The Joy of Toireh

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Illustrative image - dancing with a Torah scroll during Simchat Torah

Sounds of singing and ululations woke me up this morning, the eighth day of Sukkot.

“Hakafot”, I thought. Today is “Simchat Torah” – the day during which the Torah is celebrated and rejoiced in. In synagogues worldwide, Jews will finish reading the last Parashah (portion) in the book of Deuteronomy and start reading all over again from Genesis.

Until the Babylonian captivity in 597BC, the public reading cycle of the Torah lasted three and a half years. Only in exile was the practice changed to reading the entire Torah in one year. Gradually, this has become accepted by the entire nation.

Toireh – this is how Ashkenazy Jews pronounce “Torah”. The name of the feast, “Simchat Torah”, is not Biblical. It was introduced in the 8th century AD and was designed to describe the joy that fills the people once the reading cycle of the Torah culminates.

In most synagogues, all Torah scrolls are taken out of the Ark, and the crowd dances with them, circling the Bima (stage) seven times, while singing and rejoicing. When the seventh Hakafah (round) starts, some synagogues bring the Torah scrolls out to the people gathered outside, and everyone reaches out and kisses the decorated cover. This ritual takes place only once a year and attracts visitors from the entire country.

I dressed quickly and walked around my quaint neighborhood. It is located in the center of Jerusalem and was established about 140 years ago (1875). In some ways it resembles the old city, with houses built like small walls around inner courts, sprinkled with dozens of tiny synagogues in many corners. The sounds of rejoicing and celebration arose from every direction. Benches were put out in the streets to enable women and children to watch the first six Hakafot, which were taking place inside the men’s courts within the synagogues. Everyone just waited for the scrolls to be brought out on the 7th round.

The joy and laughter when that started. Forget Corona restrictions! The crowds started moving towards the scrolls, desiring to touch them for a second. “Yibaneh HaMikdash” (Let the Temple be built) and “Hoshiah Et Amecha” (Save Your people, based on Ps. 28) are some of the main songs the crowd repeatedly sang.

Hoshia Et Amecha, Hakafot 2019 in Har HaMor Yeshivah

I listened and prayed: “Answer their prayerful songs, God. Gather these stones, turn each one of them into a living stone and build a temple they can’t even fathom. The yearning and zeal for Your Word they display… the bitter tears they will shed once they realize that this Torah, that so reverently they bring out of its holding place once a year, kissing and rejoicing in, have put on flesh, and came to dwell among us long ago. Use this emotional vibe that is filling the streets right now and breathe life into it. Show them what price your Word has paid so that each one of them can turn into a stone in your Temple. Save, oh Lord, your people, and bless your heritage. Shepherd and carry them up forever (Ps. 28:9).

Even Israel’s hospitals celebrate the Hakafot. Here’s the version of the staff at one of Israel’s ICUs from last year.

This article originally appeared on Ot OoMofet Ministries, September 28, 2021, and reposted with permission.

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Orna, born and raised in Israel, is a lover of books, and especially The Book. She is fascinated with the Hebrew language and with the God who created the world through the mere expression of Hebrew words. In 2003 she established Ot OoMofet Ministries (Hebrew for “A sign and Example”), whose main focus is turning stories of brokenness and hardships into stories of victory. Besides ministering to the broken hearted in Israel, she now teaches worldwide about the widowhood of Israel, the role the church plays in its restoration and on a variety of other subjects.