Over the centuries, many customs have evolved with regard to the children’s celebrations on Simchat Torah. In 18th-century artwork, children are depicted marching with lit candles. Many old-timers recall the custom for children to carry a candle stuck into an apple on top of a flag. Today, children often wave flags (without the apple and candle) while the men dance with the Torah.

What are the reasons for these customs?

Flags

In war, each camp carries its own flag, symbolizing their allegiance. Thus, waving a flag declares that our “military strategy” is following the Torah, which has protected us and kept us strong for millennia. An allusion to this connection can be found in the verse “. . . And His flag over me was love,”1 which commentaries explain refers to the Torah.2

On a kabbalistic level, some commentaries explain that the three pilgrimage holidays of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot correspond to three of the four hosts of angels that make up the Merkavah, Heavenly Chariot. The holiday of Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah corresponds to the fourth and final host of angels, which completes the Merkavah (when counting Passover as the first of the holidays). Each host of angels is represented by its own banner, so this completion is celebrated by dancing with flags.3

Candles

Candles express our prayer that the light of Torah continues to illuminate our path.4 Additionally, the verse in Isaiah states, “Honor the L‑rd with lights,”5 so we light candles to honor G‑d and His Torah.6

According to some opinions, the original custom was that those who were honored with completing the Torah and starting it anew (respectively known as chatan Torah and chatan Bereishit) would be escorted with lit candles and torches, just as the entourage of the bride and groom (chatan) at a wedding carry lit candles.7

However, over the years, many rabbis decried this custom, especially when the candles were carried by children. Besides the physical dangers of fire, there was also the potential of transgressing the prohibition of putting out a fire on Yom Tov.8

Apples (Fruits and Sweets)

The apple on the flag may have evolved from the custom that many had to throw apples (or other treats) for the children to gather on Simchat Torah.

Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller writes that this custom may be based on a Midrash that Haman told King Achashverosh that on the holiday of Shavuot, the Jews would throw apples from the rooftops for the children to catch, and they would say, “Just as we gather these apples, so, too, should G‑d gather us up from the diaspora.” On Shavuot we celebrate the giving of the Torah, and on Simchat Torah we celebrate its completion; thus, the custom became to throw apples on Simchat Torah. Rabbi Heller adds that although this custom was mentioned disapprovingly by Rabbeinu Bechayeh (1255–1340), this may have been because people were behaving in an unruly manner, not because it was inherently wrong.9

Ultimately, these customs are meant to make Simchat Torah an especially joyous and meaningful occasion for the children. After all, what is the joy of the completion of the Torah and its teachings if it isn’t passed on to our future generations!