What’s on Eighth? An Israeli Simchat Torah Primer

According to tradition, for each holy day of a festival, Jews living outside of Israel celebrate two. So what happens then with the two holy days at the end of Sukkot — Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah — which seem to be separate holidays rather than duplicates of the same event.

"On the eighth day you shall hold a solemn gathering" Numbers 29.35.
Growing up in America, I always knew about the concept of "yom tov sheni shel galuyot." According to this tradition, for each holy day of a festival, Jews living outside of Israel celebrate two. I always wondered, however, about Simchat Torah. On the other festival holy days (the first day of Sukkot, the first and last days of Passover and Shavuot) it was clear to me that the second day outside of Israel was basically a duplication of the first. But after the seven-day holiday of Sukkot (one holy day plus six festival days in Israel, or two holy days plus five days of festival outside the country), we Jews in the Diaspora celebrate Shemini Atzeret ("the eighth day of assembly") and Simchat Torah, on the eighth and ninth days, respectively. Unlike the other "second days," here seemed to be an example not of mere duplication but of a separate "second day" holiday — Simchat Torah. What then, I wondered, went on in Israel? If Israelis did not have two holy days at the end of Sukkot, when did they celebrate both Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah?

Since I will be celebrating my seventeenth Simchat Torah in Israel this year, I think I have finally grasped what goes on. Believe it or not, the process took me a few years. For the ritually curious, all of the rites that are celebrated in the Diaspora over two days are packed into one day. The special prayer for rain, the Yizkor memorial prayer and the hakafot ("circuits") with the Torahs all occur on the day of Simchat Torah. For all intents and purposes, there is no Shemini Atzeret in Israel, only Simchat Torah.

It's true that the liturgy speaks not of "Simchat Torah" but of the "holiday of the eighth day of assembly." However, the central rite of the holiday — the completion of the Torah cycle with the reading of the end of Deuteronomy and the renewal of the cycle with the reading of the beginning of Genesis — carries the spirit of the day.

An interesting aspect of Simchat Torah is that it provides the only case where Israel alone repeats a major holiday rite. I am talking here about "hakafot shniyot," a second night of dancing with the Torah that has come into vogue throughout Israel. Hakafot shniyot takes place this year on Thursday, Sept. 26, the evening after Simchat Torah in Israel, a time that is technically weekday here. Because of this, the hakafot are accompanied by live music. Because children do not have school the next day, many people take off from work and join in the celebration. In Givat Ze'ev, the music is provided by a local professional keyboard player accompanied by other musicians — how many depends on the financial situation of the municipality and whether or not a mayoral election is approaching.

I have no idea what percentage of Israeli Jews celebrate Simchat Torah. As a religious person, it's nice to live in a country where my town government sponsors hakafot shniyot. Yet, as usual, I will likely be bothered to see that practically all of the people celebrating hakafot shniyot will be religious.  There are religious and cultural reasons to dance with a Torah, and in the Jewish state's early decades, secular and religious Israelis danced together at hakafot shniyot.  I look forward to a return to this tradition. 

Teddy Weinberger is a writer who lives in Givat Ze'ev, Israel.


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