourselves and ascend to a level beyond nature and time, a level that is linked to the number eight. The power of this level that is beyond nature makes it possible to improve the world. We are similarly commanded to perform a brit mila, which improves upon nature, on the eighth day, for the covenant is eternal, beyond nature and time. God also gave us the eternal Torah on an “eighth day” of sorts – the day after we finished counting seven weeks of seven days. For this reason, it is appropriate to associate Simḥat Torah with Shemini Atzeret, the holiday correlated with the number eight (Maharal, Tiferet Yisrael ch. 2).

04. Tefilat Geshem – the Prayer for Rain

Rain brings water to the world, allowing all plants, animals, and people to survive. Therefore, it is proper to praise God and pray to Him for beneficial rain. The Sages thus instituted two mentions of rain into the Amida, to be recited during the rainy season, between Sukkot and Pesaḥ. In the second berakha, on the theme of God’s might, the Sages ordained that we praise the omnipotent God by declaring that He “makes the wind blow and the rain fall” (“mashiv ha-ru’aḥ u-morid ha-geshem”). This invocation is called “hazkarat geshamim” (“the mention of rain”). In the ninth berakha, in which we petition God for sustenance and livelihood, we ask Him to bring down “benevolent dew and rain” during the winter months. This is called “she’elat geshamim” (“the request for rain”).

Sukkot marks the start of the rainy season, so it would have been reasonable to start mentioning and requesting rain already at the beginning of the festival. However, rain on Sukkot is seen as a bad omen, since we cannot fulfill the mitzva of sitting in the sukka in the rain. For this reason, the Sages delayed hazkarat geshamim until after Sukkot and ordained that we begin reciting “mashiv ha-ru’aḥ” at Musaf of Shemini Atzeret, when synagogue attendance is high and it is a good time to announce the beginning of hazkarat geshamim. Since not everyone comes to Ma’ariv, and it is forbidden to announce anything just prior to the Amida of Shaḥarit, so the announcement is made at Musaf (Beit Yosef and SA 114:1-2).

Along with starting hazkarat geshamim, at Musaf of Shemini Atzeret we also recite Tefilat Geshem, the prayer for rain, in which we ask God that all the upcoming year’s rain be beneficial. It is customary to open the ark for Tefilat Geshem and to recite it with great intent and supplication. Ashkenazic custom treats this prayer like the prayers of the Days of Awe; the ḥazan wears a kittel and chants a special melody, as on the Days of Awe.

The custom of Sephardim and some Ashkenazim is to recite Tefilat Geshem before Musaf, and the custom of most Ashkenazim is to insert it into the ḥazan’s repetition of the Amida, in the second berakha, at the point where hazkarat geshamim appears. For those who follow this custom, the gabbai must declare loudly, before the silent Amida: “Mashiv ha-ru’aḥ u-morid ha-geshem!” By virtue of this announcement, the congregants recite this phrase during their silent Amida, even though they have not yet recited Tefilat Geshem.

The Torah is likened to water: “Just as water gives life to the world, so the words of Torah give life to the world” (Sifrei, Ekev §48). Water animates the body and Torah animates the soul. Therefore, it is proper during Tefilat Geshem to have in mind spiritual water as well as physical water, so that the next year will be blessed with Torah.

It would make sense to begin she’elat geshamim with the first Ma’ariv after the festival. However, the Sages were concerned about pilgrims who traveled great distances, so they delayed the beginning of she’elat geshamim for another 15 days, until the night of the seventh of Marḥeshvan. This allowed the last of the pilgrims, who came from across the Euphrates, to return home without getting caught in a downpour (SA 117:1). In Eretz Yisrael, we continue this beautiful custom, which reminds us of Temple times, to this day. (Regarding the proper practice outside of Eretz Yisrael, see Peninei Halakha: Prayer 18:7.)

