Dancing with stars of Jewish tradition for Simchat Torah

By Edmon J. Rodman, JTA

LOS ANGELES — Want to dance with Jewish tradition but don’t know the steps?

Ask Simchat Torah to dance. Not a conventional dancer, it’s a star partner who will drag you off the sidelines and teach you the moves.

Simchat Torah, coming at the end of Shemini Atzeret, is a holiday of rejoicing with the Torah, when Jews end the yearly cycle of reading the Torah and begin anew.

The only major Jewish holiday not mentioned in the Torah, Simchat Torah is a night and day of joy and dance unique in the Jewish year featuring seven hakafot, circle dances with the Torah.

Coming at the end of a season of sitting, both in the synagogue and the sukkah, the counter-conventional Simchat Torah dances you into the fresh circle of a Jewish New Year.

It wasn’t always so showy.

In the mid-16th century, Simchat Torah was a somber service of taking the Torah scrolls from the ark and piously circling the bimah, not the holiday we know today with singing, drinking and dancing with the Torah.

By the mid-17th century, as a result of changes – many initiated from the kabbalists of Safed – Simchat Torah began to resemble what we might recognize today.

The English diarist Samuel Pepys, who attended a synagogue on the night of Oct. 14, 1663, and not knowing it was Simchat Torah commented on the goings on:

“But, Lord! To see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service … I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this.”

Adding to the freilich free-for-all on Simchat Torah, know that you are dancing a couple of Yemenite lefts and maybe a moonwalk or two past several Jewish laws, and clapping your hands at several centuries of Jewish convention.

So readers, enough talk. Grab hands and let’s dance with Simchat Torah; all seven hakafot. As we circle, let’s see where dancing off the usual beat for a couple of centuries has taken us.

First hakafah: Dancing with Torah

In previous generations, it was mostly the congregation’s leaders who were allowed to carry the sefer Torah. Now it’s anyone who is willing and has the koach, the strength, to dance with the handmade 20 to 40 pounds of sacred parchment. Yes, the Torah does gets heavy after the eighth round of “Sisu et Yerushalayim,” “Rejoice with Jerusalem,” but somehow always gets lighter just before you pass it off.

Second hakafah: Beaming from the bimah

According to kabbalistic teaching, the Torah has its own light, and for many Jews this is the only night of the year when they can experience it after sundown.

We read the final portion called “Vezot Habracha,” “and this is the blessing,” where Moses dies. I have chanted the last couple of verses, and though it sometimes saddens me, a ray or two of its light can’t help but fall on you.

Third hakafah: Toasting in shul

Raise a glass as we circle first clockwise, then counter, then completely off the clock. A shot of Slivovitz, plum brandy, gets my feet moving. For others, a cold He’Brew adds to the joy.

At the Library Minyan of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, where I have joined the Simchat Torah morning service celebration, for some attendees it’s BYOB, as they discretely hand out shots. This seems to get the congregation in the mood to enjoy a Torah reading of the beginning of Genesis, accompanied by a pantomime of the world’s creation.

Fourth hakafah: Calling all children

The Mishnah states that even children younger than 13 are given an aliyah on Simchat Torah. Standing under the chuppah of a tallit, it gives kids a taste of reading the Torah. I remember my own children standing next to the reader’s table, nudging each other. I still get a little farklempt.

Fifth hakafah: Unrolling the scroll

Scrolls are usually only seen a few columns at a time, but many congregations are kind to totally unwind a scroll on Simchat Torah. It’s all hands on as everyone takes an edge and, moving into a circle, the beginning meets the end. One year I found my Hebrew name, Yitzchak, as well as my bar mitzvah portion. At 13 it seemed much longer.

Sixth hakafah: Letting your spirits flag

Except for Israel Independence Day, flag waving isn’t allowed in shul. Children waving a flag on a stick while circling is an Ashkenazi custom thought to be related to the banners of the encamped Twelve Tribes mentioned in the Torah. In earlier generations, the flags were topped by apples that were hallowed out to hold candles. Many versions now have Torah or Israel themes. By using a computer and printer, even the art-challenged can make their own.

Seventh hakafah: An equal opportunity aliyah

Though group aliyahs on Shabbat have become common, the gabbai never tries to clear the pews — except on Simchat Torah. The gabbai must get creative in a bid to call up everyone. One year he called up “anyone who uses a PC or an Apple.” When I looked at the empty seats, it was as if someone had pushed “delete.”

That was a lot of dancing; Simchat Torah makes quite the dance partner. Somebody get me a schnapps.

Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at [email protected].