Sunday, October 23, 2005

Simchat Torah trivia

In the runup to Simchat Torah I've been skimming through bits of Avraham Ya'ari's classic history of the festival, 'Toldot Chag Simchat Torah' ('The Origins of the Festival of Simchat Torah,' pub. in Hebrew by Mossad Harav Kook). Whilst we often pride ourselves on / lament (depending on who you are...) the unchanging nature of our tradition, this history shows how enormously fluid some of our traditions actually are. Among the fascinating points:
  • Simchat Torah originated in Babylon and was not celebrated in Israel until the end of the Gaonic period (ie. - totally Diaspora festival!). The reason is that in Babylon, the Jews had the same one-year cycle for reading the Torah we do today, whereas in Israel they finished the Torah every three / three and a half years, and not always on the same date. When the EY communities finished the Torah, they would hold a festive meal, but no 'Simchat Torah' as we know it.
  • The festival originally did not involve reading from Bereshit, but merely finishing Devarim. Hence, the original term was not 'chatan Torah' but 'chatam Torah' -- sealer of the Torah. There was, of course, no chatan Bereshit.
  • The original name wasn't 'Simchat Torah' but 'Yom Habrachah' -- the day of the blessing, after Vezot Habrachah -- the last chapter of the bible which was read on that day, and after the haftarah they read then, in which Shlomo gave blessings (I Kings 8:22). In Spain it was known simply as 'the last Yom Tov of Chag.' In North Africa it was 'Yom Hasiyum' -- the day of completion. The name ST originated in Spain, after the Gaonic period.
  • The minhag of hakafot is an adaptation of the minghag of going round the bimah seven times on Hoshanah Rabah with lulavim/aravot. Hakafot on ST were not known at all until the last third of the sixteenth century, and the first time we hear about it is in Tzfat in the days of the Ari, from where it spread out to other communities. Previously, some communities in Ashkenaz took out all the Sifrei Torah, but it took 150 years for the minhag of hakafot to spread, after it was mentioned in several books and after Jews from EY travelling to other communities helped institute it.
  • Customs for Simchat Torah which we know about because there were Shailas as to whether they were permissable include bringing spices and incense to shul and burning them in front of the Sefer Torah.
  • In Israel between the 17th-19th centuries, during hakafot, people used to hold lit wax candles, and this minhag also spread (in several places they used to use havadalah candles...). Another fire-related minhag was getting the children to burn the schach from succot on ST.
  • Other lost minhagim: Worms -- they would dance around bonfires on ST. In other places in Ashkenaz celebrations of ST involved jumping over a fire. In a small number of communities the singing on ST was accompanied by musical instruments played by non-Jews -- and at times by Jews (In Venice, for example, there was a debate over whether the players could use an organ as it was used in churches; other instruments, however, were ok). In other places eg. Sarajevo, they played drums during hakafot. In some Ashkenazi communities, particularly in Poland and the Balkans, in the seventeenth century, they let off fireworks and firecrackers. Many people used to eat and drink in shul whilst the Torah was being read, often food baked by the women of the community...
  • There were many special minhagim for the women on ST, including in some places, decorating the sifrei Torah after Minchah on Shmini Atzeret in preparation for ST; selling the 'women's mitzvot' for the rest of the year -- which included, I note, sweeping the floor of the shul -- throwing candy on the chatanei Torah; and honouring the wives of the chatanei Torah as 'Kallot Torah.' Once hakafot began, women were graciously allowed to watch proceedings, even in communities eg. Yemen where women generally did not come to shul at all. In Southern Russia, women were actually allowed into the men's section; in Lithuania, women and girls came into the synagogue to kiss the Sifrei Torah; in Baghdad, each shul used to lay out all of its sifrei Torah and both the men and the women used to go from shul to shul kissing each Sefer.
  • The tendency to confuse ST with Purim has a long history. The Cohanim's blessing was changed from Mussaf to Shacharit so that the Cohanim would not be drunk when they said it; in some communities it was cancelled altogether. There are also a number of poems about ST which equate the festival with drinking and frivolity from very early on, as well as rabbinic warnings on the matter. There were lots of parodies of religious songs (including Echad Mi Yodeah, and Kiddush) that were popular in ST, and there was also a minhag of appointing a 'Purim rabbi / Purim head-of-kehillah' on ST and of allowing the young bochurim to take over proceedings, including the old shtick of tying people's tallitot together, stealing food from ovens, etc. etc. etc. This was all very widespread but apparently Salonika was particularly known for letting the service become jokey.

  • On that subject, check out last year's ST posting, on ST's appearance in the diary of Samuel Pepys.
    That's it folks -- I'm flying back to the UK today and going straight to work from the airport, so nothing more from me until Thursday. Chag Sameach!
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