It’s human nature to prefer beginnings to ends. But each year, the Jewish people get to experience both in one fell swoop as they get to see, quite literally, where the Torah reading stops, and then starts, all over again.

For many, the holiday of Simchat Torah calls to mind childhood memories of dancing in the presence of the Torah, of reveling until the wee hours of the night and of feeling exultant in a way that’s unique to the holiday.

Simchat Torah is celebrated this year from the evening of Thursday, Oct. 12, to nightfall on Friday, Oct. 13 (when Shabbat starts), following the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, which begins on Wednesday, Oct. 11, at sunset. (In Israel, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are celebrated together, beginning on Wednesday night.)

For others, there are very distinct recollections.

Rabbi Zalmen Drizin, 41, remembers back to the year 1987, when he was growing up in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent Simchat Torah at 770 Eastern Parkway, the headquarters of the worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

“I used to distribute food and drinks to the older students and the rabbis,” he explains, in a room packed with thousands of people pitched towards the front, towards the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. “Everyone was standing up; people were hanging from the walls. You could barely breathe, it was so hot. The crowd was singing, dancing, shaking. I was in awe of the self-sacrifice of all those people just watching the Rebbe.

“I brought one man a 2-liter bottle of soda. I thought he was going to pour some in a cup or take a sip, and instead, he drank the whole thing, gulped it down in seconds. There was such intense dancing and joy—and that heat. He was simply dehydrated.

“Years later, I bumped into him. I recognized that man right away, and recalled that moment.”

‘A Difference in People’s Lives’

Drizin is co-director of Chabad of Kings Highway in Brooklyn with his wife, Frumie. They hold an annual Simchat Torah event that attracts about 50 people—a mix of American Jewish singles and married mid-agers, as well as young Russian Jews and others in the neighborhood of Flatbush.

Rabbi Zalmen Drizin, co-director of Chabad of Kings Highway in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Rabbi Zalmen Drizin, co-director of Chabad of Kings Highway in Brooklyn, N.Y.

And while their work may be on the smaller scale, it is no less effective.

For example, he heard from a middle-aged man who spent Rosh Hashanah with the Drizins. In an email, he wrote: “Rabbi, many wonderful and unexpected events have happened since. It is amazing and caused some tears and emotions. Indeed, I think G‑d wants this year to be the best year for me . . . I am overwhelmed with joy. I think much of this was caused by your spirit, your kindness and prayers.”

Even before that, Drizin describes a newly married man who came to a farbrengen, an informal gathering, before Rosh Hashanah. (Frumie Drizin held one for women as well.) He had taken on the daily mitzvah of putting on tefillin and because that was going so well (“so strong—strong enough that it seems too easy,” the man emailed to him) wanted to do more. “Any suggestions on what other mitzvah I might be able to take upon myself that’s along these lines?” he asked.

“You touch one person at a time,” says Drizin. “It’s spiritual work; you work to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Simchat Torah, however, offers an opportunity to involve Jews en masse.

“This is the time you celebrate being Jewish. What other time of the year do you dance because you’re a Jew? When do you have that, such an amazing dance? The holiday involves no calamity, no Egypt, no Haman. The only reason we’re dancing is because we’re happy to be a Jewish people. We are literally tapping into ourselves in celebration, being proud to be a Jew.”

The end of one Torah-reading cycle and the start of another. (Photo: Beis Yisroel Torah Gemach)
The end of one Torah-reading cycle and the start of another. (Photo: Beis Yisroel Torah Gemach)

‘Rejoice in the Torah’

Jewish men, women and children will rejoice on Simchat Torah at programs large and small, in cities and remote areas in the more than 90 countries around the world with a Chabad-Lubavitch presence.

The holiday follows on the heels of Sukkot.

First comes Shemini Atzeret, “the eighth (day) of retention.” The Chassidic masters explain that the primary purpose of the festival is to retain and “conceive” the spiritual revelations and powers granted during the festivals of the month of Tishrei, so that they could be applied throughout the year. The “Four Kinds” or “Four Species” are not taken on Shemini Atzeret. Jews still eat in the sukkah, according to the custom of most communities, but without making the special blessing on the sukkah.

Getting ready to dance with the Torah. (Photo: Beis Yisroel Torah Gemach)
Getting ready to dance with the Torah. (Photo: Beis Yisroel Torah Gemach)

On the second day of Shemini Atzeret (the ninth day from the beginning of Sukkot), it’s back to eating at home.

In Israel, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah comprise one holiday; in the Diaspora, it’s celebrated over two days.

Simchat Torah (“rejoicing with the Torah”) is characterized by unbridled joy, which surpasses even the joy of Sukkot, and reaches its apex when those gather to celebrate the conclusion—and the restart—of the annual Torah-reading cycle. During the hakafot procession, Jews march, sing and dance with the Torah scrolls in and even outside of the synagogue.

“On Simchat Torah,” goes the Chassidic saying, “we rejoice in the Torah, and the Torah rejoices in us; the Torah, too, wants to dance, so we become the Torah’s dancing feet.”

Click here to find Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah services and events at a local Chabad center.