The holiday of Sukkot is followed by an independent holiday called Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. In Israel, this is a one-day holiday; in the diaspora, it is a two-day holiday, and the second day is known as Simchat Torah. The holiday is characterized by unbridled joy, which reaches its climax on Simchat Torah, when we celebrate the conclusion—and restart—of the annual Torah-reading cycle.

The custom is to take out all the Torah scrolls from the ark and dance with them around the bimah (the podium from which the Torah is read). This is done on Simchat Torah night and day, and in many communities in the diaspora (including Chabad), it is done on the preceding night as well. This circling of the bimah is called hakafot.

The most common custom is to do seven hakafot (circles) at night. While the custom of hakafot on Simchat Torah quite ancient,1 the earliest known source for specifically going around seven times is Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the Arizal (1534-1572).2 Although the Arizal himself does not appear to give an explanation for doing so, his students (or to be more accurate, students of his students) do provide explanations.

Corresponding to Seven Hakafot of Hoshanah Rabbah

On the last day of Sukkot, Hoshanah Rabbah, the custom is to circle the bimah holding one’s lulav and etrog seven times (see All About Hoshanot). This commemorates the seven times the kohanim would circle the Altar in the Holy Temple on the day of Hoshanah Rabbah. The mystics explain that the seven hakafot on Simchat Torah correspond to the seven hakafot on Hoshanah Rabbah. On Simchat Torah, as we circle seven times with the Torah scrolls, we are drawing down the spiritual energy of those hakafot, which correspond to the seven sefirot (Divine attributes—chesed, kindness; gevurah, strength; tiferet, beauty; netzach, victory; hod, splendor; yesod, foundation; and malchut, kingship), into this world, through the Torah.3

Purpose of Creation

Some explain that the seven hakafot allude to the idea that all seven days of creation were for the purpose of (fulfilling and learning) the Torah.4 Following this chain of thought, the seven hakafot symbolize the Torah’s permeation throughout all aspects of creation, as evidenced by the various ways that the number seven is manifested in the world: the seven colors of the rainbow, seven years in a Shemittah cycle, etc.

Three Hakafot (By Night)

There are a few communities that only do three hakafot on Simchat Torah night. Some explain that this corresponds to the three forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Others explain that it corresponds to the three sections of the Written Torah: Torah (Pentateuch), Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings).5

Just Half by Day

On Simchat Torah day, we do less hakafot. Some do three hakafot, and many, like Chabad, have the custom of doing three and a half hakafot, which is exactly half of the seven done at night. We recite the verses for each of the seven hakafot as we make a half-circle around the bimah.

The Rebbe explains that we do half the hakafot in recognition of the fact that we are but half of the equation; the other half of the hakafot are done by G‑d, so to speak. Thus, at the culmination of Simchat Torah, we become unified with the Divine.6