This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Simhat Torah: The Rabbis and the Rabble *

For a day whose chief purpose is to celebrate the Jewish people's commitment to the Torah, Simhat Torah has an uncanny propensity for running afoul of conventional Jewish law. Many of the day's fundamental synagogue rituals--such as the calling of an unlimited number of individuals to the reading of the Torah and the participation of minor children in the service--are exceptions to accepted liturgical procedures.

This situation is indicative of the deep impression that popular custom that has stamped on Simhat Torah. Indeed the entire institution of Simhat Torah owes its existence to custom: It was unknown to either the Bible or Talmud, and its earliest mentions are in the writings of the medieval Babylonian Ge'onim.

Furthermore, Simhat Torah is a day whose very essence is "rejoicing." Joy, especially when it is for such a sublime purpose, is difficult to rein in, and it is understandable that the participants have not always been scrupulous in giving consideration to the finer requirements of religious law.

The complex history of Simhat Torah has been punctuated by recurring skirmishes between popular enthusiasm and the rigours of the halakhah. The rabbinic leadership often found itself divided over the relative importance of adherence to legal standards or the encouragement of religiously motivated fervor.

In most cases the rabbis chose not to oppose the popular practices, pointing to the wholesomeness of the motives and the tenuous halakhic status of Simhat Torah as a mere "extra" day appended to Shemini `Atzeret. On these grounds the rabbis overcame their initial objections to activities like dancing, hand-clapping--and sometimes even to the use of instrumental music--that should normally have been prohibited on festivals by Talmudic decree. Later generations, under the influence of Kabbalah and Hasidism, would turn dancing into an inseparable part of the holiday celebrations.

This attitude of permissiveness was the characteristic response of the rabbinic leadership to the halakhic liberties that were taken in the festive merriment. Reluctant to alienate the common people, the sages went out of their way to invent contrived justifications for questionable practices.

Notable exceptions were the rabbis of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Poland and Lithuania. Jewish society there had become polarized, and many rabbis regarded themselves as a learned élite that should keep at a safe distance from the vulgar masses. Several rabbis of the era expressed their open disdain for the notion that unlettered working folk, who did not occupy themselves in full time religious study, could be included in a festival devoted to learning.

predilection for burning things as part of their celebrations, giving rise to potential violations of the Biblical prohibitions against kindling and extinguishing fire on a festival. These customs became a recurrent concern of rabbinic responsa about Simhat Torah. For example, the Babylonian Ge'onim were questioned about the widespread practice of lighting incense in front of the Torah scrolls on the holiday. Children in fifteenth-century Germany would ceremoniously burn the foliage that had hitherto adorned the tops of their newly obsolete sukkahs, a halakhically questionable procedure that was defended by no less an authority than the famed R. Jacob Möllin, the "Maharil." In Worms it was customary for the rabbi to join in dancing around an immense bonfire that had been built for that purpose. In several communities, including Izmir, Aleppo and Jerusalem, those individuals who were honoured with special 'aliyyot to the Torah were escorted from their homes to the synagogue in a spirited procession illuminated by candles and torchlight.

The rabbinic authorities in Izmir were divided about whether they should condone this last-mentioned practice. Some were ready to invoke a ban of excommunication against it. However those who permitted the activity could point to its long history: Some of the most distinguished sages of previous generations had not seen fit to protest--indeed several of them had themselves marched proudly in the parades!

A Turkish rabbi who was reluctantly enmeshed in the controversy wrote with notable irony: "A flame ignited spontaneously between during the lifetimes of those earlier rabbis, and the blazes will continue to burn with even greater fury among the leaders of the Izmir community, who have been split into two contending camps..."

As if matters were not yet sufficiently volatile, several Jewish communities in central Europe and the Balkans developed an affection for detonating firecrackers and fireworks in the synagogue in honour of Simhat Torah. For some distinguished authorities, like the Polish Rabbi Abraham Gombiner, this constituted irrefutable proof of what happens when you let boorish commoners celebrate a scholars' holiday. However even this practice found advocates among the respectable rabbinic leadership.

Thus, when asked to rule on the use of fireworks in the synagogue of Sarajevo (a fashion that had lately been introduced from Venice), Rabbi David Pardo reminded the opponents that the rowdy activities were inspired "by the joy of a commandments, and were for the glory of the Lord's perfect Torah, which has always sustained us and our forefathers, and which can be counted on to be forgiving..."

Particularly outspoken among the defenders of firecrackers was Rabbi Elia Shapira, the distinguished head of the Prague yeshiva. His fierce diatribe aptly illuminates some of the social and psychological issues that underlay the controversy:

It is evident that the masses should be encouraged to rejoice as much as possible when it is to honour a mitzvah--contrary to the approach of those nay-sayers who would have us transform the joy into gloom, God forbid! Those people deserve to be censured for causing people to refrain from the joy of the commandments.


This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers


Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

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