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What to Expect at Simchat Torah Services

What to Expect at Simchat Torah Services

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Images (from Flash90) were not captured on the holiday.
Images (from Flash90) were not captured on the holiday.

Simchat Torah, which follows the holiday of Sukkot, offers synagogue services unlike those you’ll see on any other day. Sure there are the Torahs, and there are Hebrew prayers, but there is also dancing, singing, capering, snacking, and maybe even some (moderate) drinking in the synagogue. Unique Simchat Torah services, celebrating the completion of the yearly Torah reading cycle, are held at night and then during the day. Let’s have a look.

Warning: May Begin Dancing Without Prior Notice

Although there is a specific framework to follow, there is a measure of spontaneous joy built into the day. So people may just break out into spontaneous singing, dancing, and more singing at any point throughout the service.

Now, this dancing is somewhat different from what you may encounter in other settings. Since there is no instrumental music, singing and clapping are part and parcel of the dance. Jews tend to dance in circles. Dancers may hold the hands of their neighbors, place their hands on their neighbors’ shoulders, or simply bounce around in a loosely coordinated chaotic circle. Someone may grab a hold of you and pull you into the circle of dancers. Join them. No one is checking to make sure you know the steps (there generally are none), and you’ll actually have fun.

Also note that men and women dance separately. When in the synagogue, the men dance around the bimah, the Torah-reading platform in the center of their half of the room, and the women will sometimes create an open dance floor on their side of the sanctuary to do the same.

Calling All Kids!

Children are more than welcome to join in the Simchat Torah celebrations. They make the celebration. Clutching flags or plush Torahs, they run between the legs of the dancers, ride atop the shoulders of their elders, and lend color and joy to an already joyous evening.

Some synagogues may even have special children’s programs. If this is relevant to you, you may want to check with your synagogue in advance.

Simchat Torah Night

Services begin like an ordinary holiday. Evening services center around the Shema and then the Amidah (“The Standing Prayer”; make sure you say the special holiday version with the insertions for Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah). You may note that the services will be led in a special tune, the same one used on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

At this point, most congregations take a refreshment break. Since this is (the start of) a holiday meal, we begin with kiddush, a blessing over wine. After you’ve heard kiddush (and taken a sip of wine if you are so inclined), feel free to help yourself to whatever’s being offered. In many congregations, people will also be sharing toasts of l’chaim (“to life”). If you are of legal age, feel free to share a l’chaim or two with your neighbors.

The evening often continues with an auction, as people vie for the honor of leading the congregation in certain chants or holding the Torah during the dancing. In some communities the currency may be mitzvahs, time devoted to learning, or other spiritual tender. In other communities, it may take the form of pledges toward the synagogue or other charitable causes. The bidding is part of the fun (and a great way to motivate people to do what they should be doing in any case), but it’s perfectly OK not to bid.

Atah Hor’eisa

Once that is done, the actual Simchat Torah service begins with the recitation of a collection of biblical verses. The first verse opens with the words atah hor’eisa, and lends its name to all the subsequent verses, so that they are all called Atah Hor’eisas (or Atah Hor’eitas).

In Chabad communities the custom is that each Atah Hor’eisa is recited by a different person, and the entire roster of 17 verses is recited three times.

Hakafos

Then the Torahs are removed from the ark, and men get ready to parade them around the bimah. These circuits are called hakafos or hakafot (in fact, the entire evening is sometimes called hakafos). Joining the fellows honored with holding the actual scrolls, the other men and boys take their places in the large procession. The leader of the procession calls out loudly from the prescribed verses in the prayerbook, in which we address G‑d in a litany of honorifics arranged in the order of the Hebrew alphabet. Everyone else chants after him line by line. In many communities, each hakafah is extended far beyond a single circuit, and the singing and dancing continue for several minutes before the next hakafah begins. Generally, different men are honored to hold the Torah at the start of each hakafah, and another person is honored to call out the chants. If you are a grown man, someone may give you a Torah to hold. Just hold it as you dance, and then pass it on to someone else when you are ready.

The singing and dancing can last well into the night, so don’t feel that you have to stay until the end if you’re getting sleepy or if the little ones are getting cranky. There will be more Simchat Torah fun tomorrow.

Simchat Torah Morning

Simchat Torah morning services start like ordinary holiday services, with verses from Psalms, Shema and its accompanying blessings, and the Amidah (again, make sure to say the holiday version with the proper insertions).

