Halakhic Discussions

The Inverted Halakhah of Simhat Torah

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Chaim Saiman

More than any other day on the Jewish calendar, Simhat Torah is a product of minhag. The Gemara says nothing about it beyond the basic fact that its Torah reading is Ve-Zot ha-Berakhah, the final section of the Torah.[1] The practices of reading the opening chapter of Joshua as the haftarah and beginning Bereishit immediately thereafter, which stress the completion and continuity of the Torah reading cycle, developed later. (The Talmud selects a different haftarah). In Talmudic times, it was little more than yom tov sheni of Shemini Atzeret.

In his indispensable 1964 monograph, Toldot Hag Simhat Torah, Avraham Ya’ari explains how starting in the era of the Geonim, the day became a celebration for completing the cycle of Torah reading. Ya’ari proceeds to document how various minhagim that accreted over the centuries solidified into the “Simhat Torah” we know today. An updated volume would surely focus on the ongoing developments in Israel, where this creation of galut is now folded back into Shemini Azteret, as well as recent efforts to include women in the festivities.

In keeping with the minhag-driven nature of the day, halakhic discussions of Simhat Torah are marked by the fact that folk practices frowned upon year-round are begrudgingly accepted (and in some cases, eventually lauded) on Simhat Torah. From the time of the Geonim to the present, the refrain recurring is that while a given practice is generally disfavored, mipnei ha-simhah hitiru—it is permitted owing to the joyous nature of Simhat Torah.

One example: Traditionally dancing was prohibited on yom tov,[2] but the Geonim permitted it due to the joy of celebrating the Torah.[3] Later on, dancing became not just permitted but meritorious,[4] and some Hasidic thinkers went so far as to hold that hakafot can overturn harsh decrees.[5] Another case: kohanim are prohibited from dukhenen while under the influence, which ordinarily mandates that they forbear from drink until the conclusion of davening. On Simhat Torah the priorities are inverted, as birkhat kohanim is moved to Shaharit to accommodate the inevitable le-hayims that will be consumed.[6]

Much the same is true about many of the practices related to the Torah and its reading. People are generally supposed to travel to the Sefer Torah rather than relocate the scroll to the people. Yet on Simhat Torah, scrolls are carried from one place to another to enhance the festivities.[7] Simhat Torah is the only time we lein at night. One explanation for this custom is that one may not generally remove a Torah from the aron for insufficient reason, but since the Torahs are taken out for dancing, leining was retconned to provide a halakhic rationale for their removal.[8] Other examples include that on Simhat Torah we read one section many times, allow a person to have an aliyah from two scrolls,[9] give aliyot to children, and allow multiple people to come up and recite a berakhah for one aliyah.[10] None of these practices is otherwise the norm, and though each has been subject to varying degrees of rabbinic disapproval or acceptance, rabbis are asked not to protest too much, lest the mood turn sour and the people curtail in the celebration of the Torah.[11]

Even Simhat Torah’s peripheral practices have raised concerns. Does the huppah (canopy) placed over the hatanim’s heads violate the prohibition of constructing an ohel (shelter) on yom tov?[12] Is perennial crowd favorite ha-Aderet ve-Haemunah so holy that Nusah Ashkenaz must reserve it for Yom Kippur exclusively?[13] And though I have yet to find those who critique Ashkenazim’s attempts to imitate Sefardic ululations while reciting the piyyut mi-Pi Kel, this should probably be abolished on grounds of cultural appropriation, or at the very least because it is annoying.

Further examples include how R. Hai Gaon (d. 1038 Babylonia-Iraq) yielded to the minhag of the hatan Torah placing on his head the ornaments that typically adorn the Torah.[14] (By contrast, Rashba reports that R. Hai really prohibited the practice, but that it was too widespread to change.) [15] Similar practices are recorded in Sefer ha-Manhig (R. Abraham b. Nathan ha-Yarhi; Provence, 12th c.), who expresses reservations that the hatanim will don the feminine scarves used to decorate the Torah, thereby violating beged ishah, and that those who sew and weave the ornamental fabrics violate the laws of yom tov.[16] Maharik (R. Joseph Colon; d. 1480; Northern Italy) allowed the community to request the secular authorities to forcibly ban a kohen from attending shul, so that, per accepted custom, the first aliyah could be sold to the highest bidder, who donated the synagogue’s lighting needs for the entire year. Maharik took the opportunity to pen a lengthy paean to the power of communal minhag, even when it stands on shaky halakhic ground: “הרי לך דאין לשנות מנהג המקום אף על גב דאין מתוקן כשאר מנהגים.”

