Debra Darvick wrote “the book” on the cycles of the Jewish year, as experienced by men and women each year. This Jewish Life tells dozens of real-life stories about the Jewish cycle of seasons. Throughout the book, Debra also writes brief introductions to major observances. From her book, here is …
Sukkot and Simchat Torah
By DEBRA DARVICK
Ye shall dwell in booths seven days.
From Leviticus 23:42
Simchat Torah means the Torah’s joy and implies that it is not enough for a Jew to find joy in the Torah, but the Torah should also find joy in him.
From Jose-Ber of Brisk
Four days after Yom Kippur, another pair of holidays appears on the horizon. Sukkot (literally “booths”) and Simchat Torah (“rejoicing of the Torah”) are a lighthearted and exuberantly joyous counterpoint to the seriousness of the prior 10 days. With the physically and spiritually arduous High Holidays at an end, Sukkot initiates eight days of festivities that culminate in the holiday of Simchat Torah.
The sukkah is reminiscent of the temporary structures built by the Children of Israel during their 40-years’ trek through the desert. Sukkot celebrates the gathering of the fall harvest, and thus on Sukkot the booths also call to mind the huts early Jews would construct in the fields during their fall harvest.
Some scholars say the booths recall those used by vintners during the grape harvest.
A sukkah may be any size but must have three walls (the fourth side may be left open); it can be made of most anything—wood, lattice panels, PVC piping and canvas. What makes a sukkah temporary is its roof, which consists of tree branches, bamboo, corn stalks, or any other plant material that has “grown up from the ground” or has been “cut off from the ground.” The roof must be open enough to allow rain to penetrate. One should be able to see the sky and the stars, although this is not a requirement. A sukkah provides a prime opportunity for decorating. Children’s artwork, paper chains and strands of fall gourds all make for great embellishments. Some families sleep in their sukkah; others simply take their meals in it, weather permitting.
There are two other elements associated with Sukkot. Called the four species, they consist of the etrog, or citron, and the lulav, which is in actuality three branches—myrtle, willow and palm–bound together. Taken together, the etrog and the lulav are shaken east, south, west, and north as well as toward the sky and the ground to symbolize God’s presence everywhere.
SHEMINI ATZERET & SIMCHAT TORAH
Sukkot, observed for seven days, is followed by Shemini Atzeret, a day marking the conclusion of the Sukkot observance. Simchat Torah is celebrated at the end of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret and is the climax of nearly a month of fall holidays.
The Torah scroll, Sefer Torah, is the holiest object in Jewish life because the words written upon its parchment are God’s words. For some, these words are understood to have been divinely given; for others, divinely inspired. The love and joy Jews feel toward the Sefer Torah reaches its peak each year at Simchat Torah. The scrolls are removed from the ark and are marched, and even danced, around the synagogue for all to see and hold.
In the Ashkenazi tradition, Torahs are dressed in coverings reminiscent of the priestly garments worn in the time of the First and Second Temples. The parchments upon which the text
is written are attached to two poles called atzei chayim, trees of life. Indeed, the entire Torah itself is also called an etz chayim, a tree of life. The parchments are rolled around the atzei chayim and are held together with a gartle, or binding. Next comes a mantle, often made of velvet or canvas that has been artfully decorated with embroidery or other needlework. A breastplate, usually silver, is placed over the dressed Torah. In the Sephar- dic tradition, the Torah is housed in a casing made of wood or silver.
Since the Torah is Judaism’s holiest object, it is often crowned as one would royalty. This crown, called a keter Torah, is also made of silver, as are the rimonim, smaller decorative crowns that are placed over the top of each Torah pole. Bells frequently hang from the rimonim. A special pointer, called a yad, literally a hand, is used during the Torah reading. The yad is suspended over one of the poles, ready for use when the Torah is read each Monday, Thursday and Saturday.
The Torah is divided into 54 sections called parshiyot (singular parsha). One portion is read each week, with two weeks of the year having a double portion. On Simchat Torah the very last section of the book D’varim, Deuteronomy, is read and then, without taking a breath the bal kriah, Torah reader, immediately begins reading from B’reishit, Genesis, again.
A Torah scroll is written by a sofer, scribe, who trains many years before being given the responsibility of writing a holy scroll. Each word must be perfectly rendered using a quill from a kosher fowl—usually a goose or a turkey—and special ink derived from vegetable matter. The parchment itself comes from the skin of a kosher animal, usually a sheep.
READ MORE FROM DEBRA DARVICK
If you are intrigued by this holiday introduction, you’re sure to enjoy Debra Darvick’s regular columns that range from family stories and reflections on nature—to reviews of great books she has discovered in her wide-ranging reading. To learn more about the books she has written, visit Debra Darvick’s author page.