It's almost here - Simchat Torah!
What is this? It is a Jewish Holiday that comes after Rosh HaShanah(New Years), Yom Kippur (day of -at-one-ment) and then the festival of Sukkot ("booths").
When? Officially, it is the second day after the week long celebration of Sukkot. The day after Sukkot is called Shemini Atzeret, which was a time to calm down after a month of holi-days. Simchat Torah is really the second day of Sheminit Atzeret, but in the 10th century the Rabbis connected it with the turning over of the Torah Scroll to Genesis.
So practically, after a week of going to friends houses to eat in their Sukkah (single form for the little hut built), and praying at synagogue, there is a big final celebration. This year it falls on Thursday, September 30 (eve of) through Friday, October 1(until sundown). Except, as a Reform congregation, Temple Israel is holding the event Wednesday night, which is officially a different celebration day.
You dance and make music on this holiday. For a cute video for the holiday, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXFxQTW--r4.
Why? For long and official history on this, see Arthur Waskow's Seasons of our Joy. Historically, for Sukkot, their would be a big "water drawing" ceremony at the Temple is Jerusalem. There would be juggling, music, dancing, blazing torches, and general merry-making. Some older studies point out that this was a carry-over from "pagan" Harvest practices, especially since there is some indication that at one point women were also dancing at the event (see Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess The Hebrew Goddess 3rd Enlarged Edition) The fertility symbols of the season do abound, such as pouring water (so the rains come), shaking palm branches (sprinkling seeds), and mixed company celebrations (a "big deal" then).
So, why do we still have a big celebration?
Officially, a synagouge has read through the entire Torah Scroll, and it is time to flip it back over. It wasn't true in Temple times, where there was a 3-year cycle of reading. But, times changed. Waskow says that the festival "acts out the public proclamation...that from seeming death come profound new energy for birth" (p. 77). It's very tied to the agricultural cycle.
This is sometimes done by rolling it out completely, with those attending holding it up. Ahead of time, and sometimes after, there is parading around of the Torah scolls and other scrolls. Making seven circles or HaKafot, you walk, skip, run, jump up and down to music as the scrolls are marched around the congregation. Simchat= Joy, so you are celebrating the Torah, which is called the tree of life.
Why music and dance? They elevate one's spirit, and involve your whole self. Judaism has always seen them as important, and the Bible refers frequently to use of music and dance in the Psalms. Perspiration is inspiration!
Judaism has been around a long time, thanks to the Torah. The 10 commandments have set a standard of ethics for the world. The story of Freedom found in the Passover story has inspired many. Even the not-so-great stories of Torah remind of what not to do. A 3000+ year old teaching is very much worth celebrating.
For more specifics on Simchat Torah, see jewishfaq.org and search for the holiday.
Next Post: Holidays and Relationships - reviewing the Jewish holidays' ideas for real life, and anticipating the upcoming National and Christian holiday seasons.