This Wednesday evening we usher in the concluding celebrations of this High Holiday cycle. Although technically Shemini Atzeret is not part of the Sukkot holiday, it is considered the eighth day, followed by Simhat Torah, which in practical terms is the ninth, and final day of the fall observances. While Shemini Atzeret is mentioned in the Torah, Simhat Torah is a medieval holiday that was created to celebrate the completion of the annual Torah reading cycle.
In the 12th century, a Jewish traveler named Benjamin of Tudela, reported that in Cairo there were two synagogues, one Babylonian, in which they finished reading the entire Torah every year, and one Palestinian, in which the reading took three and a half years. What is so fascinating about his report is that on Simhat Torah all the Palestinian Jews went to the Babylonian synagogue so that they could all celebrate together every year. We should learn from this example of diverse groups of Jews celebrating together!
The Jews used the occasion of Simhat Torah to begin the Torah reading again and to affirm their commitment to studying it anew every year. This remains unchanged, and Simhat Torah still stands as a reminder in time and in space that Torah study is for all. The idea of studying the same text every year may seem strange; but while the Torah stays the same, we constantly change and bring to our study new insights and perspectives.
As we begin the new cycle of Torah reading this Shabbat with Parashat Bereishit, our students will study each week’s Torah portion. Be sure to ask your children to tell you about their weekly Torah learning.