By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
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, celebrating sitting in booths in the desert, which is unrelated to the giving of the Torah? Nobody had a good answer, and we were hoping you could help us.
— Zachary D. and 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 of Elul, he ascended Mount Sinai for an additional 40 days and nights, to repent together with the Jews down below, requesting the Torah be returned to them.
After 40 days and nights, God 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 that were given by God. That special day, the day God 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 tablets given on Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur doesn’t conclude with only being 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. The Talmud explains that it is, more importantly, a reminder of the Clouds of Glory — the miraculous clouds that 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 God, 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 God 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 a remembrance not of the Clouds of Glory that appeared when they left Egypt, but rather a commemoration of the clouds that came back after 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 and rejoicing receiving the Torah.
The Talmud relates that in the Temple in Jerusalem on Sukkot, during the wildly joyous celebration called Simchat Beit Hasho’eyva, the songs sung were songs celebrating the Jews’ tshuvah (repentance) performed and accepted on Yom Kippur. It was that tshuvah which merited us again to receive the Torah. That joy is our “Joy for the Torah” or 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.