More generally, Simhat Torah is typified by forms of merriment not otherwise present in synagogue life. We find reports of complex dance moves, daring acrobatic feats, and tests of physical strength reminiscent of the Talmud’s description of simhat beit ha-shoeivah—which may serve as a precedent for aspects of these celebrations.[17] (Though I am told these have mostly faded away, in the shul I grew up in, people would at times climb atop the rafters and drop behind the aron; and following davening, there was an annual chin-up contest featuring the Rabbi and other leaders to raise money for tzedakah). Hard alcohol freely flows on Simhat Torah, even in shuls that otherwise run dry. It is not unheard of for someone to rise to the bimah, and ostentatiously make a berakhah on a shot of whiskey, an act unthinkable on any other day of the year, including Purim.

To be sure, not all practices were accepted, and Simhat Torah skeptics also have an impressive mesorah to rely upon. The Geonim strongly disapproved burning incense on the holiday, as it contradicts the Talmud’s express prohibition.[18] R. Behaya disapproved of throwing fruit (today, candy) for children to collect, though the practice is recorded favorably in R. Issac of Tyrnau’s (15th cent. Austria) Sefer ha-Minhagim.[19] In his treatise on Torah reading, Sha’arei Ephraim, R. Ephraim Margaliyot (Ukraine; 1760-1828) denounced the excesses of the hagbah hoisters.[20] Mishnah Berurah inveighs against those who pre-gamed the holiday and started to drink on the afternoon of Shemini Atzeret.[21]

The Yekkish community of pre-war Frankfurt held dancing was not befitting the decorum appropriate for shul, and R. Dr. Joseph Breuer is reported to have rebuked youth once caught dancing after davening on Simhat Torah. Not all was gloomy, however: the gabbaim were permitted to sway the scrolls back and forth toward each other after Torah reading—which for Yekkes might constitute dancing.[22]

Further, though it was generally prohibited to set off what seems to be an early version of firecrackers due to hilkhot yom tov,[23] it was permitted to do so indirectly— using a candle set in place before the hag.[24]

Perhaps the most shocking practice is recorded in the name of R. Jacob Moelin (Germany; d. 1427), known as Maharil, the primary conduit of classical minhag Ashkenaz to contemporary practice (by way of Rema). The passage is worth quoting in full:[25]

אמר מהר”י סג”ל מה שנוטלים הנערים ערבה ומבעירין אש בשמחת תורה מנהג יפה הוא לשמחת יום טוב, ולית ביה משום סתירת אהל אם סותרין בנין הסוכה דלא מתקרי סתירה לחייב אך הסותר על מנת לבנות, וגם ההבערה אינה אסורה אע”פ דלא לצורך היא דאין בה איסור דאורייתא משום דאנו בקיאים בקביעות ירחא ויו”ט ראשון בלבד דאורייתא, ומנהג אבותינו בידינו לעשות יו”ט שני.

 

 

 

 

 

ועוד דאין עושין זאת כי אם הקטנים ואין אנו מצווין להפרישן כמו קטן האוכל נבילות אין ב”ד מצווין להפרישן… אבל בני מצוה שלא כדין שעושין זאת לסתור ולהבעיר האש וכן אמר שאביו מהר”ם סג”ל היה מוחה בימי בחורותיו בידו שלא יסתור שום סוכה ולא יבעיר האש בשמחת תורה.

 

 

[ואני – המלקט באומרים – ראיתי אמ”ץ מהר”י סג”ל מאד היה שמח והיה נהנה כשרואה הנערים רצין בשמחת תורה מבית לבית לסתור – לגזול – עצי הסוכה ולהביא עצים ולעשות מדורה, והוא בעצמו הניחם לקחת מסוכתו והסיתם לגזול מהעצרנים שלא רצו לתת להם ברצון.]

