Simhat Torah – Are There Limits on Innovation?

Recently I heard a discussion on whether we can declare a new Jewish holiday. In fact Yom Ha’Atzma’ut is a newly-created holiday, to celebrate the rebirth of an independent Jewish State. Needless to say, how it is defined and celebrated continues to be the subject of much debate – halakhic, theological and political.

Simhat Torah is a “recent” holiday, if it should be considered a separate holiday at all. It has no basis in the Torah and is in fact an embellishment of Shemini Hag Ha’Atzeret, the eighth day of Sukkot. It has no separate identity liturgically – it is called “Yom HaShemini Hag Ha’Atseret hazeh (zman simhatenu)” in the Amidah and the Kiddush. The name Simhat Torah was apparently first used in the Geonic period (8th – 10th centuries), in Bavel and Eretz Yisrael and is found in Rashi’s Siddur (11th century, Ashkenaz). And the practices we now associate with it developed at different times and places, in the Geonic period and later.

Simhat Torah as a cause for celebration resulted from fixing the reading of the Torah annually, which was not always the case. The Talmud (Source 1) makes reference to the triennial (3 year) cycle in Palestine, and Rashi notes there that the custom in his area was to do it in a year. Maimonides, a century later than Rashi, (Source 2) is more specific – he considers the annual cycle the prevailing practice and Sukkot the date for its end and re-beginning.

The Tur (Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, 1269 – 1343, Ashkenaz and Spain) says the day is called “Simhat Torah, because we finish the Torah and it is appropriate to rejoice on the completion.” He notes practices which were apparently new or recent: the removal of three Sifrei Torah, the third for the reading of the beginning of Bereishit; piyutim (liturgical poems) for the day; “there are places” where all the sifrei Torah are removed from the Aron; and, in Ashkenaz, special honors for the ones who end and begin the reading of the Torah (the Hatan Torah and Hatan Bereishit today).

(Source 3, paragraphs 1, 3 and 4)

The Rema, Rabbi Moshe Isserles (16th century, Cracow, Poland), in his gloss of Ashkenazic customs in the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 669), mentions elements which evidently had become popular in the intervening centuries and which seem “natural” to us today: removal of all the Torahs the night before as well; circling the bima of the synagogue with the Sifrei Torahs “as we do with the lulav;” calling many people for aliyot and repeating the same reading many times “and this is not forbidden;” and calling the youths to the Torah and “some even call a youth for the final aliya.”

What is surprising is how smoothly it appears that these customs, some quite radical, were accepted; at least we don’t see strong objections in the contemporary sources. The Rema’s comment that repeating the reading to allow many aliyot “is not forbidden” hints that there was opposition to this. R’ Joseph Colon (the Maharik, 15th century, Italy) permitted dancing on Simhat Torah “though we don’t (usually) dance on Festivals,” but he forbade the burning of incense. And the Magen Avraham (17th century, Poland, on Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 669) adds that it is forbidden to “burn pulvei (gun powder) to make noise, and I have seen important rabbis object to it.” This is intriguing; apparently the use of fireworks for the celebration of Jewish holidays did not originate with Yom Ha’Atzma’ut.

One point that did cause serious discomfort was the Haftarah for Simhat Torah, which today is the first chapter of Joshua, and the reason for the discomfort is clear – the Talmud instructs us expressly otherwise. The Mishnah in Megillah (Source 4), the first place where Torah readings are discussed, tells that we read the list of festivals in Leviticus chapter 23 on the first day of Sukkot and “the festival offerings (Numbers 29:12 ff) on the other days of the Festival.” It is silent about any special reading for Shemini Hag Ha’Atzeret,, even though the Torah designates it a “shabbaton” and “solemn assembly” (Lev 23:39 and Num 27:35), nor does it mention Haftarot.

The Gemara shows a big development (Source 5) – it knows two-day holidays in the Diaspora; the 8th day has its own festival reading (Deuteronomy 14:22 and following); the sacrifice for the 8th day from Numbers has become the Maftir reading; and Haftarah readings are introduced. The readings for the second day of Shemini Hag Ha’Atzeret are illuminating – Deuteronomy 33, to conclude the Torah, as we read today, and I Kings VIII, 22 (Shlomo’s prayer on completion of the Temple) for the Haftarah. This is very nice. As it became popular to complete the cycle of Torah reading, Moses’ blessing the people at the close of Deuteronomy makes Shlomo’s blessing the people on the completion of the Temple, which occurred at the end of Sukkot, very appropriate – both in timing and in content.

But, as noted above, that is not what we do. Reading Joshua 1 instead was mentioned in Seder Rav Amram (9th century, Bavel), but it took centuries to become accepted throughout the Jewish world. Maimonides (12th century, Spain, Egypt, Eretz Yisrael) is aware of both customs (Source 6), while his Ashkenazic contemporary, an anonymous Tosafist, is, too, but clearly very unhappy about it – “how can we change what the Talmud has ordained?” (Source 7). Rabbi Yitzhak ben Moshe of Vienna, from the same period, makes two interesting suggestions in his highly regarded work, Or Zarua: that the exchange of the Haftarah goes back to the Saboraim (Babylonian rabbis of the 6th-7th centuries) and that the authority to do so derives from the force of established custom, minhag mevatel halacha – it can overturn the formal law (Source 8). The Tur (Source 1, section 2), a half century later, also mentions both customs, but indicates that he follows those who read Joshua.

A century later, the RaN, R’ Nissim ben Reuven, one of the last of the great Spanish medieval talmudic scholars (14th c), explained that there is a good, logical reason for each of these Haftarot to follow the end of Deuteronomy. Regarding Joshua 1, which, interestingly, the RaN cites as nuscha achrina (“the alternative” text), he writes: “In the Haftarah following Moshe’s death, God instructs his student Joshua how to carry on.” But by the 16th century Joshua had apparently become accepted throughout the Jewish world as the Haftarah for Simhat Torah (Shulhan Arukh, Source 9). The I Kings 8 reading of the Talmud is no longer mentioned. The umbrage of the Tosafot seems to have lapsed.

The substitution of Joshua brings to the holiday the linear view of history, supplementing the cyclical. When we finish reading the Torah we return to the beginning and start over (Genesis 1) and we move ahead, into the territory of time and space which followed the Torah. From the desert of Sinai, we go both back to the idyllic Garden of Eden and forward into the harsh reality of Eretz Yisrael, tough then and tough today.

The Maggid of Dubnow, a famous 18th century Lithuanian preacher, offered a homiletical explanation why Simhat Torah is celebrated at Sukkot and not at Shavuot, the anniversary of Matan Torah, the time of the giving of the Torah to Am Yisrael. Israel was compelled to receive the Torah at Shavuot (God forced it upon us as har k’gigit, as a mountain dangling over us, Talmud Shabbat 88a). It took the months from Sivan for Israel’s acquaintance with the Torah to ripen into love. The celebration in Tishrei appropriately reflects the deep sense of the joy of Torah which the people had acquired and which hopefully we still feel today.