Moshe Rabbenu ordained that the Torah be read every Shabbos. Later authorities prescribed which portions (sidros) of the Torah were to be read on each Shabbos, and when the Torah should be started and when it should be concluded.

The prevalent custom in Israel is to read the entire Torah in one year by dividing the parashiyos of the Torah into fifty-four sidros, corresponding to the number of Sabbaths in a leap year. In a regular year, when there are either fifty or fifty-one Sabbaths, on several Sabbaths, two Torah portions are combined and read as one. Even in a leap year, some Sabbaths have more than one Torah portion read, since some of the Festival days fall on Shabbos and portions of the Torah relevant to the Festival are substituted for the weekly Torah portion.

The sidrah of Bereshis (Bereshis 1:1-6:8) is read on the first Shabbos after Shemini Atzeres and the Torah is concluded with the reading of the sidrah of v'Zos ha-Berachah (Devarim 33:1-34:12) on Shemini Atzeres in Eretz Yisrael, or on Simchas Torah outside the Land of Israel. A festive meal is held to mark the conclusion of the Torah reading, with rejoicing, singing, dancing, and praise in honor of the Torah. We find that concerning Shelomo, the Torah states: And Shelomo awoke and behold it was a dream (i.e., the spirit of holiness rested upon him) and he came to Jerusalem and stood before the ark of the Covenant of God and he brought burnt offerings and made peace offerings and made a feast for all his servants (Melachim I 3:15). The Sages note that from this we can derive that a feast is held and there is rejoicing whenever the Torah is concluded (Midrash Koheles 1).

The commentators offer a number of insights regarding the celebration of Simchas Torah and Shemini Atzeres.

During the seven Festival days of Sukkos, the people rejoiced with the special mitzvos of the Festival: sukkah, the four species, the water libation, the aravah taken when they encircled the altar. With the advent of Shemini Atzeres, they declared before God: "Today we have neither sukkah, nor the four species, nor the water libation, nor the aravah. All that we have left is this Torah, with which we rejoice."

And this joy is greater than any other, for it is constant and enduring; it will never be abolished and never diminishes. Even though the Beis ha-Mikdash was destroyed and Jerusalem was laid waste; although the people of Israel were exiled from the Land and made subject to the nations, their joy in the Torah never ceased and never diminished. As our Sages comment: Since the day that the Beis ha-Mikdash was destroyed, the only thing which God has are the four amos of Halachah (i.e., Torah study) (Berachos 8a).

From the time that the Beis ha-Mikdash was destroyed, the whole world suffered desolation, for the destruction of the Beis ha-Mikdash affected everything. Even the strength of the mitzvos was diminished with the destruction. But as for Torah study and the four amos of Halachah - there the destruction had no effect at all. There the joy remains as perfect and whole as before the destruction. Therefore, the Shechinah continues to dwell there, and rejoices together with Israel on Simchas Torah.

The Book of Our Heritage
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