 

 

 

Maharil said: That which the youth take aravah and burn it on Simhat Torah, is a proper minhag as an expression of joy on Yom Tov. There is no halakhic concern of tearing down a structure when they destroy the sukkah, because it is not deemed tearing down for the purposes of rebuilding. Further, the lighting itself is not prohibited —even though it is not for any legitimate purpose —since the second day of Yom Tov is not a Torah-level prohibition for in our time we are proficient in the correct dates of the calendar. Thus, only the first day of Yom Tov is mandated by Torah law, and we continue the practice of second day Yom Tov because the customs of our ancestors are maintained in our hands.

 

Moreover, only young children are involved in this, and we are not obligated to prevent them from violating prohibitions, as [the Talmud rules] a court is not required to prevent minors from eating non-kosher. . . But those who are already bar mitzvah act inappropriately if they tear down the  sukkah to burn it. Maharil’s father would thus warn him when he was a youth not to tear down any  sukkah and not to light flames on Simhat Torah.

 

[But I, the compiler of this work have seen with my own eyes that Maharil was very happy and took pleasure when he would see the youth run from house to house on Simhat Torah to tear down—that is, steal—the wood of the  sukkah and bring them to make a bonfire. And Maharil himself let them take wood from his own sukkah, and encouraged them to steal from those stingy householders who did not give it to them voluntarily.][26]

While the text evinces some tension regarding the precise contours of Maharil’s position,[27] either way this source puts forward some rather shocking halakhic arguments. Children were permitted to burn the sukkah on Simhat Torah because it is only a yom tov sheni, which we keep only because minhag avoteinu be-yadeinu—in continuity of traditional practice. This argument rarely carries weight in other contexts, and typically is deployed only in instances of great need. Yet Maharil adopts it for nothing more than the “shtick value” of Simhat Torah.

Even more surprising is the report in the final paragraph. The writer emphasizes that though the wood was stolen from various householders, Maharil was pleased with these actions and even encouraged the youth. Whereas the Gemara debates whether a sukkah made of stolen materials is prohibited,[28] on Simhat Torah children were taught to steal sukkah materials to build the bonfire. (No word on whether there was an accompanying kumzitz in Maharil’s era, though Simha Assaf reports that the hatanei Torah would sponsor food and drink, and celebrate with the community around a bonfire.)[29]

While the case of burning down the sukkot is the most eye-popping example, most of the literature on Simhat Torah raises the same basic question. Why are halakhic arguments and folk practices that are commonly rejected suddenly deemed acceptable?

One potential approach is found in the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1895-1975) analysis of the carnival and its literary analogue, the carnivalesque. Bakhtin pointed to the phenomenon whereby the otherwise tightly ordered medieval societies maintained temporary periods of celebration—carnivals—when the unofficial folk culture turned the regimented official culture upside down. During the carnival, boundaries were dissolved and hierarchies inverted; eccentric behavior was deemed acceptable and revered symbols satirically deployed. In Bakhtin’s understanding, the carnival was not simply a way of releasing social pressure, but the very process of temporarily inverting the dominant social structures simultaneously worked to reinforce them.

To be sure, not all of Bakhtin’s descriptors of the carnival find their analogue in Simhat Torah. There is no parallel to the debauchery, scatology, or sexual licentiousness which prevailed in the medieval carnival (or its modern analogue, Las Vegas). Yet Bakhtin’s emphasis on the dual functions of ritualistic inversions seems to capture something profound about Simhat Torah. Like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Simhat Torah is inaugurated with the nusah of Ma’ariv typically reserved for the Days of Awe. (Though fittingly, I know of at least one shul whose rabbi objects to this practice). But whereas just a few weeks earlier this tune was chanted in somber solemnity, באימה וביראה ברתת ובזיעה, it is now sung with broad smiles and perhaps a bit in jest. Other customs of the Yamim Noraim also return: the tune for Torah reading and other sections of tefillah, the kittel worn by the rabbi and dignitaries, the daylong sojourn in shul. There are even recorded accounts of how in both Vilna and the yeshiva of Volozhin the congregation would fully prostate themselves during Aleinu of Ma’ariv and Shaharit, in the manner performed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.[30]