If one forgot to say “mashiv ha-ru’aḥ” in Musaf on Shemini Atzeret or anytime afterward, he need not repeat the Amida as long as he said “morid ha-tal” (“Who brings down dew”; this is the prevailing custom in Eretz Yisrael). If one forgot she’elat geshamim anytime after the seventh of Marḥeshvan, he should insert it into the berakha of Shome’a Tefila. If he forgot to say it there, he should return to the ninth berakha (where it is normally recited) and continue the Amida from there. If he finished the Amida before realizing his omission, he must repeat the entire Amida. (See Peninei Halakha: Prayer 18:4-5.)

In the Diaspora, where there are two days of Yom Tov, Tefilat Geshem is also recited on the first day (Shemini Atzeret), just as in Eretz Yisrael. On the second day (Simḥat Torah), the yearly cycle of reading the Torah is completed.

05. The Completion of the Torah

Jewish custom is to read one portion (parasha) of the Torah each week and to complete the entire Torah each year on Simḥat Torah. In Eretz Yisrael, this is the same day as Shemini Atzeret, whereas outside of Eretz Yisrael, Simḥat Torah is the day after Shemini Atzeret.[2]

Even though the standard practice on Yom Tov is to call up five people to the Torah for aliyot, on Simḥat Torah, the parasha, Vezot Haberakha, is divided into seven aliyot. In addition, to honor the completion of the Torah, it is customary to call up every congregant for an aliya. To this end, the first five aliyot are read over and over, until everyone present has been called up, except for the four people who will be called up later: two for the last two aliyot, one for the beginning of Bereishit, and one for maftir.

Le-khatḥila, each time the parasha is repeated, people are called up in the standard order: first a kohen, then a Levite, and then three Yisraelim. If there are more kohanim or Levites to call up, they can be called up for the fourth and fifth aliyot as well as the usual first and second. When possible, they should still be called up in order, meaning, the fourth aliya should be given to the kohen and the fifth to the Levite (MB 135:37). If many kohanim are present but only a few Levites, a kohen should be called up for the first aliya but then a Yisrael may be called up for the second (Meshiv Davar 2:48). Once all kohanim and Levites have been called up, Yisraelim can be called up for all five aliyot.

When there are many congregants, it is customary to split up into multiple minyanim for the Torah reading, in order to shorten the time it takes to give everyone an aliya. Afterward the congregation reassembles for the final aliyot that conclude the Torah.

On Simḥat Torah it is customary to give aliyot to minors under the age of bar mitzvah. The widespread custom is to give an individual aliya to every child who knows how to recite the berakhot and can read along silently with the Torah reader. Minors who are not yet able to do that go up to the bima together with an esteemed member of the community for the aliya called “Kol Ha-ne’arim” (“All the Children”). The accompanying adult recites the berakhot slowly and loudly, and the children repeat each word after him. This is the penultimate aliya, and it begins with the word “me’ona.

By giving every congregant an aliya, we show that every Jew – young and old, scholar and layperson – has a part in the Torah.


[2]. In Talmudic times, there were two customs governing the weekly Torah reading. In Eretz Yisrael, the Torah was completed every three years, whereas in Babylonia, it was completed every year. Additionally, since Babylonia is outside of Eretz Yisrael, Jewish communities there kept a second day of Yom Tov. It was ordained by Ezra that the Tokhaḥa, the curses of Parashat Ki Tavo (Devarim 28), be read during the weeks leading up to Rosh Ha-shana (Megila 31b). Since the Tokhaḥa is just before the end of the Torah, the custom emerged in Babylonia to divide the remainder of the Torah into four parshiyot, so that the Torah would be completed each year on the second day of Shemini Atzeret, which thus became known as Simḥat Torah. Over time, the Babylonian custom came to predominate, and by the end of the Geonic era, all Jewish communities – even the communities of Eretz Yisrael – completed the annual reading of the Torah each year on Simḥat Torah (MT, Laws of Prayer 13:1).

