I read a really easy to understand history of Simchat Torah from an article written by Rabbi Shlomo Brody which I’ll provide the link for at the end of the notes if you’re interested in reading it.
Simchat Torah means ‘rejoicing in the Torah.’ The Torah scrolls are treated with incredible reverence and are protected and cared for with special containers called an ‘ark’, they’re only handled with gloved hands and when reading the Torah scroll, a Torah Pointer, called a ‘yad’ is used to keep track of the reading so they don’t lose their place. Bare hands are not permitted to touch the scrolls.
Simchat Torah is not a mandated celebration and it’s not even mentioned in the Bible at all, it’s a Jewish tradition that’s developed over many centuries but it’s a really good one. This is a celebration of the weekly public reading of the Torah but the question is, where is public Torah reading mandated in the Bible. To us this could be seen as a ‘so-what?’ question. Why is this even important? To the Jewish mind, anything and everything pertaining to Torah – the Word of God – is a matter of life and relationship with God so therefore, it’s of the utmost importance.
Ancient Jewish sages believed that Moses was the one who established public reading of the Torah on Shabbat and during religious festivals. The Bible doesn’t say this is the case, but it’s what the earliest Jewish religious leaders believe. The book of Ezra has an example of public Torah readings that have been worked out to have taken place on Mondays, Thursdays and on the afternoon of the Sabbath.
Other Jewish religious authorities don’t believe there were any set order for what passages were read or when they were to be read, but two systems of public Torah readying came into play. There was one system of weekly public Torah reading in Israel among the Jews who always lived there, and there was a second system of public Torah reading in Babylonian communities.
The Israel community divided the Torah into 150 sections that meant reading through the Torah in 3½ years, but then it was decided to divide the Torah into 51 portions to get through it in a year leaving one week for an annual holiday. However, many considered it unfathomable that you would have a holiday from the Word of God.
It was the Babylonian Jews who divided the Torah into 54 portions, one for each week that left one portion left over, which coincided with the non-festival Sabbaths that can occur in a Jewish leap year, leaving non-leap years with double readings. It was this system of divisions that was ultimately accepted by the Israeli communities and it’s the system in use to this day.
So Simchat Torah is an annual celebration of this cycle of reading through the Torah over a period of the Jewish calendar year. We learned that Sukkot, which the Bible mandates to last for seven days has been extended to eight days because Numbers 9:35 makes mention of the 8th day after Sukkot, however, when the religious leaders were dividing the portions of the Torah they made sure that the divisions would be appropriate for the annual feasts and celebrations, so the cycle of reading completes at the end of Sukkot, making the 9th day the celebration of completing the Torah reading cycle.
However, to show that the Word of God never ends, never has a finishing point but is eternal and unbroken, rather than waiting for the next Sabbath to begin reading the Torah from the start, they read an additional portion of the Torah, the beginning of Genesis on the last Sabbath reading of the yearly cycle because of their love for the Word of God and their desire to begin studying it again from the start.
Some people think this is a crazy tradition and far too legalistic, but here’s the wonderful thing about this structured system of taking entire congregations through the Word of God week in and week out, year after year…all God’s people are together learning the Word of God – the whole thing! Jewish congregations around the world are learning the same portion of Scripture together at the same time and these congregations are learning ALL the Bible, not just their favourite bits or cherry picked verses that are currently in trend.
There are some church denominations who do similar things and it’s actually a brilliant way to teach an entire congregation the entire Bible – the whole council of God – so they have a good understanding of the entirety of God’s Word.
Messianic Jewish communities not only include the Old Covenant Torah portion, but they include the New Covenant as well in their weekly Torah portions.
Simchat Torah is a joyful celebration of God’s Word, it’s power and its eternal character.
Where would we be without the Word of God? The Word of God is something we really should celebrate and rejoice over having. There are so many believers around the world who would love to have access to the Bible and they don’t. We who do have it should be over the moon that we have God’s Word at our finger tips any time we want it. Our problem more often than not is that we’re bored with it, we want something new, shiny and exciting so we leave our Bible’s on the shelf collecting dust.
Not so the Jewish people, they love it, revere it and celebrate it.