The question was raised in our religious school, why is it that we celebrate Simchat Torah at the end of Sukkot, and not on the holiday of Shavuot? If Shavuot is the time traditionally accepted to be the day of the giving of the Torah, shouldn’t we dance with Torah scrolls on Shavuot — rather than Sukkot, which celebrates sitting in booths in the desert, unrelated to the giving of the Torah? Nobody had a good answer, and we were hoping you could help us.
Zachary D. & Leah L.
Dear Zachary and Leah,
To answer your question, we have to get to the core of the celebration of Sukkot.
Moses, after receiving the tablets on Shavuot, smashed them upon observing the Jews worshipping the Golden Calf. Forty days later, on the first day of the month of Elul, he ascended Mt. Sinai for an additional 40 days and nights, to repent together with the Jews down below, requesting that the Torah be returned to them. After those 40 days and nights, G-d answered, “I have granted you atonement you as you requested,” and instructed Moses to carve out a second set of tablets like the first ones which were given by G-d. That special day, the day G-d accepted our repentance, was the first Yom Kippur.
This reveals to us a little-known fact: Although the first set of tablets and giving of the Torah was indeed on Shavuot, the Torah we now have is the “second edition” of the tablets, given on Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is not only a day of atonement; the bottom line is that it’s a day of receiving the Torah!
Sukkot is a week of remembrance of the booths our ancestors sat in while in the desert. But the Talmud explains that it is, more importantly, a reminder of the Clouds of Glory — the miraculous clouds which protected the Jews from heat by day and lit up their way at night. Those clouds, which accompanied the Jews from Pesach when they left Egypt, disappeared when they sinned with the Golden Calf and caused the Shechinah, or Divine Presence of G-d, to be concealed. After Yom Kippur the Jews were commanded to build the mishkan, a portable temple, to be a place for the Shechinah to return to. After four days of preparation, they began building the mishkan on the fifth day, and the Clouds of Glory returned. This was an incredible day of rejoicing for the Jews, as G-d was clearly revealing that their tshuvah, their repentance on Yom Kippur, was fully accepted.
Sukkot, which begins on that fifth day after Yom Kippur, is thus not a remembrance of the Clouds of Glory which appeared when the Jews left Egypt, but rather a commemoration of the Clouds that came back after their atoning and receiving the Torah on Yom Kippur.
We now see how Sukkot and Yom Kippur are inextricably interwoven; one is a celebration of the other’s accomplishments. The only thing separating the two is the few days necessary to prepare the “four species” and build a sukkah. At that point we continue the closeness we achieved on Yom Kippur, replacing the tears of repentance with tears of joy at receiving the Torah. The Talmud relates that in the Temple in Jerusalem on Sukkot, during the wildly joyous festivities called Simchat Beit Hasho’eyva, the songs sung celebrated the Jews’ tshuvah that was performed and accepted on Yom Kippur. It was that tshuvah by which we merited again to receive the Torah. That joy is our “joy for the Torah” — Simchat Torah.
There’s no better time to dance with the Torah than on Simchat Torah at the end of Sukkot! Best wishes for a joyous holiday to you and all the readers.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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