This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Mysterious Origins of Simhat Torah*

Nobody would question the appropriateness of holding a joyous celebration for the conclusion of the annual Torah-reading cycle. Even according to the ancient rites of the Land of Israel, where the Torah was chanted over a period of three and a half years, and did not conclude at a specific season of the year, a "Simhat Torah" ceremony was often held to mark that occasion.

What is much less obvious is how Simhat Torah came to be observed on its current date, on the "extra" day that is appended to Sh’mini ‘Atzeret, at the culmination of the Sukkot season. Neither Sukkot nor Sh’mini ‘Atzeret, whether viewed as agricultural or historical holidays, have any special relevance to the theme of Torah. Quite the contrary: There are several alternative dates in our sacred calendar that would be much more suitable for finishing and recommencing the reading of the Torah. Two alternatives that spring readily to mind are Shavu’ot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Sinai, and Rosh Hashanah, commencing the new year.

As we trace the obscure origins of Simhat Torah we note that there has not always been clear agreement about when it should be observed. Several medieval Spanish authorities record a custom, ascribed to the Babylonian Ge’onim, of reading the first verses of the Torah (though not necessarily from an actual scroll) on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. They cite as their reason the following legend:

Throughout the Ten Days of Repentance, Satan has been accusing Israel, arguing "Behold, the Torah which you have bestowed upon Israel–they have already finished with it!"
Now, when the Holy One hears them beginning again from Genesis, he immediately rebukes Satan saying "Look how, as soon as they complete it, they immediately start over again, so great is their love for my Torah!"

It stands to reason, if the new cycle was begun on Yom Kippur, then the old one must have been concluded, with the reading of the final section of Deuteronomy, slightly before that; however the sources are unclear about the details.

A more direct thematic link between the Day of Atonement and Simhat Torah is implied by the traditional Jewish chronology, according to which it was on Yom Kippur that the Almighty yielded to Moses’ entreaties and gave Israel the second tablets of the law.

With such powerful reasons for observing Simhat Torah on Yom Kippur, it is all the more difficult to justify how it came to be celebrated on its current date on the second day of Sh’mini ‘Atzeret.

One factor that might have influenced the choice was a Talmudic tradition that designates Deuteronomy 28, with its fire-and-brimstone threats against those who disobey God, as the fitting reading for the Sabbath preceding Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, "so that the year and all its curses will be put behind us." Following the normal parashah divisions, this would lead to the reading of the entire Torah being completed just after the current date of Simhat Torah.

A more decisive reason for the choice of date had to do with its Prophetic reading (haftarah). According to the rules set out in the Talmud, the correct haftarah for the second day of Sh’mini ‘Atzeret is 1 Kings 8, which relates how King Solomon blessed the people at the dedication of the newly erected Temple, an event that is usually understood to have occurred on the eighth day of Sukkot, i.e., on Sh’mini ‘Atzeret.

The readings from the Torah and the Prophets ought normally to have elements in common, and indeed Solomon’s blessings bear a thematic affinity to the ones recited by the dying Moses in the closing verses of the Torah, making that day an appropriate one on which to conclude the annual Torah-reading cycle.

At this point, readers who are familiar with the holiday liturgy will undoubtedly be objecting: What is all this talk about a reading from the Book of Kings? Everybody knows that the haftarah for Simhat Torah is the opening of the Book of Joshua, which is the direct continuation of the end of Deuteronomy, but has no connection at all to Sh’mini ‘Atzeret!

The truth is that, though Joshua 1 is now the universally accepted haftarah for Simhat Torah, this has not always been the case. Early sources inform us that its acceptance as haftarah was achieved only after a prolonged struggle, seeing that it contradicts the explicit injunctions of the Talmud.

During the early medieval era communities throughout the Jewish world wavered about whether they should retain the old Talmudic haftarah about Solomon’s Sukkot blessings, or adopt the new one describing God’s exhortations to Joshua. Various localities preferred the one, or the other, or followed some combination of both texts.

A few scholars dismissed the new custom as nothing more than a flagrant mistake, while others tried to justify it by noting that the selection of haftarahs is a matter of recommended custom rather than actual law, and that this particular innovation could be ascribed to the authority of the earliest post-Talmudic teachers of Babylonia. At any rate, they noted, there is a Talmudic principle that "custom can override the halakhah."

Eventually the original Talmudic haftarah from the Book of Kings was completely pushed aside and virtually forgotten.

When that happened, we lost a vital clue to the obscure beginnings of Simhat Torah.

This article and many others are now included in the book

In Those Days, At This Time
In Those Days, At This Time:
Holiness and History in the Jewish Calendar

published by

University of Calgary Press
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