Thus while a number of number of scholars have examined Megilat Esther and Purim through a Bakhtinian lens,[31] Simhat Torah may offer an even more telling case study. Purim has its share of carnival-like folk practices, but these are more grounded in Judaism’s official culture of Tanakh and Talmud. Further, most of the extreme Purim behavior takes place in social spheres outside the shul, whereas Simhat Torah’s celebrations are woven into the framework of davening. Finally, Purim’s most transgressive revelries are traditionally displayed via means unrelated to ordinary religious practice (masks, cross-dressing, and Purim shpiels), whereas Simhat Torah tends to shpiel shul life itself.[32] Simhat Torah thus resembles the Yamim Noraim as seen through a fun-house mirror. The sounds and symbols are similar but the meaning is purposefully distorted, as the motifs of the past month are reclaimed by the people and celebrated as folk custom.

Beginning with the first night of selihot, Jews have been adhering to the Halakhah’s precise and consuming schedule of pre-dawn prayers, fast days, and hours upon hours of davening, framed by intense focus on sin, repentance, and self-analysis. Sukkot, though known as the time of joy, is also regulated by the complex halakhot of the sukkah, lulav, and etrog, and is punctuated by a demanding schedule of prayers. Over the course of the long galut, the ecstatic, boundary-pressing festivities of the ancient beit ha-shoeivah were muted, while the mood of the Yamim Noraim reappeared in form of leining Megilat Kohelet as well as the judgment themes associated with Hoshanah Rabbah and tefillat geshem and yizkor on Shemini Atzeret. 

Simhat Torah is made up of folk practices that rub against both the somber spirit of the preceding holidays and the halakhic norms of how yom tov is celebrated. Further, following Bakhtin’s analysis, this day of inversion inevitably yields to a democratizing ethos. Simhat Torah is the only day where every male—even children—is called up to the Torah. (I leave to others the issue of whether women may receive aliyot, but note only that in some communities that do not otherwise offer aliyot to women, it is emerging as a folk practice specifically on Simhat Torah).

Moreover, for all the minhagim developed over the centuries, Torah study was never one of them. Whereas Shavuot commemorates Torah as an idea that is celebrated by scholars engaging in its study, on Simhat Torah the Torah is democratized and treated as a thing—a heftza (in the pre-Brisker sense) that is held, touched, paraded around, danced with, hugged, and kissed, but not learned. The teachings of the Hasidic masters as well as the Vilna Gaon and R. Soloveitchik add that we dance in a circle to emphasize how every participant is equidistant from the spiritual center,[33] and another ma’amar explains that Torah scrolls remain closed to demonstrate that scholars and am ha-aratzim share equally in the Torah. To the extent formalized learning takes place, it is primarily through the very recent minhag of instituting shiurim by and for women designed to recognize women and offer appropriate programing during the holiday’s largely male-centric activities. The net result is that while men are functionally patur, women are encouraged to learn Torah: an inversion indeed! 

In addition to offering a release, Simhat Torah reaffirms the community’s dominant values. The celebrations, whatever their excesses, literally and figuratively revolve around Torah. The day has obtained its character through a millennium of iterative dialogue between popular custom and halakhic sensibilities. Further, some of the most halakhically problematic practices have not survived, while others were transformed as they were absorbed into quasi-official Halakhah. Moreover, the lightheartedness of Simhat Torah is impossible absent its proximity to the awe of Yom Kippur. The symbolic function of the kittel or Yom Kippur nusah can only be meaningfully inverted within a community that assigns them deep normative significance. The day’s halakhic abnormalities stand out specifically against the backdrop of rigorous halakhic compliance.

Finally, Simhat Torah recalls that religious life becomes possible when the unfathomable ein sof of God’s transcendence is manifest in human action and society. The season that began Selihot night centered on the image of וירד ה׳ בענן—God, obscured in mists of clouds, descending on the mountain’s peak to speak with Moshe while the people stand far below—concludes with a day that owes it character to popular imagination. The push-and-pull of popular instinct, rabbinic mediation, and communal acceptance constructs a holiday exemplifying that מנהג אבותינו, בידינו—our ancestors’ customs are in our hands.