The first anomaly you will encounter is that the priestly blessing is held during the cantor’s repetition of the Amidah during the Shacharit service instead of during Musaf (as is done on other holidays). Known as Birkat Kohanim, this blessing can be given only by descendants of Aaron, the first high priest. They bless the congregation with prosperity, divine favor and peace, using an ancient formula written in the Torah. You will notice the kohanim exit the synagogue to wash their hands before performing the blessing. During the actual blessing they cover their upper bodies with their prayer shawls and stand up front, facing the congregation. It’s customary for men to cover their heads with their prayer shawls, and for small children to stand underneath their father’s tallit during the blessing.

Following the repetition of the Amidah, many congregations take a little refreshment break before the hakafos to follow, which is another departure from regular holiday services. Like before, wait to hear kiddush before tucking in.

Like Simchat Torah night, many congregations will have auctions, followed by Ata Hor’eisas and hakafos. On the block today are the same honors as last night, as well as a number of honors associated with the day’s special Torah reading. Since people are often partied out and it’s still early in the morning, the dancing may not feel as vigorous as the night before.

One major structural difference you may see is that the seven hakafot are crammed into just three and a half consecutive circuits around the reading table, each hakafah taking up a half-circuit. There is still room for spontaneous dancing, l’chaims, and fun before and after.

Torah Reading

Today’s Torah reading is the most elaborate of all the year’s readings. To start with, three Torah are removed from the ark (assuming the congregation owns three scrolls).

The basic procedure is that, one after another, men will be called up by their Hebrew names to the reading table. Each of these men will recite a blessing while holding the handles of the Torah, and the Torah reader will read a section from the Torah, following which the men will recite another blessing. Your job is to say “amen” after each blessing. Each calling is referred to as an aliyah.

There will be eight aliyahs today. There is also a custom for every male to receive an aliyah on Simchat Torah. So how are eight aliyahs divided among dozens of men? There are two creative solutions:

The more common solution is to read certain passages again and again, allowing many people to be called up consecutively. This can take a long time in a large congregation. To further expedite things, additional scrolls may be removed from the ark, and simultaneous auxiliary readings may be held in different rooms. Some communities (including many Chabad congregations) simply call up many men at once for a collective aliyah.

Here is the breakdown of the Torah reading:

Torah #1

Aliyahs 1–6 cover the final portion of the Torah, Vezot Habrachah.

The first aliyah is reserved for anyone of the kohen priestly clan, and the second is for the Levites. So make sure to take your spot if you are a kohen or Levi.

The third and fourth aliyahs are when all other men who did not buy a specific aliyah are called up.

The fifth aliyah, called “Kol HaNe’arim” (All Youth), is special. On Simchat Torah, even children are called to the Torah, and they do so along with the person who purchased this aliyah. In some congregations, a tallit is spread out over the youthful crowd as they get their once-a-year honor.

The sixth aliyah is considered a great honor, since it contains the final words of the Torah. The person who gets it (having usually bid for the honor) is known as the Chosson Torah (or Chatan Torah, Groom of the Torah) and is called up in a lengthy Hebrew poem full of flowery praises for the Torah and its “groom.”

Torah #2

Now that the Torah has finished, we are ready to begin anew. The person who gets this aliyah, which is also a great honor, is known as the Chosson Bereishis (Chatan Bereishit, Groom of Genesis). He is also called up in a lengthy Hebrew poem full of flowery praises.

As the reader recites certain familiar phrases in the Genesis narrative, the congregation will say the Hebrew words aloud, and the reader will chant after them.

Torah #3

The final aliyah (known as maftir) covers a small section from the Book of Numbers that tells of the animal sacrifices that would be brought on this day in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Whoever gets maftir will stick around to chant aloud a portion of the Prophets (known as the haftorah) from a book.

Special Hagbah × 3

Note that after we finish reading from each of the three Torahs, the scroll is hoisted high in the air for all to see (this is called hagbah). Here is the cool twist: Normally, whoever does hagbah does so in a way that the text of the Torah faces him. Today, some people cross their arms, and then uncross them in midair so that the Torah texts are facing away from them. Do not do this unless you are confident in your ability to do this properly.

Services then continue with Musaf, which basically consists of an additional Amidah, which is then repeated by the cantor. It contains special texts for the holiday, but everything else is pretty much the same as on an ordinary Shabbat.

