Question: Is the holiday of Simchat Torah (Rejoicing with the Torah) observed in the wrong season?
The holy day, which came into being as a holiday in the 11th-12th century C.E., celebrates the Torah (Five Books of Moses) and, by implication, the broader Torah (the total body of instruction which makes up the Jewish tradition).
When the Jews brought together practices glorifying the Torah — taking out the scrolls, parading them, dancing with them — to make a new holiday, why did they not connect it to Shavuot which is the birthday of the covenant, the day on which the Jews bound themselves to the Torah forever?
Answer: In contrast to the ancient Israeli triennial cycle, Babylonian Jewry divided the Torah (Five Books of Moses) into 54 portions and read them over the course of one year. When Babylonian Jews finished reading the Torah, they wanted to mark the occasion with rejoicing and celebration.
Logically, the conclusion and the celebration would come at the end of the year, just before Rosh Hashanah. But there was not much room for adding a major celebration then — and maybe the mood of awe and fear of judgment did not go well with delirious dancing and singing.
Also, a tradition developed to read the Torah portion containing the covenant blessings and curses (Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26: 1-29) just before the New Year- Ten Days of Penitence period. Correspondingly, the weekly readings were so apportioned that the covenant blessings and curses found in Leviticus (26: 3- 46) would be read annually just before Shavuot.
The Torah reading, in effect, was giving advance notice of the rewards and punishments for being Jewish and warning that life and death lay in the choice. This portion evoked solemnity; it set the proper mood for being on trial for one’s life between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. However, the reading of the last portions of Deuteronomy took two or three weeks more — which made Sukkot the natural holiday to be associated with the completion celebration.
Still, a deeper symbolic language may account for the connection of Simchat Torah to the eighth day holiday (Shemini Atzeret) that follows Sukkot. The numbers seven and eight appear widely in Jewish tradition and they have a distinct symbolic meaning.
Seven represents completion — and perfection. When the Torah describes God’s flawless creation, it signals that excellence literarily by dividing creation into seven stages (days). The seventh day, Shabbat, crowns the process and completes it as God savors the fullness of perfection.
Passover, the celebration of the Exodus liberation event which is the core of the Torah, is a seven-day holiday; the first and seventh day are especially sanctified (no work is performed). Similarly, the Hebrew slave worked six days only. On the seventh day his freedom was restored; like his masters, he was set free from work. The Hebrew slave could be indentured for six years. In the seventh year, he went free. Thus the world was restored to its social perfection, which equals freedom.
Eight is also a highly positive symbolic number. Eight represents seven plus one; if you will, perfection plus. For seven days, the newborn male child lives separately from his mother’s body and establishes the vitality and durability of his individual life. Then on the eighth day he enters the transgeneiational covenant of Abraham — i.e., into the community of the Jewish people.
For seven days, a newly born goat or sheep nurses and grows with its mother. Only “from the eighth day on (after completing its cycle of a week) will it be accepted as an offering before the Lord” (Leviticus 23: 19).
What is the difference between seven and eight? Both mark perfection — the completion of a whole cycle. But eight represents seven plus one, which means that one cycle has been completed and a new cycle has begun. The newborn male has begun the cycle of his own life on the eighth day. Therefore, he can enter into the community of the Jewish people.
Seven times seven years, the Jewish people lived with flawed, compromised social realities through a cycle of poverty, indentured servitude, borrowing and selling off family lands (see Leviticus, chapter 25 and Deuteronomy, chapter 15). But in the 50th year (seven times seven, plus one), i.e., the Jubilee year — a new cycle was begun. Primordial perfection was restored. Slaves went free. Every family received back its ancestral land. All Jews started over again independent, equal and free.
Passover also inaugurates a series of seven times seven steps (seven weeks or 49 days) which complete a cycle from exodus/political liberation to covenant/ spiritual liberation. Shavuot occurs on the 50th day (seven times seven, plus one). The Sinai covenant is the beginning of the cycle of Jewish existence as a free people with a constitution and a mission — tikkun olam.
The Sukkot holiday contains seven days plus one. The eighth day (Shemini Atzeret) is considered a distinctive holiday in its own right but it also crowns and completes the Sukkot holiday — much as Shavuot (although removed seven times seven days) crowns and completes Passover. This parallel suggests that Shemini Atzeret can be compared to Shavuot and is an appropriate day to rejoice with the Torah.
On Simchat Torah, the people of Israel celebrate the completion of the annual Torah reading cycle. They immediately bring out another Torah and start reading the book of Genesis. Thus begins a new cycle of studying, living — and rejoicing — with the Torah. What day could be more appropriate for celebrating the Torah than the day of seven plus one — Shemini Atzeret?
So the Jewish people created Simchat Torah and attached it to the eighth day. They thereby testified that the body of received Torah was whole but the cycle of created and applied Torah was only beginning!
P.S. Only in Israel is Simchat Torah on the eighth day. In Diaspora, Simchat Torah is on day seven plus one plus one — but that is another story!
Irving Greenberg is president of CLAL — the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and author of “The Jewish Way” (New York: Summit Books).