Thank you to Tzvi Sinensky, Elli Fischer, Itamar Rosenzweig, and the Lehrhaus editorial team for helpful comments and references, and to my frequent Simhat Torah companion Avery Samet, with whom I’ve discussed these ideas for many years.


[1] Megillah 31a.

[2] Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 339:2.

[3] See views of Geonim, cited in Teshuvot Maharik- Shoresh 9. See also Mishnah Berurah, Orah Hayyim 669:5.

[4] See views of Gra and Arizal cited in Mishnah Berurah, Orah Hayyim 669:11.

[5] See views of R. Meir of Premishlan, cited in Yom Tov Levinsky, Sefer ha-Moadim Vol.4, 242.

[6] Levush, Orah Hayyim 669.

[7] See Mishnah Berurah, Orah Hayyim 669:9.

[8] See sources cited in R. Shabtai Lifshitz’s (Ukraine, 19th c.) Sha’arei Rahamim, a commentary to Sha’arei Ephraim, at 8:25.

[9] See generally, Orah Hayyim 144:4, Mishnah Berurah, Orah Hayyim 669:2.

[10] Rema 669. This practice is now largely abandoned. See Mishnah Berurah 669:12.

[11] See Shut Rashba (initially attributed to Ramban) #260; Teshuvot Maharik- Shoresh 9; Eliya Rabbah Orah Hayyim 669; Mishnah Berurah 669:5.

[12] See Tehilah le-David 315:9.

[13] Magen Avraham Orah Hayyim 565:5.

[14] Opinion recorded in R. Issac ibn Gihat, Sh’arei Simhah 1:118. Cited in Daniel Sperber, Minhagei Yisrael Vol. 1 at 128.

[15] Shut Rashba meyuhasot la-Ramban 260. See also Sperber ibid.

[16] Sefer ha-Manhig, Hilkhot Sukkah, p.418.

[17] See sources collected by Aharon Arend, Rejoicing on Simhat Torah.

[18] Cited in Teshuvot Maharik- Shoresh 9.

[19] Sefer ha-Minhagim, Shemini Atzeret sect. 8. See also Eliya Rabbah 669:5.

[20] See Sha’arei Ephraim at 8:62 and 10:16; See also Ya‘ari, Toldot Hag Simhat Torah at 75-77.

[21] Introduction to Orah Hayyim 669.

[22] See the story recounted by Aharon Arend, Rejoicing on Simhat Torah, at note 1.

[23] Magen Avraham 669.

[24] See Be’er Heitev, 669; Mishnah Berurah 669:5.

[25] Maharil, Hilkhot Hag ha-Sukkot §8.

[26] The text in brackets appears in the same form in the Torat Hakhmei Ashkenaz edition of Maharil. The notes explain that it is found in a gloss to several of the earliest manuscripts.

[27] See Darkhei Moshe to Orah Hayyim 669 and Bikurei Ya’akov 669:5.

[28] Sukkah 31a.

[29] See Yom Tov Levinsky, Sefer ha-Moadim Vol. 4. at pp. 251.

[30] See sources cited in Levinsky, ibid., 321.

[31] See Adele Berlin’s introduction in the JPS Bible Commentary: Esther (2001), as well as Yoni Grossman’s Esther: The Outer Narrative and the Hidden Reading (2011). On Purim more generally, see Elliot Horowitz, Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence (2006).

[32] Many Simhat Torah customs detailed herein are absent from the Israeli landscape, where it is combined with the more somber Shemini Atzeret. Thus in Israel, some traditional Simhat Torah customs have migrated to Purim. Indeed, the avant garde of Israeli Purim parodies look to the mahzor and the shul experience as their primary sources of inspiration.

[33] Bnei Yisaskhar: Tishrei 13:2; see also R. Hershel Schachter, Nefesh Ha-Rav, p. 221, interpreting the “dance-circle of the righteous” described in Ta’anit 31a.

Chaim Saiman
Chaim Saiman, a Lehrhaus Consulting Editor, is a Professor and Chair in Jewish Law at Villanova University’s Charles Widger School of Law where he teaches Jewish law, contracts, and insurance. He has served as the Gruss Professor of Jewish Law at both Harvard and U. Penn’s law schools and as fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton University. His book, Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law was published by Princeton in 2018.