Jewish Calendar - Tishrei - Shemini Azeret and Simhat Torah

Shemini Azeret and Simhat Torah

Simhat Torah (Rejoicing in the Law), observed immediately at the conclusion of Sukkot, celebrates the completion of the annual cycle of reading from the Torah and the beginning of the new cycle. Simhat Torah is different from other Jewish festivals in that the synagogue is the focal point rather than the home.

Simhat Torah is an outstanding example of a comparatively late custom that became so entrenched in Jewish life as to be considered a major celebration. It is not mentioned at all in the Talmud. During the Babylonian exile, the custom of completing the synagogal cycle of the Pentateuch reading in one year gained prominence (over the Palestinian custom of completing the reading of the Pentateuch in three years.) In the 14th century, Yaakov ben Asher codified the custom of recommencing the reading of the Torah on Simhat Torah immediately after its completion.

The eighth day from the beginning of Sukkot is called Shemini Azeret (Eighth Day of Assembly). In Israel, Shemini Azeret coincides with the Simhat Torah (Rejoicing of the Law) celebration, while outside Israel, the two holidays are celebrated on consecutive days - Shemini Azeret on the 8th and Simhat Torah on the 9th day.

In the synagogue

"On the eighth day shall be a holy convocation for you... It is a day of solemn assembly." (Leviticus 23:26 ) 

On Shemini Azeret, the Yizkor memorial prayers are recited for the departed. Special prayers for rain (Tefillat Geshem) are recited in the synagogue, as this is the beginning of the rainy season in Israel, where crops depend heavily on abundant rainfall. In many synagogues the cantor wears a white robe (kittel) while chanting the prayers for rain.

On Simhat Torah it is customary to take all the Torah scrolls out of the ark and carry them in procession around the synagogue seven times. The congregation participates in these hakkafot (circlings) with singing and dancing, and the children carry decorated flags. The last verses from the Book of Deuteronomy are read, completing the yearly Torah reading cycle, and the first verses of the Book of Genesis are read, beginning the cycle once again. Adult members of the congregation are called to recite the blessing over the Torah. A moving moment during the celebration is when the children are collectively called up to the Torah to recite the blessings, while standing under a large tallit (prayer shawl).

The custom of appointing a Hatan Torah (Torah bridegroom) and Hatan Bereishit (Genesis bridegroom) has become prevalent in many synagogues. The former is given the honor of being called up for the concluding portion of the Pentateuch (the end of Deuteronomy) and the latter for the beginning portion (Bereishit or Genesis). In non-Orthodox synagogues women are given this honor as well, and are referred to as Kallat Torah (Torah bride) and Kallat Bereishit (Genesis bride).

The hakkafot and accompanying celebrations are performed at both the evening and following morning services; Simhat Torah is the only festival on which the Torah is read in the evening as well as in the morning.

In Israel, it has become customary to have further hakkafot on the evening following Simhat Torah, often held outdoors with musical accompaniment. In the former Soviet Union, beginning in the 1960s, Jews expressed their Jewish identity by gathering together at synagogues at Simhat Torah, and singing and dancing.

At home

Two candles are lit to usher in both Shemini Azeret and Simhat Torah, and the festival blessing is recited. A candle in memory of the departed is lit as well. The festival blessing over the wine (Kiddush) and over the bread (Ha-motzi) is recited .

hemini Azeret and Simhat Torah conclude the holiday period that begins with the solemnity of the High Holidays (known in Hebrew as Yamim Noraim, the "Days of Awe") on a note of rejoicing.

Barukh atah Adonai eloheinu melekh ha'olam, asher kid-shanu be'mizvotav ve'zivanu le-hadlik ner shel Yom Tov (when the festival falls on Shabbat, the concluding words are "ner shel Shabbat v'Yom Tov").

(Praised are You, Sovereign of the Universe, who has sanctified us with Your mitzvot and has commanded us to kindle light for the festival.)



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