By Rabbi Robert A. Jacobs
Jewish origins place the close of the holy days of Tishrei as a separate holiday at the conclusion of Sukkot. It is beyond the commanded days of Sukkot, which ends with the procession of lulavim — the four species — as markers of the hoped-for fertility and thanksgiving as the seasonal harvest concludes. Atzeret — Assembly — on the following day is highlighted by the insertion of the prayer-poem (piyyut) Geshem into the service: May the land be blessed with those vital rains, yoreh and malkosh, that are restorative to the parched land.
“The Sages taught in a baraita: The first rain [yoreh] is called by this name due to the fact that it instructs [moreh] people to plaster their roofs and to bring in their produce from the fields to their houses and to attend to all their needs in the field before more rain falls….Malkosh means that the rain falls so hard [kasheh] and vehemently that it knocks down the houses, shatters the trees, causes the fruit to drop from the trees, washes the seeds away and washes the trees away in a destructive manner…” (Taanit 6a-6b, via Sefaria.org).
As significant as that might be for Eretz Yisrael and the modern state of Israel, this final observance gained greater meaning through the late addition of Simchat Torah — Rejoicing in the Law — that has grown to be the accepted time of year to complete and restart the cycle of Torah reading each year. Perhaps it is the greatest of harvests.
While there are references to the practice in the high Middle Ages (c. 1100 CE) and the name Simchat Torah appears in the Shibbolei haLeqet (13th century), it took several more centuries to become the practice throughout the diaspora. The reading from the closing of Deuteronomy and opening of Genesis by “bridegrooms” — or, in egalitarian communities, chatanim v’kallot, grooms or brides — is a great honor and cause for celebration. The entire evening, often child-centered but nonetheless very serious out of respect for the Torah and all the traditions that surround it, should be festive in the vein of the Sukkot commandment to “rejoice on the Festival.”
With all the scrolls a congregation has, dancing with the Torah is often an ebullient response as the sacred is celebrated. In Midrash, the long-standing interpretive tradition of Judaism, the meta-meaning, or symbolic significance, that Sukkot implies is reflected in the commonly used translation of sukkah as “tabernacle.”
An important reading of the Jewish journey into the covenant that remains the underlying text of Jewish identity moves from the y’tsiat Mitsrayim — Exodus from Egypt — through ma’amad Har Sinai — revelation at Sinai; descends into the depths of egel ha-zahav — idolatrous worship of the golden calf; rising through Elul until 10 Tishrei, when Moses returns with the replacement Tablets of the Law…and just five days later, to the setting up of the Tabernacle, including both the portable ark, the shrine and the Tent of Meeting. Jewish worship in the biblical model is then ready to begin.
We return to these glorious days year by year, long after the original idea of sacrifice was laid aside. We pray for restoration — perhaps less of the ancient ritual — but completely of our relationship to God: At Sinai, that was panim el panim — face to face. In our days, we look for the “still small voice.”
May we nonetheless hear it and celebrate in community.
Rabbi Robert Jacobs is interim rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, Colleyville.