Although Simchas Torah is one of the highlights of the Jewish calendar, its origins are shrouded in mystery. Not mentioned at all in the Talmud or in any of the works of the Rishonim. The first mention in a Halachic work is in the glosses of the Rema (OC 669).
What indeed is the source? It would seem that this holiday has its roots in Bavel (Babylonia). The Gemara (Megilla 29b) tells us that there were different cycles for reading the Torah in different places.
In Bavel it was completed once a year, and in ‘the west’ referring to Israel, it was once every three years.
There are sources from the seventh and eighth centuries that tell us that the variation in customs had continued through Gaonic times, those sources indicate that although in Babylonia everyone stuck to the same schedule, in Israel it was a little more open ended, and each community had its own breakdown of weekly portions, all ending different times. In fact as late as 1170, when Benjamin of Toledo, a famous Jewish traveler, visited Cairo, he reported that there were two communities. One consisted of Iraqi expatriates who had a one year cycle, and one of Israeli expat’s who had a 3 year cycle. Incidentally, he reports that the Israeli’s would join together with the Israeli’s on Shavous and Simchas Torah, to celebrate with them.
The Rambam himself records both customs, and adds that the popular custom is to have a one year cycle. Indeed, that is the custom that spread throughout the Diaspora.
The system that was set up in Bavel split the Torah into 54 portions as we have it today. Ezra had established that the curses in parshas Bechukosai should be read before Shavous, and the cursed in parshas Ki Savo should be read before Rosh Hashanah. Thus it turns out that the end of the Torah is read shortly after Rosh Hashanah.
The custom was then established to read the last parsha of the Torah, Vezos Habracha, on the last day of Sukkos. This was not universal at its inception, there were communities who completed the Torah before Yom Kippur, and then began from Bereishis at Mincha on Yom Kippur, so as not to give the Satan an opportunity to claim that ‘the Jews finished to Torah and are now done with it’. (This is the reason that we immediately begin Bereishis after completing the end of the Torah, to indicate that we are never done, and always ready to start again from the beginning).
So far we have established: Simchas Torah was created in Bavel, and was the celebration of the completion of the Torah with the reading of Vezos Habracha.
In the times of the Rishonim the custom became widespread in Ashkenazi communities to remove all the Sifrei Torah from the Ark on Simchas Torah, and to proclaim Ana Hashem Hoshia Na (as well as the rest of the piut through Tomeich Temimim Hoshia Na) and then return them to the Ark. In some communities this was done before the Torah reading, in others it was done after, and in yet others it was done at night. Later in the fifteenth century, did communities begin removing all the Torah Scrolls during the evening and morning service.
When did hakafos (circling the Bimah with the Torah scrolls) come about? The custom of doing hakafos on Simchas Torah seems to be clearly borrowed from the hakafos that are done on Hoshanah Rabbah. The origin of hakafos on Simchas Torah dates back to the times of the Bais Hamikdash, and the people would circle the Mizbeach seven times (Mishnah Sukkah 4:5). The Yalkut Shimoni (Tehillim 247) records that this custom continues even today, and instead of circling the Mizbeach we circle the Chazzan holding a Torah Scroll. This is recorded by the Rambam as well.
The Yerushalmi tells us that the reason for the seven circuits is a remembrance to Jericho, where the walls fell down after they were circled seven times, and when we circle the Bimah seven times in prayer we too are considered to have ‘won’ the battle against those who want to do evil to us. (See Yalkut Ibid.)
There is also deep esoteric and Kabbalistic reasoning attached to the practice of hakafos.
The popularity of hakafos on Simchas Torah seems to have come about at the end of the sixteenth century, and is first recorded by the Arizal, as well as by the Rema, who lived at about the same time.
There were various fundraisers and messengers who went from the communities in Israel to the communities in Europe, and spread the custom of hakafos as they traveled. In the Sefer Toldos Chag Simchas Torah the author documents the community ledgers of various communities that were visited by these messengers and adopted the custom of doing hakafos on Simchas Torah, until it became a universal custom.
Other customs then came about, all celebrating the central theme of universal joy at the completion of the Torah, and an obvious intention to include all, even the children. Some examples:
•The only time during the year that collective aliyos are allowed
•The only time that we give aliyos to children
•The only time that we read the Torah at night
•The only time we do an ‘inverted’ hagbah
•The only time we dance with the Torah
•We move Birchas Kohanim from Mussaf to Shachris, because it is expected that during the hakafos the Kohanim will imbibe wine, thus disqualifying them from delivering the blessing.
In addition, there are other customs that had existed throughout the centuries that have been eliminated today:
•In Worms hakafos were done around bonfires. In some places they would burn the sukkah panels. (The poskim discuss the halachic permissibility of this).
•Many early halachic authorities decry the use of firecrackers, which indicates it to be common practice.
•In some communities they would hire non Jewish musicians, also frowned upon by halachic authorities.
When seen through the eyes of the uninitiated, the festivities seem strange. As recorded by Samuel Pepys, a famous English diarist who visited a synagogue in London, October 14th 1663:
Thence home and after dinner my wife and I, by Mr. Rawlinson’s conduct, to the Jewish Synagogue: where the men and boys in their vayles [tallitot], and the women behind a lattice out of sight; and some things stand up, which I believe is their Law, in a press [aron] to which all coming in do bow; and at the putting on their vayles do say something, to which others that hear him do cry Amen, and the party do kiss his vayle. Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew. And anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that every one desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing. And in the end they had a prayer for the King, which they pronounced his name in Portugall; but the prayer, like the rest, in Hebrew. But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this. Away thence with my mind strongly disturbed with them, by coach and set down my wife in Westminster Hall, and I to White Hall
We, however, understand that the Torah is not to be objectified; rather it is Life itself, the essence of who we are as Jews. And therefore, we surely understand the tremendous joy we experience upon its completion, internalization, and once again beginning anew.
There are some other Halachic issues that arise which we will briefly discuss.
Ordinarily, one is supposed to stand when the Torah is in transport. This can be difficult on Simchas Torah, when the Torah is in constant transport. [Indeed for this and other reasons, in at least one place that I know of they replace the Sifrei Torah in the Ark after circling the Bimah once, while the dancing continues. They are then removed for the next hakafah].
The Aruch Hashulchan suggests that one may sit when the Torah Scrolls are being held but not in motion, such as between hakafos. Others suggest sitting behind a barrier of 40 inches or so to be considered in a different domain. An alternative solution would be to give the person sitting a Sefer Torah to hold, thus his sitting is not a lack of respect for the Torah.
There is an old custom to put candles in the empty Aron while all the Torah Scrolls are out. There are those who dislike this custom, and although it is still practiced in some communities it is not as widespread as it was.