(In some congregations, people may play certain pranks on the cantor. For example, they may sprinkle water on his head when he says the words praising G‑d who “brings down the rain,” or tie him up and flip him over at another point. It’s all in good fun, and the cantor knew what he was getting into when he volunteered, so no need to get too alarmed.)

By now, it is probably early afternoon, and you’ve done it—you’ve celebrated Simchat Torah!

Special Simchat Torah Lingo

For whatever reason, many of the proceedings are announced with special Yiddish (or Hebrew) terms. Here are the most common ones not clarified in the article:

  • Chai: The Hebrew word for life, it has the numerical value of 18. Often the bidding will be conducted in multiples of 18. So $180, for example, is called “10 times chai.”
  • Tzum ershten mohl . . . tzum tzveiten mohl . . . tzum driten mohl: Literally, “for the first time, for the second time, for the third time,” this lingo is employed by the auctioneer. So, for example, if a person bid $180 for the honor of hagbah on the first Torah, the auctioneer will announce, “10 times chai for the first hagbah, tzum ershten mohl; 10 times chai for the first hagbah, tzum tzveiten mohl; 10 times chai for the first hagbah, tzum driten mohl!” and the honor will be sold.
  • Oom: a Yiddish term denoting that we are now in the middle of something. So “Oom Atah Hor’eisa” implies that you should already have taken your seat for the Atah Hor’eisas, and “Oom hakafos” means that hakafos are beginning.
  • Ad kan hakafah alef: Ad kan is Hebrew for “until here.” At the end of each hakafah, we announce “ad kan hakafah ——” and the letter of the Hebrew alphabet denoting that hakafah’s number.

Shemini Atzeret

It’s important to note that in chassidic circles, the entire Simchat Torah nighttime celebration is also held on the preceding night, Shemini Atzeret. The procedure is the same, but there is one major difference: On Shemini Atzeret, we eat only in the sukkah. As such, you may find that people will duck outside for kiddush and refreshments, and then go back inside for Atah Hor’eisas, occasionally going back out for a bit to drink and eat.

There are no Atah Hor’eisas or hakafos during the daytime services for Shemini Atzeret.

Note that Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are just one day in Israel, making for 24 hours of compressed celebration (with the Yizkor memorial service being observed smack dab in middle of the Simchat Torah daytime festivities).

Did you find this informative? This is part of a series of “What to Expect” articles that offer visitors a basic understanding of Jewish rituals and traditions.

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Esther Herat St John's, Newfoundland October 14, 2017

Very insightful article. Thank you. So well written. May HaShem's name be glorified. Reply

Teresa Plane Sydney Australia October 12, 2017

I give thanks for Chabad.org. As a student of the Jewish Faith after a lifetime of searching Chabad has had a big influence on my life! Reply

Lisa Providence, RI October 25, 2016

Simchat Torah My synagogue used 2 Torahs. Everyone formed a circle and 2 people holding the 2 Torahs danced in the middle, and we sang Hebrew Songs. Reply

Ahava BatYah DavidMelech HaMoshiach October 23, 2016

I have been reading and I couldn't find any Torah scripture regarding the celebaration of Simcat Torah? Please provide us some for referrence?
Tida rabba. Chag Sameach! Reply

Abraham Levi Maryland October 10, 2017
in response to Ahava BatYah DavidMelech HaMoshiach:

Simchat Torah developed as a Holiday in the early Middle Ages. Reply

Anonymous via jewishorovalley.com October 22, 2016

Simchas Torah unfortunately, all of the singing and dancing and joy in the Torah is for men only. The women stand around and watch. Even the shnaps are for the men only Reply

Working Mom Seattle September 25, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

Not true! You have to go and experience this for yourself. If women are standing around and not doing l'chaim with alcohol, it's their personal choice. Don't be afraid to go--it's big fun. Reply

Scott MontCo, PA via jewishmc.com October 20, 2016

Concise & Clear Wonderful review of the 'coming attractions'... Reply

David H Holan Chicago via jewishkenosha.com October 4, 2015

Great presentation and very informative!!
Thank you. Reply

Menachem Posner October 4, 2015

To Menachem Deren That WAS noted in the very first caption. Reply

menachem deren October 4, 2015

the pictures It should be noted that the picture were not taken on shabbat or the holidays Reply

Casper Netherlands October 3, 2015

Did you find this informative? Yes! Very much so. Reply