Simchat Torah, the festival of rejoicing with the Torah, brings the holiday season to a happy conclusion. The name for this holiday does not appear in the Bible or the Talmud. It is mentioned first in the literature of the early Middle Ages and is based on the Babylonian Jewish custom of completing the weekly Torah reading once a year on this day. Jews in the land of Israel completed the Torah reading cycle once every three-and-a-half years and celebrated then (See A Treasury of Differences in Custom, compiled by Rabbi Benjamin Menashe Levin, page 98).
Completing the reading of any religious text is considered cause for celebration, but completing the reading of the Torah is even more special, so the regular synagogue routine is displaced by all kinds of merriment. For example, Rabbi Yehiel Michel Epstein writes that, ordinarily, dancing is not permitted in the synagogue, but it is permitted on Simchat Torah (Arukh HaShulhan 669:3) in honor of the Torah.
As everywhere in the Jewish world, the hakkafot of Simchat Torah—marching with the Torah in processions around the synagogue—is also observed by Sephardic Jews. But Dr. Henry Toledano, a respected Sephardic scholar, author, and teacher, notes that Moroccan Jews perform the hakkafot with a difference. Instead of marching around with the Torah in their arms, the Moroccans march around the Torah with their children in their arms. And following the synagogue service, the entire hakkafot ceremony is repeated in each home. A chair is placed in the middle of the sukkah, presumably with a Torah or at least a Chumash (The five books of Moses in bound form) placed on it, and the adults carry the young children, marching them around the Torah and singing the traditional songs for the occasion.
The Moroccan custom seems to suggest two important ideas. The first is one of compensation. Compensation is a kind of unspoken, hardly recognized principle in Judaism that attempts to balance things out over time. For example, within one week following Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year, Jews in Israel celebrated a kind of Sadie Hawkins Day when the daughters of Jerusalem went out to the vineyards in borrowed white clothes to find suitable husbands. It was considered one of the two most joyous days of the year and occurred shortly after a three-week period of semi-mourning. The day after Rosh Hashanah is the Fast of Gedaliah. It is as if the calendar is compensating for two days of over-eating.
With Simchat Torah, we see the same principle at work. The Days of Awe are hardly a child-friendly experience. The synagogue services are long, the language is difficult, the themes are solemn, the new clothes are uncomfortable, and the expectations of good behavior are enormous.
But Simchat Torah is a day for unbridled joy when children are given the opportunity to see the playful side of Judaism. For children this is critical. A child compelled to go to the synagogue for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but not exposed to the synagogue celebration of Simchat Torah, will grow up with a skewed view of Judaism. To these unfortunate children, Judaism will seem boring, morose, and distasteful. But when children see the happiness attached to Simchat Torah and are made the central focus of the day, they will see the side of Judaism that teaches that life is celebration.
The second idea suggested by the Moroccan custom of celebrating Simchat Torah is that our children are as valuable to us as the Torah itself. Just as other Jews carry the Torah, Moroccan Jews carry their children. Children are not more important than Torah. We do not and must not sacrifice Jewish observance for the sake of the children. But children are just as important as the Torah, for without our children, the Torah cannot be passed on. Children and Torah must be equally valued.
So this Simchat Torah, show your children the joy, happiness, and celebration that come with being Jewish, and remember that it is they who will carry this joy to future generations.
Rabbi Wayne Allen, a member of the UJC Rabbinic Cabinet, is rabbi of Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Willowdale, Toronto, Ontario.