Simhat Torah was included as a “new” holiday. Could we add more?


Israel’s Independence Day and Jerusalem Day are two of the most recent celebrations added to the Hebrew calendar. Holocaust Remembrance Day is another recent addition mandated by the Knesset. But these days are not universally recognized by all Jews. You have to go back a thousand years to find a holiday added to the calendar and celebrated by all Jews.

Which brings us to Simhat Torah, a feast not rooted in the Bible. In our 3,500 year history, it is a laggard. According to scholar Philip Birnbaum, Torah rejoicing was not known in Talmudic times as the name of a special holiday marking the annual completion of Torah readings. In Babylonia, where the one-year cycle for reading the five books of Moses prevailed, the marking of completion of reading appeared in the ninth century.

“The seven processions with the Torah scrolls,” writes Birnbaum, “became customary in the sixteenth century. Simhat Torah has become one of the most popular Jewish holidays despite its late onset.

In A history of Judaism, historian Martin Goodman writes: “The end of Sukkot was marked by a final eighth day (Shmini Atzeret) in which no work was to be undertaken. In the diaspora, where two feast days were observed, the second day in due course took on a special character to celebrate the completion of the annual Torah reading cycle, and the beginning of the new cycle with the book of the Genesis. This celebration, known as the Simhat Torah, is not attested until the beginning of the second millennium CE, but it has become a major holiday for Jews in the Diaspora, with much song and dance by the congregation. .

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In the Land of Israel, Simhat Torah was incorporated into the feast of Shmini Atzeret, during which both are celebrated on the same day. It is interesting to note that the celebration of Simhat Torah has its origins in the Diaspora but was adopted by the Jews of Israel. It attests to the supremacy of the Babylonian Gaonate and his influence in the entire Jewish world, even in Israel.

Elie Wiesel, in The Jews of Silence, highlighted this joyous celebration as a protest rally of these young Moscow Jews who wanted to leave the totalitarian Soviet Union and reclaim their Jewish heritage in Israel. Simhat Torah was not just a religious celebration but a celebration of Jewish identity.

Simhat Torah should encourage us to create a meaningful Jewish calendar. If a holiday can be added to the Hebrew millennial calendar after Revelation, why can’t we add public holidays that deal with issues of our own time and that are recognized by all Jews? The modern calendar has partially succeeded in accomplishing this. But a religion that does not respond to the decisive events of our time is a religion that is doomed to ossify, calcify, and fail. Jews must have the strength of our ancestors and not be afraid to change the calendar. If Simhat Torah could be incorporated into the Hebrew calendar 1000 years ago, we can be bold and extend the Hebrew calendar today.

The writer is the Rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.


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