In order to ensure that the Torah is completed each year on Simḥat Torah, there is some built-in flexibility regarding how the parshiyot are broken up. For instance, leap years have four more Shabbatot than regular years, and when Yom Tov coincides with Shabbat, the Torah reading for Yom Tov takes precedence, so there is a varying number of Shabbatot on which the regular Torah reading takes place. Finally, certain parshiyot are linked with certain times of the year: Parashat Beḥukotai is read before Shavu’ot, Parashat Ki Tavo, as noted, is read before Rosh Ha-shana, and so forth. To keep the Torah reading cycle “on schedule,” certain parshiyot are doubled up.

06. The “Ḥatanim

There are four especially prestigious aliyot on Simḥat Torah, and the most important of all is the one that concludes the Torah. The person honored with this aliya is called the “Ḥatan Torah.” The penultimate aliya is Kol Ha-ne’arim, discussed above, and it, too, is prestigious. The person called up for this aliyah is sometimes called the “Ḥatan Me’ona,” as “me’ona” is the first word of this aliya.

Immediately after the Torah is concluded, another Torah scroll is brought out. Another person is called up, and the first verses of Bereishit are read. It is a great honor to receive this aliya, and the person who receives it is called the “Ḥatan Bereishit.” This aliya expresses our devotion to Torah. When we finish reading the Torah, we do not bid it farewell, not even for a moment. Rather, we immediately begin it again (MB 668:10).

After the Ḥatan Bereishit, a third Torah scroll is brought out, and the aliya of maftir is read. This reading is about the offerings of the festival as described in Parashat Pinḥas (SA 668:2).

It is customary to read the beginning of Yehoshua as the haftara. Since the entire objective of the Torah is for it to be fulfilled in Eretz Yisrael, after completing the Torah it is appropriate to begin Yehoshua, which is about “the value of Eretz Yisrael” (see Nedarim 22b). Another reason to read Yehoshua at this point is because of its important verses about the value of Torah:

But you must be very strong and resolute to observe faithfully all the Torah that My servant Moses enjoined upon you. Do not deviate from it to the right or to the left, so that you will be successful wherever you go. Let not this book of the Torah cease from your mouth, but recite it day and night, so that you will observe faithfully all that is written in it. (Yehoshua 1:7-8)

It is also appropriate to begin studying the Prophets right after completing the Torah.

In many places, it is customary to sell these four prestigious aliyot to the largest donors to the synagogue and financial supporters of Torah scholars. Elsewhere, these aliyot are given to Torah scholars or community leaders. If choosing honorees is likely to cause conflict, because it is difficult to determine who is most deserving, it is better to sell the aliyot to the highest bidder. It is an added bonus if a buyer is also a Torah scholar or community leader (Kenesset Ha-gedola; Bikurei Yaakov 669:3). In some places, the wealthy buy these aliyot and then give them to Torah scholars. Their merit is great, as they both make a donation and honor the Torah.

Some have a custom that each person who receives an aliya pledges to make a donation to synagogue upkeep and Torah study (MB 669:7).

If one already had an aliya and then finds out that the congregation wishes to honor him as Ḥatan Torah, Ḥatan Me’ona, Ḥatan Bereishit, or maftir, he may accept this additional aliya, and there is no concern that he is making an unnecessary berakha. However, if one is honored as Ḥatan Torah, he should not receive the aliya of Ḥatan Bereishit as well, as it would be disrespectful toward the first Torah scroll; it would look as though he had to come back for an extra aliya because the first Torah scroll was found to be invalid (Eliya Rabba; Pri Megadim; Bikurei Yaakov 669:4; MB ad loc. 2). A kohen or Levite can be Ḥatan Torah or Ḥatan Bereishit (Maharil; Bikurei Yaakov 669:4).

Ashkenazic custom is to read three aliyot from Parashat Vezot Haberakha on the night of Simḥat Torah, after the hakafot. Those who are called up recite the berakhot (MB 669:15).

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).

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.

Chapter Contents