According to the Torah (Leviticus 23:36), the seven days of Sukkot are followed by Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of assembly, or conclusion. The Torah calls it an ‘eighth’ day, but it is not clear whether it is part of Sukkot or not. The Talmud, Yoma 2b-3a, concludes that it is the eighth day of the festival, and so is part of it. However, there is no requirement to dwell in the Sukkah, or wave the Lulav on Shemini Atzeret, so a question mark still hangs over the meaning and purpose of the day.
Simchat Torah, Rejoicing of the Torah, is a post-biblical festival, which occurs just at the end of Sukkot. In the Talmud (Megillah 31a), it is referred to as the second day of Shemini Atzeret. Perhaps the lack of clarity of the purpose of Shemini Atzeret led Liberal and Reform communities, and the State of Israel, to mark Simchat Torah on the same day as Shemini Atzeret. In Orthodox and Masorti communities, Simchat Torah continues to be practised as an additional day after Shemini Atzeret.
The main practice of Simchat Torah is the completion of the annual cycle of Torah readings, with the reading of the end of the Book of Deuteronomy. It is then the custom to immediately read the first parashah of the Book of Genesis, to show our love for the Torah, and our wish that it would never end.
The expression of our love for Torah is perhaps what led to the practice of honouring a Chatan or Kallat Torah for the Deuteronomy reading, and a Chatan or Kallat B’reishit for the Genesis reading – a ‘bridegroom’ or ‘bride’ of the Torah and of Genesis. Some communities conduct the reading of the Torah under a chuppah, a wedding canopy, to symbolise the ‘marriage’ and love between God and Israel. It is also a custom to make seven hakafot, ‘circuits’, around the synagogue, with the Torah scrolls, while dancing and singing.
Our Liberal and Reform communities will be celebrating Simchat Torah on Sunday evening and Monday morning, while our Masorti community will be marking Shemini Atzeret on Monday morning, and Simchat Torah on Monday evening and Tuesday. See below for all the service information.
Simchat Torah marks the end of the High Holy Day season, and I wish you all the joy of the festival.