This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Torch Songs*

The Sukkot festivities that were celebrated in ancient Jerusalem were incomparable in their joy. The Mishnah, which usually confines itself to the dry technicalities of Jewish religious law, waxes poetic as it describes the jubilation that radiated from the Temple courts filling the city with unceasing music and light.

Among the more surprising details included in that description is the fact that pious and prominent religious leaders would dance before the crowds with flaming torches in their hands . The Talmud provides specific details, informing us that the Patriarch Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel was accustomed to take hold of as many as eight torches, which he would fling into the air, catching them one at a time, without their ever colliding.

The Talmud goes on to relate that Rabban Simeon was not the only rabbi who was proficient at juggling. Other outstanding sages were known to juggle eight knives, eight cups filled with wine, or eight eggs.

Indeed, the ability to keep this many objects in motion is one that was attested rarely, if it all, in the recorded history of juggling. An ancient Chinese text tells of an individual who succeeded in juggling seven swords, even as medieval Norse myth knew of someone who could keep seven knives in the air simultaneously. Balls, knives and torches appear to have been among the most popular juggling props in early times.

A certain Tagatus Ursus (53-117), a Roman who was a slightly younger contemporary of Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel, boasted on his epitaph that he was the first to juggle glass spheres.

Medieval talmudic commentators were intrigued, or even disturbed, by the fact that distinguished scholars seemed to be wasting their time in trivial activities.

Maimonides, ever the paragon of respectability, suggested that the sages and scholars did not attach any real value to such displays of amusement. Nevertheless, by performing the acrobatics themselves, the rabbis were taking the initiative out of the hands of the rabble, and thereby preventing the holiday mirth from getting out of hand. In Maimonides' depiction of the Sukkot festivities, the commoners were confined to the role of passive observers.

In a similar spirit, Rabbi Henokh Zundel ben Joseph, a prominent commentator on midrashic texts, warned that we should not take the Talmud's words at face value, as if these saintly teachers were indulging in mere stage tricks. There must be a deeper meaning to what they were doing.

A number of commentators looked for significance in the choices of objects to be juggled. Maharsha (Rabbi Samuel Edels) observed that torches would make very appropriate props for the Sukkot festivities, since the celebrations took place at night. As for the knives, cups and eggs, Maharsha states that they were selected because they made the spectacle so much more dramatic, whether on account of their fragility, or because of the danger that they appeared to present to the juggler.

Several commentators were intrigued by the recurrence of the number eight in the enumeration of the juggled props. Some, like the Maharsha, proposed utilitarian explanations for that number. Eight is the number of spaces between the fingers of two hands, explaining how the sages could keep the items under control. Maharsha concedes that this explanation does not work well for torches, since the Mishnah states that all eight were clasped in one hand, not two.

Others writers found a symbolic significance in the number eight. For example, Rabbi Jacob Reischer alluded to a talmudic passage that speaks of eight precepts that were observed during each day of Sukkot prior to the commencement of the merriment: (1) the daily morning offering, (2) the morning prayer, (3) the Additional (Musaf) sacrifice, (4) the Musaf prayer, (5) the study of Torah, (6) the festive meal, (7) the afternoon prayer, and (8) the daily evening offering.

Alternatively, the number could allude to the eight persons who are supposed to be included in the rejoicing of a festival, according to Deuteronomy 16:14: "And thou shalt rejoice in thy feast, thou, and (1) thy son, and (2) thy daughter, and (3) thy manservant, and (4) thy maidservant, and (5) the Levite, (6) the stranger, and (7) the fatherless, and (8) the widow."

Rabbi Henokh Zundel ben Joseph interpreted the juggling as a celebration of the Torah. In fact he linked the festivities to the medieval institution of Simhat Torah, and pointed out that the name "Simhat Beit Ha-She'uvah" (the rejoicing of the water-drawing) was linked by the Talmud to the verse (Isaiah 12:3) "with joy shall ye draw [u-she'avtem] water out of the wells of salvation." The verse, Rabbi Henokh Zundel explained, alludes to drawing inspiration from the teachings of the Torah. This association is consistent with the use of torches in the rejoicing, since light is a favourite rabbinic metaphor for Torah.

Seen from this perspective, the number eight can represent eight distinct disciplines of Torah study that were listed by the Talmud: (1) Bible, (2) Mishnah, (3) Talmud, (4) Aggadah, (5) received traditions, (6) scholarly debate, as well as (7) the secret doctrines surrounding the Creation story, and (8) Ezekiel's vision of the mystical Chariot.

Pursuing this imagery, Rabbi Henokh Zundel observed that the juggling of torches served as a demonstration of how the scholar had mastered (grasped in his hands) all eight disciplines. Tossing them into the air represents the spiritual and intellectual elevation that comes through study. The fact that the torches never got confused symbolized the sages' ability to apply the distinct mode of learning that is appropriate to each area, without mixing them up into an indistinguishable mess.

This manner of symbolism was easily extended by Rabbi Henokh Zundel to the other forms of juggling mentioned by the Talmud. Knives, of course, represent the rabbis' well-honed analytical skills. The juggling of eggs or wine-cups likewise conveys the idea that, although there might be eight separate disciplines, in a profound sense they are as alike as eggs or drops of a liquid, since they all derive from the same divine source.

For our sages, even a frivolous-looking balancing trick could became a never-ending source of profound spiritual speculations. Indeed, the possibilities of interpretation are so numerous that it seems to require a major feat of intellectual juggling just to keep them in order.

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  • First Publication:
      The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, September 19, 2002, pp. 8-9 [as "Sukkot and the joys of juggling"].
  • Bibliography:
    • Conway, Andrew, A History of Juggling 1994 [cited, Available from
    • Lewbel, Arthur, Research in Juggling History 1995 [cited, Available from
    • Safrai, Shemuel. Pilgrimage at the Time of the Second Temple. 2nd revised ed. Yerushalayim: Akademon, 1985.
    • Ziethen, Karl-Heinz, 1981, 4,000 Years of Juggling, Sainte-Genevieve, France: M. Poignant